As the fires in the Amazon rage into their third week, with smoke blanketing the city of Sao Paolo and even visible from space, the world’s attention has been belatedly sparked with the hashtag #AmazonFires trending globally. The INPE which tracks deforestation in Brazil found 1330 square miles of rainforest have been lost since January alone. An increase of 40 per cent on the previous year.
It has also sparked a war of words between the French President Macron and Brazilian President Bolsonaro. Macron called the Amazon fires an international crisis, tweeting: “Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rain forest – the lungs which produces 20 per cent of our planets oxygen – is on fire” and called for it to be put on the agenda for the upcoming G7 meeting in Biarritz. A call that subsequently got the backing of German chancellor Angela Merkel.
In a feat of linguistic gymnastics worthy of Donald Trump himself, Bolsonaro accused Macron of sensationalising and meddling in Brazilian affairs “a colonial mindset”.
There is no doubt that the fires which were started deliberately to clear more land for agriculture have been done by those emboldened by a president who has traded in racism and promoted powerful corporate interests. This is after all a man who prior to being elected once said “It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians”, and has since compared indigenous peoples to “animals in zoos”.
On being elected, backed by a powerful coalition of agribusiness, the military and evangelical churches, he has set out to fulfil his promise to rip up the protection of indigenous lands, which he views as an impediment to the economic development of the country’s natural resources.
In his short tenure he has fired a leading scientist for warning about deforestation and put a discredited politician, Ricardo Salles – who in 2018 was convicted of altering an environmental map to benefit miners – as the new environment minister. The president has effectively waged war against Brazil’s marginalised, both indigenous and the descendants of Afro-Brazilian slaves, saying there would not be “one centimetre more of indigenous land”.
But for the indigenous peoples of Brazil the choice shouldn’t be between the reactionary and violent agribusiness lobby supported by the fascist regime of Bolsonaro or the global neoliberal elite represented by Macron, who both represent an equally devastating threat to the Amazon and its communities.
In the last century one fifth of the Amazon, about 300,000 square miles, has been cut and burned in Brazil. Scientists have warned that losing another 1/5 of the Amazon will trigger the feedback, in which the Amazon will dieback, effectively killing the “lungs of the world” but also leading to the effective genocide of the indigenous peoples who call the region their home.
But the G7 leaders aren’t innocent bystanders in the destruction of the Amazon. It’s their neoliberal policies that have fuelled the destruction of the Amazon. It has been unfettered corporate power and the mantra of deregulation which sacrifices both the planet and its people for profit – the hall marks of the failed neoliberal economic experiment – which has fuelled not only the climate crisis but also the crisis of inequality which has led to the rise of far right and fascist leaders – not just Bolsonaro, but Trump, Modi and many others.
The Amazon fires are as much the responsibility of industrial agribusiness as they are Bolsonaro. They have fuelled the destruction of habitats worldwide as they create a global trade in food commodities, much of it destined to feed the citizens of the richest countries in the world.
These companies not only influence the policies of Brazilian politicians, but also sit in the capitals of some of the G7 countries. Like the fossil fuel companies they have captured our politicians.
They ensure that trade deals allow them to profit at the expense of the planet. And in a sign of what’s to come, our own trade policy minister Conor Burns cosied up to Bolsonaro this week in Brazil in the hope of a post-Brexit trade deal that doesn’t even mention climate or forest protection.
If Macron is serious about the climate crisis, he and the other G7 leaders would have long ended their subsidies to the fossil fuel companies, industrial agribusiness and would be committing to zero carbon emissions by 2030. All the hot air from G7 leaders will be nothing but grandstanding while the Amazon burns.
Neither the fascist right nor the neoliberal centre have the answer to our environmental crisis. The only hope lies with people who should be pointing out the real criminals are not just those setting the fires in the Amazon but those in our banks, corporations and supermarkets who profit from this broken food system.
Asad Rehman is the executive director of global justice charity War on Want
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