For over a month, the Amazon rainforest has been burning. Graphs from Brazil’s National Institute for Spatial Research show that the rates of fires in the Brazilian Amazonia are higher now than in any year since 2010. After extensive international coverage, some U.S. commentators are now suggesting that the fires are nothing out of the ordinary. A much-cited report based on data from NASA points out that fire activity in 2019 “has been close to the average in comparison to the past 15 years.” This report has been promoted by conservative outlets such as the Epoch Times and the Washington Times, both of which blame the media for fabricating outrage over the fires. In a widely circulated piece for Forbes, Michael Shellenberger suggests that the reason behind the media’s sensationalism are ideological: “The reaction from foreign media, global celebrities, and NGOs in Brazil stems from a romantic anti-capitalism common among urban elites.” For Shellenberger, international coverage of the fires has been too harsh on far-right president Jair Bolsonaro and too easy on Lula da Silva, who was president from 2003 to 2010 (and is currently serving a prison sentence on corruption charges pursued by Brazilian prosecutors plotting to prevent his party from winning the 2018 election). To support this point, Shellenberger uses the same graphs from the National Institute for Spatial Research , showing that the fires in 2019 pale in comparison with those in 2004 or 2005.
This argument echoes the official stance of the Bolsonaro government, which has been instructing Brazilian diplomats to use data from 2002 to 2010 to deny the gravity of the fires. Brazil’s ambassador in France, Luís Fernando Serra, declared in an interview last week that “in 2003 and 2005 the fires were worse but no one talked about them. Why? Because president Lula was the darling of the press.”
Such attempts to dismiss the crisis in the Amazon are seriously misleading. They betray, at best, a misunderstanding about Brazilian environmental policies since the early 2000s. These years witnessed unsustainably high levels of forest fires in the Amazon; the fact that 2019 is above that average means that international concern over the fires is fully warranted.
A substantial body of scholarship shows a drastic increase in deforestation in the Amazonia in 2004. The Global Forest Atlas, a Yale project that traces deforestation patterns in South America and Africa, explains that the deciding factor was the global commodities boom at that time, especially the rise in soy prices, which led to the clearing of forested land for soy cultivation. Serra and Shellenberger allege that the resulting deforestation was overlooked by the international media, but it attracted substantial international attention and was extensively documented by Greenpeace. Starting in 2006, the international mobilization of civil society around environmental causes, especially through the actions of NGOs, put pressure on Brazil’s federal government to develop stricter policies to reconcile economic development and environmental protection.
Fábio de Castro, professor of Brazilian studies and human ecology at the University of Amsterdam, writes that “Lula’s terms have been marked by a major increase in protected areas and ethnic territories. . . . Together with full protection conservation units, the spatial configuration of rural Brazil has been transformed into a mosaic of thousands of protected areas, covering . . . almost half of the Legal Amazon.” The list of Brazilian environmental laws passed in the 2000s reveals that in spite of increasing pressure from Brazil’s agribusiness, Lula’s government implemented stricter conservation and monitoring policies, harsher penalties for environmental crimes, and suspension of public credit to those guilty of illegal deforestation. These policies were effective. Deforestation rates steadily declined between 2005 and 2012, leading the Brazilian press to celebrate what seemed to be a successful turn away from the alarming rates of 2004–5.
But the rates started going up again in recent years. In 2019 they reached the highest levels since 2010. These fires are not accidents. It is clear now that they are caused by deliberate deforestation, which was 278 percent higher in July 2019 than in the same month last year. While the current rate of deforestation is not above average if we include the 2000s, it constitutes a regression to levels that scientists had denounced as unsustainable. “The devastation to biodiversity is irreversible, and a sustainable resource of unimaginable richness is lost forever,” as the Greenpeace report alerted back in 2006. “Nor do the impacts of deforestation end at the edge of the Amazon. By releasing centuries’ worth of stored carbon into the atmosphere, the destruction of the Amazon rainforest makes a significant contribution to global warming, putting the whole world at risk.”
The rise in the rates of fire between 2018 to 2019 marks the end of a successful federal program for reducing deforestation in the legal Amazon—a program dependent on coordination between federal and state policies, monitoring bodies like Ibama and ICMBio, and a number of NGOs active in the Amazon region.
This is no coincidence. Brazilian agribusiness has long resented environmental policies that restricted access to pasture land in the Amazon. In recent years it has come to play a larger role in shaping federal policy. The Agribusiness Parliamentary Front (FPA), a multiparty parliamentary coalition representing the interests of the agribusiness lobby, now holds 44 percent of the seats in Brazil’s House of Representatives and 36 percent of the seats in the Senate. As Bruno Carazza has shown in a book-length study of Brazilian congressional politics, it has become increasingly difficult for Brazilian presidents to obtain support for their projects without catering to the interests of this group. The FPA was a key supporter of Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign, and it includes a disproportionate number of congressmen from Bolsonaro’s party, the PSL. Bolsonaro addressed the FPA in a meeting last July with these revealing words: “This government is yours.”
Acting in concert with FPA interests, Bolsonaro has systematically dismantled the legacy of the Lula years by waging war on NGOs (which he holds responsible for the fires), weakening environmental agencies, transferring decisions on land demarcation from an indigenous affairs agency to the Ministry of Agriculture, intimidating scientists who raised concerns about deforestation, turning a blind eye to the murder of an indigenous leader by illegal miners, and encouraging land grabs through his anti-environmental rhetoric. In a symbolic moment, farmers in the northern state of Pará declared August 10, 2019 “Fire Day,” starting hundreds of fires out of a commitment to the president’s agenda. Faced with the international pressure, Bolsonaro has systematically rejected foreign help to fight the fires unless the Brazilian government is given autonomy in deciding how to use the money.
The Amazon fires, in short, are not just a natural tragedy but part of an anti-environmental program. Protecting the Amazon is an issue of primary importance for the fight against climate change—especially in light of the latest IPCC report and of recent scientific studies calling for reforestation. A team of Brazilian jurists is currently preparing to charge Bolsonaro with ecocide and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court, but Brazil’s democratic institutions have been slow to react. As Noam Chomsky recently noted, there is no well-organized progressive front in Brazil with the ability to influence environmental policy. At this point, pressure from the EU and from international corporate interests have been the only effective counter to Bolsonaro’s policy. In spite of France’s hard stance, however, other G7 members such as the UK and Germany remain willing to support Brazil in the free-trade agreement between the EU and the South American trade bloc Mercosur, indirectly encouraging Bolsonaro to persist in his predatory project for the Amazon. Dismissing concerns over the Amazon fires as sensational makes it more likely that unsustainable deforestation levels in the Amazon will become a reality again.
Roger Maioli is a Brazilian professor of English at the College of the Liberal Arts and Sciences of the University of Florida.