G7 can’t turn a blind eye to ecocide in the Amazon
- The Guardian
- Science & Environment
Leaders must ask themselves if Jair Bolsonaro’s destructive attitude to the forest and its peoples should be considered a crime
When G7 leaders sit in judgment on Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro this weekend,
When G7 leaders sit in judgment on Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro this weekend, the question they should ask themselves is whether the rape of the natural world should finally be treated as a crime. The language of sexual violence will be familiar to the former army captain, who publicly admires the sadistic torturers of the dictatorship era and once said to a congresswoman, “I would never rape you because you are not worth it.” Last month, after Pope Francis and European leaders expressed concern about the Amazon, Bolsonaro lashed back by claiming: “Brazil is a virgin that every foreign pervert desires.”
As a nationalist, the president sees the Amazon in terms of ownership and sovereignty. As a chauvinist, he sees the region as a possession to be exploited and opened up, rather than cherished and nurtured.
Since taking power eight months ago, Bolsonaro has, layer by layer, stripped the rainforest of protections. First, he weakened the environment ministry and put it in the hands of a minister convicted of environmental fraud. Second, he undermined the agency responsible for monitoring the forest, Ibama. Third, he alienated Norway and Germany, the main donors to forest-protection causes. Fourth, he tried to hide what was happening by sacking the head of the space agency responsible for satellite data on destruction. Fifth, he accused environmental charities of starting fires and working for foreign interests. And sixth, he verbally attacked Amazon dwellers – the indigenous and Quilombola communities who depend on a healthy forest.
With these defences down, the president has encouraged outsiders from the mining, logging and farming industries to take advantage of economic opportunities. The results have been brutal. Last month, deforestation surged by 278%. This month is almost certain to be a record for August under the current monitoring system. The wounds are impossible to cover up. The Amazon’s fires are now burning on front pages, news broadcasts and social networks across the world.
This has had a powerful emotional impact. People across the globe now realise the violence is against them because the rainforest is one of the world’s biggest carbon sinks and most important refuge of human, plant and animal diversity.
Bolsonaro is now in the dock of global public opinion and, like a wife-battering husband, he is declaring his devotion and promising to change. In a televised address to the nation on Friday night, the president said he felt “profound love and respect for the Amazon” and promised to send in the army to tackle the fires (though he continues to insist they are overblown).
To the outside world, Bolsonaro has become an almost comically exaggerated villain, with a thuggish 19th-century view of human relations and a 21st-century Twitter habit. But he is right when he accuses other nations of hypocrisy. The Amazon hasn’t suddenly started to burn and degrade. It has been happening for decades. Nor is this the only conflagration: Siberia, Alaska, Greenland and Bolivia have also suffered massive wildfires this summer. The running down of resources and the destabilisation of the climate are global problems. Europe, the US, Japan and Canada are all complicit in the destruction. It helped make the G7 countries rich.
At the summit, the leaders will be presented with a petition from indigenous groups in the Amazon calling for import restrictions on goods connected to deforestation. France may raise the question of punitive trade measures (which would also please its farming sector). There could also be a rap on the knuckles for Bolsonaro. But any statement of criticism is likely to be watered down or quashed by Donald Trump, who is happy to have a mini-me ally in charge of South America’s biggest country, and perhaps by a UK desperate for post-Brexit trade deals.
But bigger questions posed by the fires will not go away. Boycotts and sanctions may be necessary. But Brazil ultimately needs help more than condemnation. Policing the Amazon is expensive. Fencing it off is not enough. Far better would be an economic system in which the forest is valued at least as highly as the field, and in which natural assets are nurtured, rather than exploited for short-term gain. Turning a blind eye to ecocide is no longer an option. The fires in the Amazon remind us this is not just a crime against nature but a crime against humanity.