Collectively protecting the Amazon
Guy Burton

Editor's note: Guy Burton is an Adjunct Professor at Vesalius College, Brussels, where he teaches global governance. The article reflects the author's views, and not necessarily those of CGTN.

Last weekend, media attention was drawn to two spots: One was the G7 summit in Biarritz, where the leaders of the seven most developed countries met. Among the items on the agenda was an event taking place half a world away, where wildfires were raging across Brazil’s Amazon forest.

Macron spoke for many when he protested at the scale of the devastation. Last week around 2,500 were active, with 75,000 such fires having occurred during the first eight months of this year – making it the largest number since 2013. Their intensity was enough to darken the skies over the metropolis of Sao Paulo, over 2,000 kilometers south.

While the dry season may account for some of these fires, the increase in their number is attributable to economic and political reasons. Farmers and loggers start fires to clear the land, but that activity has intensified because of the current government’s policies.

They felt able to do so after Brazil elected a far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, at the end of last year. During his election campaign President Bolsonaro promised to support business and weaken the country’s environmental regulations and protections.

In short, the current situation is not accidental.

At first, Bolsonaro initially said that Brazil didn't have the resources to control the fires. He also tried to shift the blame. He said that environmental NGOs had started the fires to make his government look bad – although he provided no proof.

In Biarritz the world leaders proposed a package of 20 million U.S. dollars to help Brazil fight the fires. Bolsonaro rejected it, claiming that France and the other developed countries were treating Brazil as a "colony." At the same time, some environmental organizations said that the sum was not only too little, but didn't get to the heart of the matter: Namely Bolsonaro's policies themselves.

What's happening to the Amazon matters, not just for Brazil, but for the world. Its 300 billion trees store 20 percent of the world's carbon and absorbs more than 2 billion tons of carbon each year, leading to it being called the "lungs of the world." It is a crucial part of Earth's ecosystem. Should it be lost, then global temperatures will rise, with all the attendant problems: Increased climate volatility and rising sea levels and floods which will push people to migrate to different regions.

Usually when a problem is global, like the Amazon, the world has found particular ways to solve them. Where problems transcend national borders, like the use of the ocean, space, Antarctica or even climate change itself, governments have cooperated to establish international treaties, international organizations and processes to contain and manage the matter.

Members of a firefighting task force work on putting out a fire in the Amazon rainforest near Porto Velho, Rondonia state, Brazil, on Sunday, August 25, 2019./VCG Photo

Members of a firefighting task force work on putting out a fire in the Amazon rainforest near Porto Velho, Rondonia state, Brazil, on Sunday, August 25, 2019./VCG Photo

The reason governments have done this is because of a similar feature associated with all these problems: The tragedy of the commons. A commons is resources that no one person or state has ownership of; consequently, anyone is free to make use of it. When that happens, others also join in and leading to an adverse outcome, whether it is the depletion of fish stocks, space’s saturation with satellites or unconstrained burning of fossil fuels.

Because governments have identified these problems associated with the commons, we have seen the drafting of UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Outer Space Treaty and the Kyoto and Copenhagen Accords. All are attempts to collectively "own" the problem.

The problem with the Amazon is that it is already "owned;" despite its global importance, its governance is national. Its fate is therefore tied to the fate of whoever runs Brazil, in this case a climate change skeptic like Bolsonaro.

What options are therefore available? One is moral suasion: Trying to persuade Bolsonaro that it is in his interests to not only stop the wildfires, but to protect them as well. But so far, that doesn't seem to have worked. Another is to put pressure on the Brazilian government. There has been talk of the EU pulling out of a free trade agreement with Mercosur, the South American common market which includes Brazil.

Losing out on the economic opportunities offered by the EU may well loom large in Bolsonaro's thinking. But such an action would be ad hoc; it wouldn’t provide any suggestion for how to deal with such a problem in the future. It also only works if the outraged party is a strong country or group of countries like the EU.

What’s needed then is a mechanism that any party can use, whether big or small, and which acknowledges and accommodates the tension between national sovereignty and global concerns. One way that might be achieved is to draw on the experience of other frameworks that have tried to do the same, such as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

The R2P is a global commitment that was accepted by the UN in 2005. It makes clear that states have a responsibility to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. If any of these happen then others can step in and help prevent them, ranging from dialogue to sanctions and intervention.

If R2P was applied to the environment – and more specifically as it relates to human security – it would provide a way for states to hold each other to account on matters like climate change or the current wildfires in the Amazon. It would provide different forms of engagement, from the least intrusive and confrontational, like mediation, through to more coercive measures if states do not cooperate or comply. Now that Bolsonaro has rejected the G7 offer, perhaps its leaders may now focus more on how to stop the fires starting in the first place and look at alternative solutions like R2P for the environment.

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