by Keeran Jani

The primary cause of wildfires in the Amazon is by no means new. Local farmers utilise a method called slash-and-burn, which is designed to yield fertile land to grow upon. Previously wooded areas are cut down to allow greater space for agriculture and the resultant vegetation is allowed to dry out. Afterwards, this matter is burned, rendering nutrient-rich ash that acts as a fertiliser on the underlying soil, as well as completely clearing that patch of land of vegetation, weeds, and pest species. Due to its short-term effectiveness, this practice has been popular amongst farmers for millennia. However, it is always bad for the ecosystem – unsurprising as it necessitates the removal of the species native to that land and its replacement with a fairly homogenous set of agriculturally desirable crops or cattle. It is also a practice which invites the risk of wildfires due to the abundance of kindling produced and the potential of controlled fires spreading. 

The international response to the Amazon rainforest wildfires has been broadly inadequate in tackling the scale and severity of the crisis – especially given the escalation of the problem over the current year.  In 2019 alone, an estimated 906,000 hectares have burned down, signalling a worrying escalation in the deforestation of the Amazon. Although there has been some attempt to address the problem internationally, these have been hampered both by the perception of the issue as an opportunity for political point scoring – which has prevented cooperation in an increasingly polarised ideological landscape – and also by the reticence of local governments to make concerted intervention efforts. In this essay, I will explore the severity of the problems that these wildfires cause; the nature and reasons behind recent responses, both internationally and by local governments; and finally, what I believe ought to be done to address the issue. 

This risk has become particularly pronounced in recent times. For one thing, the population density in the Amazon has increased significantly, meaning that there is a far greater demand for land. As a result, there is a corresponding increase in the incentive to utilise slash-and-burn techniques to create more farm-ready land. Furthermore, the recently-elected President of Brazil – a country that houses 60% of the Amazon – Jair Bolsonaro has created a permissive environment for further deforestation, partially as a corollary of his “pro-business” politics and partially due to his scepticism of environmental movements. As a result, since his taking office in January 2019, Brazilian farmers feel more greatly enabled to ignore environmental protection legislation and pursue aggressive slash-and-burn tactics. Finally, due to climate change, this year has seen an unusually protracted dry season and high temperatures during the Summer months of July and August, which creates fertile ground for wildfires. All of these factors are believed, in conjunction, to have contributed to the severity of the current crisis.

As the Amazon is a major carbon dioxide sink (as a result of photosynthesis), there has been major concern in the international community that these wildfires will contribute to an increase in CO2 in the atmosphere and thus also in global warning. Columbian president Ivan Duque proposed a pact with other nations that share the Amazon to encourage conservation, which was presented to the UN General Assembly. President Macron of France raised the issue in the G7 Summit of August 24-26, with Macron and Chilean president Sebastián Piñera pushing through the authorisation of US$22 million in emergency funding to help the affected countries combat the fire. Finally, the countries that share the rainforest agreed to meet on September 6 2019, to discuss the ongoing crisis and strategise about reducing the requirement for illegal deforestation within their borders. The main result of this meeting was in an agreement to improve responses to wildfires, with greater satellite monitoring and establish a disaster response network, as well as a reforestation programme. 

These putative steps towards addressing the problem were not, however, an unmitigated success. Firstly, under pressure from Bolsonaro, American president Trump – who shares ideological beliefs with the Brazilian president concerning climate change and business practices – agreed to stand in solidarity with Brazil (unrepresented at G7) and not attend the G7 climate talks. Trump also disapproved of the funding allocation, as there were prescriptions on how that funding had to be used. Furthermore, Bolsonaro initially refused to accept the emergency funds due to these restrictions, although later said that he would accept if they were revoked (although this was only due to the petitioning of the regional governors of the area affected). There were also not unfounded accusations from Bolsonaro that Macron was partially motivated by the desire for political point-scoring and also more questionable allegations that by curbing the efficacy of Brazilian farmers, France was seeking to strengthen their economic interests in agricultural rival French Guiana. 

Most importantly, however, these international efforts matter little unless there is a genuine commitment by the affected nations to prevent the wildfires from occurring in the first place – being proactive rather than reactive. However, as this would inevitably include placing greater efforts in restricting illegal agricultural activity, thus essentially curbing the economic productivity of those nations, this is unlikely to occur whilst Bolsonaro’s government is still in power.  All of the blame cannot be put at the feet of Brazil and Bolsonaro, though. There has to be greater efforts by the international community, particularly vocal members such as France, to recognise the economic needs of developing nations and pursue negotiations with affected countries that recognise the fiscal incentives to allow such practices, rather than publicly shame them. Attempts to weaponise environmental concerns to garner political support by developed nations will only put off cooperation with affected countries – particularly ones led by premiers with nationalist tendencies like Bolsonaro. Furthermore, given that one of the crucial ingredients of the current situation is climate change, the international community needs to pull is weight in tackling this issue, both to directly help and aid negotiations with Brazil. Given that the Trump administration is unilaterally sceptical, or outright hostile, to attempts to introduce legislation that curbs climate change, this will be no easy endeavour.

While there is an ongoing debate regarding the solutions to the crisis, the author has identified several key steps that need to be followed to achieve measurable success.  

  1. All parties involved (Brazil, other states in the region hosting the Amazon, as well as the developed Western nations such as France) must use the UN as the forum to discuss the crisis. Unilateral statements and declarations are to be avoided.
  2. UN General Secretary must announce a fundraising effort to raise funds to tackle the issue collectively. Funds should then be allocated to several specific areas. These areas have either short, mid, or long-term goals. For example, fire safety management equipment will be a short-term solution, community fire prevention training will be a mid-term solution and a dedicated cross-border re-forestation programme will be a long-term solution.

The international reaction to the wildfires in the Amazon offers some opportunity for optimism, yet more work needs to be done to tackle the underlying causes. This will necessitate less political posturing on the behalf of all involved and a greater commitment to a cooperative approach to climate change and the economic incentive behind dangerous agricultural practices, sensitive to the needs of all affected nations. Citizens of the world can only hope that their political leaders will rise to the challenge. 

Keeran Jani is a final year student at Charterhouse School. His primary interests lie in History and International Relations.