Dousing the political fire over the Amazon

In the feud between Brazil and France over the future of the Amazon, one solution lies in defining sovereignty down to those living in the rainforest.

A Brazilian military aircraft dumps water on fires in the Amazon rainforest Aug, 24.

It could be the world’s first hostile feud between big nations over climate change.

In recent days, as fires have raged across the Amazon to clear away trees, France and Brazil have resorted to harsh words or threats over the future of the vast rainforest. Their clash, while far short of war, is long on lessons about the meaning of sovereignty that lies at the heart of many climate debates.

To France, protection of the Amazon is a sovereign right for all humanity. About twice the area of France, the forest is an important carbon sink and temperature regulator for a warming atmosphere. Yet this year, deforestation of the Amazon has escalated under a new nationalist president, Jair Bolsonaro.

“The Amazon is burning and this is an issue that concerns the entire world,” said French President Emmanuel Macron last Thursday. And then he used a word as loaded as genocide. “We have a real ecocide that is developing everywhere in the Amazon,” he said.

To many environmentalists, “ecocide” is enough of a legal trigger to send a “green-helmeted brigade” from the United Nations to douse the fires – without Brazil’s approval. For now, Mr. Macron has only threatened to block a negotiated trade treaty between the European Union and a South American bloc of nations that includes Brazil as its biggest member.

In response to the pressure, Mr. Bolsonaro told a European journalist, “The Amazon is ours, not yours.” He claimed Brazil, as a sovereign state, has the sole right to develop the Amazon as it pleases and lift up the more than 20 million people who live in it, most of them poor.

Last Friday, however, Mr. Bolsonaro’s concept of sovereignty was broadened. Under pressure from large Brazilian farmers who rely on the rest of the world to buy their beef and soybeans, he sent the  military to drop water on the burning forests. He also said he would resume enforcement of existing environmental laws that, before his presidency, had helped reduce deforestation.

Then over the weekend, France was able to persuade other major Western powers to offer Brazil $22 million to help fight the fires. But Mr. Bolsonaro saw the gesture as an imperialist plot. “The fire that burns the strongest is that of our own sovereignty over the Amazon,” he wrote on Twitter.

It is hard to say how this feud will play out. The rainy season is coming to Brazil and the fires could end, for a while. Both sides need a deeper dialogue about who is really sovereign when it comes to climate change. Mr. Macron’s view is that sovereignty lives first with the individual, and thus requires that nation-states help those in extreme jeopardy from climate change, even in other countries. Brazil’s view is that sovereignty lies first with the state and only it decides for the individuals under its control.

One way around this clash is already happening in Brazil. To prevent overexploitation of the Amazon, previous governments have signed protective treaties with other nations that control parts of the Amazon. They have designated areas for sustainable use of the Amazon’s resources while protecting the bulk of the forests. They have started to ensure land tenure for small farmers and promote the traditional agricultural methods of Amazonian Indians. They also welcomed more than $1 billion in foreign aid aimed at developing industries that restore the forests while creating jobs. 

Such steps honor both national and individual sovereignty.

Differences over concepts of sovereignty need not rise to the level of hard words and actions. Both Brazil and France can find ways to uplift the local people of the Amazon so they do not need to cut the forests. Secure in their own sovereignty, the local people can then ensure Brazil’s sovereignty while also helping protect the planet. National sovereignty is not compromised when nations work together to the benefit of all.

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