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The Amazon Is Burning. Bolsonaro Fanned the Flames.



Global warming is widely and correctly blamed for the fires raging in the Amazon rainforest and elsewhere around the world. But the tragedy in Brazil represents a public policy failure of a more manageable and unforgiveable sort. It is not just the Brazilian inability to fight the fires. The country's scientists agree that the Amazon fires are mostly man-made, intended to clear land for farming, cattle grazing, and other activities, some illegal. But under President Jair Bolsonaro, the government's long-standing efforts to curb these illegal activities have fallen by the wayside, with disastrous results.

Bolsonaro took office in January after a right-wing nationalist campaign promising to ease environmental regulations and possibly repudiate Brazil's participation in the Paris Climate Agreement. His election victory resulted from years of economic chaos and corruption revelations that have enfeebled Brazil's economy and discredited its political class, making voters desperate for change.

Bolsonaro has undercut environmental agencies

For many years, the government had kept illegal fires in the rain forests in check. Public environmental agencies had long exercised the power to monitor and penalize perpetrators. Bolsonaro's government, however, has dismantled the capabilities of these agencies by undercutting their funding, laying off personnel, and weakening their oversight and enforcement roles.

Bolsonaro's positions on climate change and the environment were hardly unknown. Echoing many of his nationalist counterparts around the world, the Brazilian leader had threatened to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord and signaled during his campaign last year that he would weaken environmental regulations. He railed against public environmental agencies arguing that their "draconian actions were hurting those who wish to produce and export." And he declared several times that the Amazon should be explored by Brazilian producers to further the economic interests of Brazil, in a clear nationalist message to environmentalists and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), whom he accused of setting the recent fires without presenting evidence to sustain the claim.

Donations to the Amazon Fund could be suspended

Scientists, NGOs, and environmental activists have been warning for some time that these policies could potentially stoke disaster. Caught in Bolsonaro's inflammatory rhetoric is the Amazon Fund. The Amazon Fund was created in 2008 to collect donations for non-reimbursable investments in preventing, monitoring, and fighting deforestation while promoting forest conservation in the Amazon biome. It is managed by BNDES, Brazil's state-owned development bank. Notably, it was created by a presidential decree issued by former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Bolsonaro's political archenemy. As is well-known, Lula is serving prison time after being convicted last year as part of Brazil's sprawling corruption probe.

Since the fund's inception, Norway has been its largest contributor, accounting for 94 percent of its resources, followed by Germany (5 percent) and the Brazilian oil company Petrobras (1 percent). Some 60 percent of the fund's $500 million in disbursements to date have gone to the federal government, the nine Brazilian states spanned by the rainforest, and two major agencies responsible for regulation and oversight of natural resources, IBAMA and INPE. The remaining 40 percent has been given to universities engaged in environmental research and NGOs. An additional $500 million has not been disbursed and could return to donors if the fund is terminated.

The risk of termination has risen abruptly as the Bolsonaro administration announced last May its intention to change the rules of the fund to compensate Brazilian landowners who lost their properties because they were not in compliance with the country's environmental codes. The Norwegian government's reaction was to suspend some $500,000 in transfers to the Amazon Fund, an unprecedented move since its establishment. Germany has also threatened to suspend donations.

Brazil's resurgent nationalism may harm global efforts to combat climate change

In the wake of the Amazon fires, the G-7 pledged $20 million in financial aid, which Bolsonaro immediately rejected by stating that there must be vested interests at play if foreign governments wish to provide resources. This followed a public spat with President Emmanuel Macron of France, whom Bolsonaro accused of having a colonialist mindset when the French leader referred to the rainforest as an international asset.

All of these actions are reminiscent of Brazil's nationalist posture towards the Amazon during the era of military dictatorship (1964–85). At that time, the government's political slogan about the development and exploration of the Amazon region was "integrate to avoid surrender." Not surprisingly, Bolsonaro, a former army captain flirting with dictatorship as a governing style, is emulating Brazil's past in policy and nationalist rhetoric. Brazil is not the only country that has turned nationalist in its politics. But it is the one country whose reversion to bad habits on that score may be harming the global effort to combat climate change.

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