Global warming is widely and correctly blamed for wild fires around the world. But the Amazon fires in Brazil represent a more specific government policy failure as Brazilian public agencies that are supposed to curb man-made fires have been deliberately weakened. These fires, set by farmers, cattle owners, and others, take place every year, but they have risen in number and severity in 2019—after President Jair Bolsonaro took office and set about fulfilling his campaign pledge to ease environmental, land use, and health regulations.
The Amazon fires are not just a “tragedy” but an opportunity for the governments of Brazil and the United States to stop denying climate change and cooperate on strategies to preserve the rainforest and develop ways to sustainably use its natural resources. The record of such cooperation has already yielded positive results. For example, there is a history of collaboration between NASA and Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) employing state-of-the-art technologies to monitor deforestation. It is possible to accommodate competing demands of economic interests, food security, and saving or even restoring the Amazon rainforest, along with its life-sustaining rainfall, for Brazil and the world at large.
Following are the major policy recommendations presented in this testimony:
- The United States should rejoin the Paris climate agreement and immediately establish a joint action plan with Brazil to implement steps to preserve and restore the rainforest. Under the agreement, Brazil has committed to restoring 12 million hectares of native vegetation in cleared areas.
- Brazil should impose greater regulations on land use in the Amazon region that would allow farming and cattle grazing in some areas to sustain livelihoods of local and indigenous people while cracking down on illegal uses, such as logging and mining, and the invasion of public lands. To combat destructive activities, the government should encourage livestock rearing and cultivation in non-sensitive areas while more systematically demarcating land and property ownership rights in the rainforest itself.
- Brazil should lead an international effort to foster the diversity of native vegetation in the Amazon region while preserving the rainforest and also creating jobs and reducing poverty and income inequality. Sustainable production of livestock and soy is already happening in areas outside the Amazon region. These activities could be expanded to areas adjacent to the rainforest following an effort to demarcate land and enforce property rights.
- The international community should work with Brazil to revive and expand the Amazon Fund, created years ago but now in limbo, to raise international donations for investment in sustainable activities that protect the rainforest. The Fund would greatly benefit from the financial support of the United States. Technical cooperation agreements to develop new technologies for sustainable development are a must.
- Finally, the Brazilian Constitution allows the economic exploration of indigenous lands in cooperation with local communities and with a focus on sustainability. However, use of these lands is yet to be formalized through adequate regulation. The United States, with its experience in formulating and applying similar regulations, can play a key role in advising the Brazilian government on such rules.
The rise in deforestation precedes President Bolsonaro’s electoral victory. But the dismantling of environmental agencies under his watch and his past and present rhetoric on environmental issues have emboldened farmers, loggers, and other players to engage in predatory behavior in the rainforest.
It is time for the international community to cooperate on a strategy to provide the resources to conserve, restore, and develop the planet’s largest continuous rainforest. The close relationship that has developed between the leaders of Brazil and the United States should be used to jumpstart this effort before it is too late.