Amazon Crisis Triggers Political Firestorm: Prof. Britta Crandall on Brazil’s Response to the Burning Rainforest

Amazon Rainforest on Fire

Last week, the wildfires in the Amazon grew from an ecological crisis to a political firestorm that spanned the globe.

Jair Bolsonaro, president of Brazil, initially dismissed the severity of the fires and the growing deforestation of the Amazon, going so far as to accuse political rivals of setting the fires to undermine his administration.

In the face of global outrage, Bolsonaro—a conservative nationalist whose brash style and pro-business stance echo those of President Trump—has viewed the fires as a domestic issue. He has mobilized the Brazilian military to help fight the fires but also rejected aid offered by the G7 countries.

Britta Crandall, visiting assistant professor of Latin American Studies and Political Science, is an expert on Brazilian politics and shared her insight on the domestic and international challenges the burning Amazon bring to Brazil.  

What is causing the fires in the Amazon?

There has been so much misinformation. It’s almost easier to say what did not cause the fires. The fires are not a result of climate change; they're not deliberately started by international NGOs to discredit Bolsonaro (as Bolsonaro originally claimed); and they're definitely not "fake news" (as he also claimed). These are 100 percent man-made. They were started by ranchers looking to create new pasture for cattle as well as farmers meeting the seemingly insatiable global demand for soy (and as China relies more on Brazilian soy as a result of its trade tensions with the United States, this pressure is heightened further).

How did the Bolsonaro administration contribute to the crisis?

The fires are undeniably a consequence of Bolsonaro’s priorities.

He has hollowed out the Environment Ministry, including IBAMA, the agency responsible for monitoring and enforcing environmental policy in the Amazon. He has even reduced funding for the institute for space research that captures satellite imagery of the Amazon. Fines and arrests have been practically non-existent since he took office.

This impunity, coupled with his rhetoric denying climate change and defending agricultural interests, have emboldened ranchers and farmers. When the nation's president claims environmental protection hurts economic development, that message is acted upon.

The timing of the G7 Summit couldn’t have been worse for Bolsonaro (or better for the Amazon). How has the international attention affected his response to the fires?

Brazil has always been quite concerned with its international reputation. The difference is that under the Bolsonaro administration, Brazil's image is judged only on its impact on business.

It’s not a coincidence that Bolsonaro finally mobilized the military after European leaders threatened to cancel a major trade deal. In fact, international pressure certainly helped but there was significant domestic pressure as well.

This came from Brazilians concerned about deforestation, citizens in São Paulo seeing blackened skies from the fires 2,000 miles away. But perhaps the most influential pressure came, ironically, from Brazil’s farmers who fear the crisis could damage exports. 

The Amazon fires have largely been viewed as a global problem—which it certainly is. But how is this crisis viewed in Brazil?

The vast majority of Brazilians believe in protecting the Amazon, but they want to do it on their terms and don't believe they should pay the price economically for doing so.  

There remains an underlying concern that revolves around these (oversimplified) views: that the western world just wants its hands on the Amazon, or that it is pushing conservation in order to stymie Brazil's growth. There is also a sense of frustration that the industrialized world polluted its way to first-world status, but is now telling Brazil it can't. So, Bolsonaro embodied these nationalist sentiments in his initial reaction as well as his recent rejection of G7 fire-fighting aid.

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