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Amazon fires: Brazil rejecting help due to fear for economy, self-rule

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The record number of fires raging across the Amazon has sparked an international outcry, as world leaders express concern for the future of the world’s largest rainforest, which is the source of 20% of the world’s oxygen.

But in Brazil, politicians are defiant, downplaying the extent of the fires and calling international warnings “sensationalist.” Their response has been to tell other countries to stop telling Brazil what to do.

60% of the Amazon is within Brazil’s borders. Using it for industry was part of the platform that propelled President Jair Bolsonaro to victory, in a campaign which repeatedly characterized the Amazon as a resource to be exploited.

He is now rebuking calls for international action over the fires, accusing leaders like the French President Emmanuel Macron of having a “colonialist mentality” by offering money to help.

Aerial view of burnt areas of the Amazon rainforest, near Porto Velho, Rondonia state, Brazil, on August 24, 2019
CARLOS FABAL/AFP/Getty Images

Responses to Macron reveal an attitude among some Brazilians that other countries should stay out of a domestic issue.

On social media, Brazil-linked accounts told Macron: “The Amazon is ours, let us take care of it” and “The Amazon rainforest belongs to the Brazilian people and it is under our sovereignty.”

These ideas explain why Bolsonaro many Brazilians are defensive amid outcry over harm to the Amazon.

Brazilians might see environmentalism as a ploy to hold Brazil back

The vast majority of fires in the Amazon have been started by humans, either accidentally or on purpose by logging and farming companies emboldened by Bolsonaro’s stance on development in the region.

During his election campaign, Bolsonaro pledged to build a highway through the forest and power plants within it.

He has sought to reduce environmental protections, and reallocate land and resources pledged to indigenous tribes. He also threatened to pull Brazil out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. During his campaign, he said the legislation was “suffocating” the economy.

Read more: 24 photos show the Amazon rainforest before and after the devastating wildfires

Professor Anthony Pereira, the director of the Brazil Institute at King’s College London, told Business Insider that some people view a decision not to develop parts of the Amazon as one that holds Brazil back.

He said “there are people, especially among the 20 million people who live in the Amazon, who think: ‘Environmentalism has gone too far, we need to make a living, these regulations are too onerous, there’s too much land set aside for the indigenous, and we want to go in and deforest, whether it’s for land speculation, for agriculture, for pasture, or logging.'”

Members of Suriname indigenous tribes pray for the protection of the Amazon and Brazilian indigenous tribes on August 9, 2019.
REUTERS/Ranu Abhelakh

Bolsonaro, he said, might be of this mindset, and could view attempts at influence from other governments or from NGOs as attempts to hold Brazil back economically or interfere with its sovereignty.

Read more:The Amazon Rainforest is burning. Here’s why there are so many fires and what it all means for the planet.

“He’s a product of the 1970s and the military regime, when that view was very prevalent, and he could have that kind view that people are out to get Brazil, to stifle its agriculture.”

Dr Par Engstrom, a human rights lecturer at University College London’s Institute of the Americas, told Business Insider that there is “ongoing concern among Brazilian elites that the world is unfriendly, and does not have Brazil’s interests at heart.”

Bolsonaro’s rhetoric is “actually not that extreme in Brazil’s history,” Engstrom said, and represents “quite a strong strand of Brazil’s thinking, and Brazil’s thoughts about its place in the world.”

Bolsonaro’s approach to foreign policy so far has centered around the idea that “there is a globalist conspiracy against countries like Brazil,” Engstrom said.

A tract of Amazon jungle burning is seen in Canarana
Reuters

However, opinion in Brazil is not united on the issue. Pereira, the academic at King’s College, said Bolsonaro’s view is likely not the majority position.

He said: “We have to keep in mind, most Brazilians live a long way from the Amazon rainforest and they are as appalled as everyone else.”

Pushback against Bolsonaro in Brazil has been clear: former environment ministers wrote an open letter denouncing Bolsonaro’s Amazon policies in May, and thousands of Brazilians marched over the weekend urging government action about the fires.

Protesters hold a Brazilian flag with the letters SOS written on it during a demonstration to demand for more protection for the Amazon rainforest, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, August 23, 2019.
REUTERS/Nacho Doce

Pereira pointed to a survey this month which said 96% of respondents agree with the statement “President Jair Bolsonaro and the Federal Government should increase enforcement measures to prevent illegal deforestation in the Amazon.”

The survey got the same results among Bolsonaro voters and opposition voters.

“So we can say that Bolsonaro got a majority in his election in October, but I think it’s not right to say that well, a majority approved of his positions on the environment, because the environment wasn’t the main thing that he was running on,” Pereira said.

Read more: Thousands of people marched in São Paulo to pressure the Brazilian government to do something about the burning Amazon Rainforest. Here’s what it looked like on the ground.

He also said that the idea that Brazil “can only be a big agricultural superpower if it destroys the Amazon is completely false.”

He pointed to Brazil’s dramatic reduction in deforestation between 2004 and 2012, the same time as the country’s “agribusiness exports were booming.”

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on August 16, 2019.
EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images

“Also, a lot of the agriculture that gets done in the Amazon is very unproductive. It’s pasture that lasts for a few years, and then is exhausted.”

A statement from Brazil’s embassy in the UK to Business Insider said that protecting the Amazon “is a priority both for the Brazilian people and for the Brazilian Government.”

Read more: Brazil has seen 100,000 fire alerts in 10 days, but it’s not just the Amazon — one map shows how much of South America is burning

“It is our view that there is no necessary opposition between economic development and preservation of the environment.”

Brazil is also defending its policies about the Amazon as an issue of national sovereignty

While arguing that the fires should not be a topic of discussion during the G7 summit, Bolsonaro accused other countries of “interfering with our sovereignty.”

His officials continued to emphasise the country’s independence over the weekend and as they rejected the offer of $20 million from G7 countries — a figure environmental campaigners called “chump change.”

G7 leaders at their August 2019 meeting.
Michael Kappeler/picture alliance via Getty Images

Engstrom said that it was “not surprising” that Brazil rejected the money — especially given that it was a decision made in Europe, without Brazil’s input, and a pretty small sum.

“Why on earth would a major economy like Brazil accept that?”

If anything, he said, the G7’s response “played into Bolsonaro’s hands,” ignoring the pressure many Latin American countries face to develop their forests, and acting in a way that many Brazilians could see as “hypocritical.”

Onyx Lorenzoni, Bolsonaro’s chief of staff, also accused France of having a colonial attitude over the offer.

“Brazil is a democratic, free nation that never had colonialist and imperialist practices, as perhaps is the objective of the Frenchman Macron,” he said.

He also pointed to the fire that devastated Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral this year, saying “Macron cannot even avoid a foreseeable fire in a church that is a world heritage site.”

The rhetoric forced Macron to acknowledge Brazil’s independence, while still emphasizing the importance of the Amazon, the majority of which is in Brazil, to the planet.

Read more:Earth is a spaceship, and the Amazon is a crucial part of our life-support system, creating up to 20% of our oxygen. Here’s why we need the world’s largest rainforest.

fire burns in a section of the Amazon rain forest on August 25, 2019.
Victor Moriyama/Getty Images

Eduardo Villas Boas, the former head of Brazil’s army, also called out what he called “direct attacks on Brazilian sovereignty.”

Dr Andreza De Souza Santos, the director of Oxford University’s Brazilian Studies Programme, told Business Insider that Brazil’s former status as a Portuguese colony frames how it sees autonomy today.

Speaking via phone from the Amazon, she said: “Brazil has framed its national identity by emphasising its status as a former colony, sort of creating a Brazilian-ness” that managed to include indigenous tribes with different languages, ethnic backgrounds, and traditions.

This idea has been leveraged, she said, to suggest that international concern for the Amazon “hurts Brazil’s autonomy,” an argument also used in Brazil to argue against international aid.

Read more: Fires in the Amazon could be part of a doomsday scenario that sees the rainforest spewing carbon into the atmosphere and speeding up climate change even more

Engstrom, the human rights lecturer, said “there has been a long-running concern in Brazil, and in the military in particular, over international exert control over the Amazon.”

As an extreme example: Brazil’s military held exercises in 2014 to simulate a foreign takeover, and the US has previously had to deny that it would try to invade the rainforest.

A satellite image capture of three fires burning in the Amazon southwest of Port Velho, Brazil on August 15, 2019.
Maxar Technologies

A 2011 government survey found that 50% of Brazilians believed another country would invade Brazil and try to take the rainforest’s resources.

Brazil has also rankled at taking advice from western countries which have, over centuries, depleted large amounts of their own forests.

Read more: Here’s what you can do to help the burning, ravaged Amazon rainforest

When speaking about the $20 million offer from the G7, Lorenzoni said that “maybe those resources are more relevant to reforest Europe.”

According to Pereira: “There’s some truth, when they say things like two-thirds of Brazil’s original forest cover still exists, and most European countries have deforested more than that over the years.

National Force military firefighters stand in line to board a plane to Rondonia northern Brazil, to help fight fires in the Amazon rainforest at the Military Air Base in Brasilia, on August 24, 2019.
ERGIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images

“They have preserved a lot of the rainforest, and there’s a lot of pride in Brazil about the fact that the Brazilian Amazon is the largest rainforest in the world.”

Brazil’s embassy in the UK said that Brazil is “proud to have 66% of our large territory – a territory that is 35 times the size of the UK – covered with native vegetation.”

“We have managed to both preserve our native vegetation and at the same time become an agricultural powerhouse. In sum, we do believe economic activities can be developed, including in the Amazon, in a manner that does not harm the environment.”

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