Planet’s lungs face threat from inferno

by September 1, 2019 0 comments

Amazon forest blaze is fast blocking sunlight and enveloping the entire north-western region of Brazil with thick smoke. Brazil must understand the global importance of these evergreen forests. It is not simply Brazil that is affected, but the entire planet

The extraordinary blaze engulfing the Amazon forest, popularly known as the “Lungs of the Planet”, is at the centre of global attraction with many trying to reason out the root cause of the forest fire that militates against the war on climate change.

Of several reasons doing the rounds, two popular ones are that the forest fire in the Amazon may be caused by the dry season which runs from July to October. These fires may occur naturally because of events such as lightning strikes. But others believe that they are the results of farmers and loggers clearing lands for crops or grazing. Herein the activists add that anti-environment rhetoric of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has strongly encouraged forest clearing operations. On the other hand, Bolsonaro has accused NGOs of starting the fires themselves to tarnish his Government’s image.

The Brazilian space agency, the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), says its satellite data shows 85 per cent increase in fires on the same period in 2018. In fact, the official figures show more than 75,000 forest fires were recorded in Brazil in the first eight months of the year, the highest number since 2013. According to the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), a part of the EU’s earth observation programme, the smoke has been travelling as far as the Atlantic coast. The fire has brought black smokes to Sao Paulo, more than 3,200 km from the Amazon. What is worrying for the international community is that these fires are releasing a huge amount of carbon dioxide, equivalent of 228 megatonnes so far this year, highest since 2010. They are also emitting carbon monoxide beyond the coastlines of South America. Further, the Amazon basin, home to about three million species of plants and animals and one million indigenous people, is critical for fighting global warming as it can absorb millions of tonnes of carbon emissions each year.

But with the burning of these precious forests, the carbon they store will be soon released into the atmosphere and hence, the rainforest’s capacity to absorb carbon emission will be fast reduced.

Primarily, tensions have arisen between France and Brazil in the latest round of G7 talks after French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted that fires in the Amazon basin amounted to an international crisis and should be discussed as a top priority at the G7 Summit. Bolsonaro immediately responded by saying Macron’s statement is a manifestation of his “colonialist mentality”. Later, the G7 group of industrialised nations announced a $20 million assistance package aiming to provide it to the Amazonian nations such as Brazil and Bolivia, primarily to pay for more firefighting planes. But unfortunately in the whataboutery, the chief of the staff of Bolsonaro appreciated the offer and asked the same resources to be used for reforesting Europe. This has stirred up a hornets’ nest between France and Brazil.

Interestingly, the Constitution of Brazil describes the Amazon as “national treasure”. So it should be treated accordingly and every inch of it must be saved and preserved. Besides, amid global concerns for saving the Amazon, one must note what “principle of non-regression”, one of the basic tenets of the international environmental law, enunciates. This principle lays down that some basic legal rules should be non-revocable in the common interest of mankind. Thus, once a legal regime is set and protection is granted, essentially, there should not be a question of tempering with such rules. And ironically, this global environmental dictum is clearly reflected in the “Right to Healthy Environment”, guaranteed by the Article 225 of the Brazilian Constitution.

The Article says, “All have the right to an ecologically balanced environment… and both the Government and the community shall have the duty to defend and preserve it for future for present and future generations.” So why does Brazil need to be told that the Amazon is an integral part of its heritage and this forest must be saved? All Brazilians are well aware and it has a democratically elected regime that must take enough to safeguard the “lungs” of earth.

What might drive the Brazilian Government to open the rich Amazon is to create wealth for the country? And this is driven by years of recession and high unemployment. Indeed, Brazil has witnessed the worst ever political and economic upheaval during the time of both the predecessors of Bolsonaro, namely Dilma Rousseff and Michel Temer. Of course, when the ordinary Brazilians have chosen a right-wing President like Bolsonaro, the expectations are high as to see a change in the current economic downturn.

Succinctly, mining and other economic activities in the Amazon are not the answers to arrest Brazil out of the economic gloom. Simply to say, mining operations offer a little economic benefits to the locals. Instead, such operations, attract large number of outsiders that leads to deforestation, violent conflicts on land rights and finally, adding mercury pollution to nearby rivers.

This blaze might torpedo a huge trade agreement between the South American nations, including Brazil, and the European Union (EU), which took nearly two decades to come to the current stage. Over the last four decades, this verdant rainforest has witnessed one of the record high deforestation. This huge Amazonian blaze is fast blocking sunlight and enveloping the entire north-western region of Brazil with thick smoke. The states of Northern Brazil such as Roraima, Acre, Rondonia and Amazonas are badly affected by the inferno. Meanwhile, the Amazonas, the largest province of Brazil, has declared a state of emergency.

And in such a situation, Bolsonaro’s mere hard-hitting statements would not work. Rather his administration must display strong public actions in the form of sending more fire-fighters and soldiers to tackle the situation. Blaming either the international media or the opposition forces will not douse the fire. It’s time to act and save the planet.

Precisely, Bolsonaro is not solely responsible for the current mess in the Amazon. But then he has made the situation worse by weakening the environment agency, opening of the Amazon to mining, farming and logging, and finally, pounding on the NGOs and civil society organisations (CSOs) working in the field of conservation. Also what has added fuel to the fire is that the extreme pressure from the agricultural lobby in Brazil. This lobby is very strong and as a result, it is absolutely easy for it to break the once powerful environmental protection system existed in the country, between 2005 and 2014.

Going by the records, one can rightly state that massive moves towards deforestation came up in the last five years when Dilma Rosseff and Michel Temer were in power.

During the time of Temer, he removed the protection status of the National Reserve of Copper and Associates, a national reserve much larger than the size of Denmark.

This reserve forest, called “Renca”, covers 46,000 square kilometres. It is widely believed that it contained rich reserves of copper, gold, iron ore and other important minerals. With this policy, nearly 30 per cent of the Renca was made open for mining operations by the Government. Besides, environmental hazards, the Renca also provided home to a number of indigenous ethnic communities who were not much exposed to the outside world till then.

But, the rate of deforestation has accelerated in the first few months of Bolsonaro’s presidency. Simply to blame right-wing Bolsonaro may not put an end to the blaze in the Amazon as fires are also rampant currently under a Left-wing populist regime in Bolivia as well.

Beyond the political gimmicks and blame game played by the G7 leaders in its last conclave, the international community needs to see that the Brazil Government takes immediate measures to curb the raging fires in the Amazon.

At the moment, the UN and many other international organisations are expressing concerns and urging responsible players to act swiftly. But that is not enough. The top priority should be placed on building a buffer against all the tipping points across the Amazon and bringing an end to massive emissions emerging from the fires.

So it is not just protection of the Amazon, but also concrete policies to be laid down for reforesting the entire zone on war-footing. And for this, Brazil must ensure that more finance comes on its way of both resettling the locals and reforesting the region.

Hence just saying no to the financial aid offered by the G7 may not support the rebuilding efforts of the Bolsonaro Government. Much beyond all these, the Government and international environmental agencies must listen and align their policies to the indigenous groups and reverine communities living in around the Amazon. Also Brazil must understand the global importance of these evergreen forests. It is not simply Brazil that is affected, but the entire planet.

(The writer is an expert on international affairs)

Writer: Makhan Saikia
Courtesy: The Pioneer

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