RIO DE JANEIRO – “The Amazon is ours,” Brazilian President José Sarney defiantly declared before the United Nations General Assembly in 1989. The slogan’s obvious nationalist force made it a favorite of right-wing politicians, including members of Congress linked to construction companies with stakes in the rainforest’s development. Thirty years later, President Jair Bolsonaro is now leading their ranks – and threatening the wellbeing not only of the Amazon, but also of Brazil and the entire planet.
Bolsonaro argues that Brazil’s claim to the Amazon is in the country’s best interests. The foreign actors who criticize Brazil’s exploitation of the rainforest – from European governments to Pope Francis – are promoting biodiversity only so that they can exploit it in the future. With characteristic misogyny, he recently declared that “Brazil is like a virgin that every foreign pervert wants.”
But Bolsonaro does not want to keep the Amazon chaste; he merely wants to be among those exploiting it. His promotion of the rainforest’s development and attacks on environmental regulation have led, for example, to the expansion of agribusiness, particularly cattle ranching, and illegal logging. According to data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, deforestation of Brazil’s portion of the Amazon increased in June by 88% year on year.
Given Bolsonaro’s efforts to open up indigenous people’s lands to commercial agriculture and mining, deforestation is likely to accelerate further. During the period from 2000 to 2014, deforestation within indigenous territories progressed by 2%, compared to 19% for the rest of the Brazilian Amazon.
The implications are dire. The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest and home to one of the planet’s highest concentrations of biodiversity. Moreover, because the Amazon River is the world’s largest single source of freshwater runoff, the rainforest’s hydrological cycle has a major influence on Earth’s climate, as well as serving as a massive carbon sink, absorbing more carbon dioxide than it releases.
Given the Amazon’s importance to the planet’s health, any effective international regime for climate action will have to account for public policies affecting it. It should be no surprise, then, that the international community is resisting Bolsonaro’s shortsighted approach to the Amazon, including through the recently concluded trade agreement between the European Union and the Mercosur bloc of Latin American countries.
Brazil, a Mercosur member, has a clear interest in the trade agreement’s successful implementation. The association’s agreement with the EU promises to galvanize economic sectors on both sides of the Atlantic by creating an integrated market of 780 million consumers. Brazil’s beef industry, for example, is set to benefit considerably.
The problem for Bolsonaro is that the deal imposes high environmental and labor standards on Mercosur exporters. As part of their drive for sustainable development – and under pressure from civil society – EU leaders have made access to their market conditional on enforcement of multilateral rules and commitments, including the International Labor Organization’s fundamental conventions and the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
To be sure, environmental groups have criticized the Mercosur deal, arguing that it does not go far enough to ensure that standards are met. But EU leaders emphasize the inclusion of oversight and dispute-settlement mechanisms.
The trade agreement will continue to be scrutinized in the coming years, and not only with regard to the environment. Some have voiced concerns, for example, that it upholds the old division of labor between developing countries, whose economies depend on volatile commodities exports, and developed countries, which export higher value-added manufactured goods.
Bolsonaro’s resistance to environmental standards makes monitoring and enforcement of the agreement’s terms all the more important. In fact, EU leaders should attempt to establish the EU-Mercosur deal as a transnational mechanism to hold countries accountable for flouting their environmental commitments and even for embracing anti-democratic practices that could affect their trading partners.
Declaring that “the Amazon is ours” might have been politically expedient in 1989, and Bolsonaro’s nationalist rhetoric has gotten him far. But, in today’s globalized world, no economy can thrive by itself. Countries can and must hold one another accountable for policies – such as those that destroy the environment on which we all depend – with consequences that extend far beyond national borders.