Viewpoints

What do fires in the Amazon have to do with California? More than you might think

Neri dos Santos Silva watches an encroaching fire threat after digging trenches to keep the flames from spreading to the farm he works on, in the Nova Santa Helena municipality, in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil, Friday, Aug. 23, 2019. Under increasing international pressure to contain fires sweeping parts of the Amazon, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on Friday authorized use of the military to battle the massive blazes. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)
Neri dos Santos Silva watches an encroaching fire threat after digging trenches to keep the flames from spreading to the farm he works on, in the Nova Santa Helena municipality, in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil, Friday, Aug. 23, 2019. Under increasing international pressure to contain fires sweeping parts of the Amazon, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on Friday authorized use of the military to battle the massive blazes. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

“Coming soon to a rainforest near you: Apocalypse Now – Amazônia,” reads the meme. The picture is of Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro – the so called “Tropical Trump” – and his Environment Minister, Ricardo Salles. Those who have seen the footage of fires raging in the rainforest understand that this is no joke. Fortunately, California is likely better positioned to help stop the apocalypse than anyplace else.

The scope of the fires in the Amazon, caused by clearing and burning the forest for illegal land grabbing, as well as cattle pasture and soy, are revealed in NASA satellite images showing rivers of smoke pouring across the continent. Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) reports 77 percent more fires this year over last.

Though California is thousands of miles away from the Amazon, what happens there can have real consequences in the Golden State. For example, research suggests California’s rainfall is affected by the Amazon rainforest. As the rainforest disappears, precipitation in the Sierra Nevada is projected to decline by up to 20 percent, and snowpack by up to 50 percent. Without reducing deforestation in the Amazon, we’re likely to trigger a tipping point that will make rainfall ever less reliable.

But who would want to see the global treasure that is the Amazon going up in smoke? The answer is: Pretty much no one. A recent poll shows 96 percent of even Bolsonaro voters want the government to stop the devastation, the same proportion as the general population. Eighty-eight percent of his voters think the Congress should assume more responsibility, so that Brazil can attain zero deforestation.

Opinion

Agribusiness agrees with the people. Major national agribusiness leaders and others are on record saying that deforestation is a problem, not a solution, for agriculture.

So who does want the fires? A very small, truculent and often violent minority burning down one of the world’s best hopes for saving its climate. Their aim is to steal public land and invade indigenous territories and protected forest. It’s working well for them because Bolsonaro and Salles have purposefully dismantled environmental and indigenous affairs agencies and crippled government enforcement capacity.

Steve-Schwartzman.Credit-John-Rae.jpg

There is however a lot that can be done – even in the face of a president who encourages lawlessness.

In California, the California Air Resources Board should endorse the proposed Tropical Forest Standard, which specifies what would be required of a tropical forest state that’s reducing deforestation to access California’s carbon market. Groups representing millions of indigenous people in tropical forest countries, including Brazil, support the standard based on its strong requirements for indigenous rights and collaboration with governments. Scientists, academics and economists, and international policy experts have also expressed support for the Tropical Forest Standard, as have prominent environmental groups including Environmental Defense Fund.

Companies that have committed to eliminating deforestation from their supply chains should directly express their concerns to government, while working with first-in-class Amazon state governments willing to implement sound policy frameworks to enforce the law and create positive incentives for forest protection.

Globally, Bolsonaro has forfeited any claim to being reliable or even a rational interlocutor and should be treated as a pariah in international diplomatic circles. The European Union should take Emmanuel Macron’s advice, and not ratify the EU-Mercosur trade agreement until it includes solid rules to keep out deforestation-based commodities.

Look to California, Brazilian public opinion, agribusiness, Amazon state governments, civil society, indigenous peoples and forward-looking companies, and you can see that we can stop this apocalypse. Leaders from Paris to Sacramento have the power to change the outcome of this unfolding disaster.

Stephan Schwartzman, an anthropologist and senior director of tropical forest policy at the Environmental Defense Fund, has worked for decades to protect tropical forests.

  Comments