Environmental cleansing in Brazil


The social media hordes love a good cause, especially one where the only effort they need to make in support is merely pushing the “like” button. In among a kaleidoscope of their different concerns, one of the latest being “cultural appropriation” (owning a Japanese teapot when you are not Japanese), one constant has been the environment.

It is thus no surprise that social media warriors are incensed by the fires currently raging over large parts of the Amazonian rainforest in Brazil. Farmers, ranchers and mining companies have long used the dry season to burn down millions of trees to create new fields or access to fresh ore deposits. Unfortunately, agriculturally, this “environmental cleansing” is largely useless. The cleared land is of poor quality yielding limited harvests. Newly-arrived farmers joining those already trying to eke out a living from the low-grade soil need to destroy more rainforest to create further marginal arable land.

Brazil’s new right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro is not a fan of the environmentalists’ argument that the world needs its tropical rainforests in South America, central Africa and the Far East in order to recycle carbon monoxide from the atmosphere and so allow the planet to “breathe”. Since coming to power this January, the Bolsonaro administration has loosened once-strict but still-flouted controls on rainforest clearances. The result has been a surge in this activity to the extent that there are now 75,000 fires, a record number, many of which are currently raging out of control.

At first Bolsonaro dismissed the considerable international concern as ill-informed and an unwarranted interference in Brazil’s internal affairs. Yet it seems that even he has recognized that the situation was getting out of hand. He has sent 44,000 troops to seven states where the fires are raging and has ordered that transport aircraft be equipped to dump water onto the flames. Oddly, while he has accepted an offer of Israeli aid from Benjamin Netanyahu, Bolsonaro has contemptuously declined the $22 million of aid put together by the G7 states at their weekend meeting in the French resort of Biarritz. The Brazilian leader also chose to insult French President Emmanuel Macron’s wife Brigitte, who is 66. He approved when one of his supporters compared her unfavorably to the Brazilian leader’s 37-year-old wife Michelle. This sort of rudeness, of which US President Donald Trump has also been guilty, appeared in response to Macron’s concerns earlier this month that the Amazon rainforest fires were in danger of becoming unstoppable.

Bolsonaro may come to regret his intemperate responses. Over and above the usual mob of carping social media virtue-signalers, mainline French politicians have been outraged at the insults to their president’s wife. They have proposed a boycott of Brazilian meat products, mining output and financial sanctions to affect the country’s external debt which is close to $700 billion. Such an action will probably be taken up by other countries whose politicians are eager to respond to any surge in voter anger at Bolsonaro’s environmental cleansing. The reaction is likely to be the greater because Bolsonaro is widely seen as a smaller mirror image of Donald Trump who also has little time for environmentalist arguments. And the Brazilian president is a much easier target than his counterpart in Washington.