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Amazon fires: Why issues around forest are complex, what Brazil is doing

The fight against deforestation in Brazil has been extremely successful since 2005.

Written by Amitabh Sinha , Shubhajit Roy | New Delhi |
Updated: September 23, 2019 9:45:43 am
Smoke from an area of the Amazon forest in Brazil on September 17. (Reuters)

Raging forest fires in the Amazon rainforests of Brazil have made international headlines in the last few weeks. Some reports suggest there were more than 50,000 incidents of forest fires in the Amazon since January this year, along with an alarming increase in deforestation. The forest fires have been spotted even by satellites in space, and have led to worries over a significant rise in greenhouse gas emissions, because of the reduced absorption of carbon dioxide.

In this interview with Shubhajit Roy and Amitabh Sinha, Brazil’s ambassador to India André Aranha Corrêa do Lago concedes that there could be an increase in incidents of forest fires this year, but that his country was doing all it can to control these. He says illegal felling of trees and burning was a law-enforcement issue and it was difficult to monitor whole of Amazon which is bigger in size than India. He advises other countries not to question Brazil’s sovereignty over Amazon, or its abilities to deal with the fires, and says big agri-business was probably wrongly being blamed for increased incidents.

Forest fires in Amazon are nothing new. But their number and intensity seems to have gone up in recent months. Are more trees being cut and burnt?

Most of the statistics that are being shown are in what we call ‘legal Amazon’. ‘Legal Amazon’ is the legal denomination that includes some areas of Brazil that don’t have the Amazon biome, but are very close the Amazon. ‘Legal Amazon’ was created in the 1950s for tax breaks and things like that. Many of the fires (being reported) are on land that has already been deforested for many years and is traditionally burnt every year. It is something similar to the agricultural burning you see in India in some months.

Explained: Why Amazon fires are worrying

The other issue is of deforestation. The fight against deforestation in Brazil has been extremely successful since 2005. We have reduced more than 80 per cent deforestation rate in Brazil since then. There was an increase of deforestation last year and probably this year too, but you have to take it into consideration that this is inside the 80 per cent reduction we have achieved in the last few years. So if you say that it increased by 10 per cent, it is ten per cent of a very much reduced rate of deforestation.

Illegal deforestation and illegal burning of trees is a crime. So it (containing these incidents) is a question of law enforcement. But there is the issue of scale. The preserved Amazon is larger than entire India. So, how can you enforce the law in this enormous territory without significant resources? Our President (Jair Messias Bolsonaro) has clearly said that he would allow zero illegal burnings.

But there is legal fire too, an agricultural practice, and he (Bolsonaro) has decided that even the legal fires would be forbidden for the next two months. So, even the farmers who have the right to burn, like in India, like everywhere else, would not be allowed to burn trees. Many fires that are started by farmers on their farms expand and attack the forests.

Now, Amazon is a very very special region. But it has moderate infrastructure. And it also is spread over a vast area. It is a region where illegal activities may take some time to be discovered. And considering these constraints, I think what Brazil has achieved in recent years in reducing deforestation and illegal burning is quite extraordinary. But still the government believes that the system is not working as well as it should, and the President has decided to call for bids to have new equipment that will help it to check deforestation. We are increasing our capacity for identifying illegal activities in the region.

Amazon forest fire, amazon fire, Brazil president on Amazon fires, Fires in the Amazon, Amazon rainforest fires, amazon fire photos, Brazil has seen a record number of wildfires this year. (Reuters)

You agree that there is possibly an increase in the incidents of tree felling and burning. Why are we seeing this increase?

There is a huge debate about that in Brazil at the moment. There are those who believe that the fact that the President always had very strong opinion on these things would have triggered some people in the region to do (cut and burn trees) more than they normally do. There is another set of people who believe that a reduction in the budget of the law enforcement structure has led to this. Then, there are people who say that the dry season (usually conducive for forest fires) is particularly dry this year.

Besides, it is also obvious that the international attention is also because of the fact that the President has made many statements before and after he was elected that has raised some worries among big NGOs and certain governments. What in fact the (Brazilian) government is saying is that it wants to be better informed about all the law enforcement structures that exist, about the institutions that exist, about the kind of cooperation there is with NGOs, and with other countries. Some people have interpreted this reassessment as a change in policy. In fact, there has been no change in policy, no new legislation, and no move that has reduced the capacity of the government to intervene and act.

The issue of Amazon fires was discussed at the recent G-7 meeting. The sense one got, going by what the French President said in public, is that the international community does not seem to have enough confidence in the Brazilian government’s intention to act on this issue

There is one very sensitive issue for my President, and that is the issue of sovereignty. One way in which the French President’s statements was interpreted in Brazil was that he was questioning Brazil’s sovereignty on Amazon. I think countries need to be very careful when they talk about these things. The issue regarding the Amazon has complex elements that sometimes is not taken into consideration.

There is a degree of criticism that you can make, but this criticism cannot be in a sense that questions the capability of a country in dealing with the problem. In the case of Amazon, this can be completely preposterous because nobody knows Amazon better than Brazilian people and Brazilian institutions.

And, by the way, all the statistics that are being presented on Amazon right now, all the scientists are being quoted are Brazilian. So, yes, we are very much prepared to deal with the issue. So, I think it is like there is a certain red line about what you can say the other is doing. It is very useless to see it in a way that questions the capability of a country.

Q: So, are you suggesting that the international focus on Amazon is in a way questioning Brazil’s capability, and also its right, to deal with Amazon on its own?

I don’t think anyone is doing it consciously. But there is a possibility that it would get interpreted in that way. That, in fact, is the interpretation of many people back in Brazil, who are worried about Brazil’s right and freedom to develop. As you very well know, all these issues about environment and climate change are a discussion in the context of development.

Q: How would you assure the world that your government is doing whatever best it can to control the Amazon forest fires?

The world can be sure that Amazon is a central issue for us. Of course, there is different opinion inside Brazil about what is to be done. Some people think there is too much forest, others think there is too little forest. Still others think that we need to exploit some minerals in that area. But, one has to respect that this debate has to exist within the context of Brazil.

Contributions are extremely important. Contributions can be made in many ways — intellectual, scientific, equipments, financial. If you follow the various environment discussions under the United Nations, you would know that all these things are very well structured. The difficulty really is in finding the resources. If you see what we are talking about in biodiversity convention, climate change conventions, on the Sustainable Development Goals, there is always enormous respect for the national circumstances of a country, because every country has different circumstances. And there is also a spirit of cooperation. The main issue is cooperation. It is very easy to criticise each other. I think that we need to make sure that we have respectful, informed and constructive dialogue.

Brazil has generally been commended on its climate change actions. But in the last few months it has got some negative attention, first on its proposal to carry forward carbon credits from Kyoto Protocol regime to the new regime under Paris Agreement, and now on the Amazon fires. How do you deal with this?

Ambassador: I think that Brazil has received some unfair attention. The fires are real and probably there is an increase too. The truth is that Brazil has worked very positively on climate change. Part of our success stemmed from the fact that we have a very clean energy matrix. Also, at one point, I think around 2005, nearly 75 per cent of our emissions could be attributed to deforestation. So we could take bigger commitments, and do things that, for example, India was not able to do. We have achieved a lot in the last few years. And it is also true that we have received sympathy and support of the international community in our efforts.

But there is no doubt that this crisis has presented Brazil in a light that is opposite of what Brazil has been achieving in recent years. But it does not change the reality. It only affects the perception. The reality is that we have an agriculture that is particularly committed to sustainability. Our energy sector is totally committed to sustainability, and our very dynamic civil society is very involved.

The big agri-business (that is often blamed for the forest fires) has transformed Brazil into one of the most powerful agricultural centres of the world, and also an exporter of agriculture. This sector is also committed to sustainability. I think there is a dimension of misperception about them. But we as a nation are totally convinced that our country has to be one of the leaders of sustainability.

Do you agree with the assessment that your President’s very public views on environmental governance may have encouraged illegal activities in the Amazon?

There is a debate about the statistics. We don’t have the numbers yet. What I can tell you is that no important company in Brazil, be it agriculture or industry, will engage in illegal deforestation or illegal fires. And this a very important point. But there is not a single important Brazilian producer of agriculture, or industry, that would risk to engage in this illegal activity. So the mainstream of Brazilian economy is totally committed to sustainability.

Amazon is known as the lung of the world. It is therefore legitimate that the international community is concerned about what is happening there. When you say Brazil needs resources, have you broached this subject with India as well. Can India offer any technology, or any other support?

The first thing is that, though it might be difficult to say at this point, Amazon is not the lung of the world. Although there is a line of scientific view that suggests that Amazon contributes more oxygen, the fact is that the forest has a cycle in which it only absorbs additional CO2 when it is growing. So, an adult forest like the Amazon is not absorbing additional CO2.

But this does not mean that it reduces the importance of keeping the Amazon because the destruction of the Amazon is an enormous producer of CO2 and so it is a very negative thing. We have to make sure that the information about the science is right. But the Amazon is also an unbelievable reserve of biodiversity, with thousands and thousands of plants, animals, that we still don’t know, but may have the answer to the things that we are going to need in the future. So destroying the biodiversity of Amazon is in nobody’s interest.

Regarding India, there is no specific offer or necessity to ask India to support us in the fight against the fires. But what we know that the traditional cooperation that we have among our scientific communities is, at some moment, is going to be used for the next steps.

Would not a rising rate of deforestation make it difficult for you to achieve your climate change targets?

Ambassador; I think no. The government has been very clear that it is going to fulfill the commitments that were made earlier and according to some studies we might have already surpassed our targets. The world currently seems to view Brazil as a country doing things that should be avoided. I think we must stress how this view is completely opposite to what Brazil has been doing. In spite of these fires, we have been, lets say among the developing countries, one of the most successful in curbing emissions and planning its development sustainably.

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