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How Bad An Amazon Steward Is Brazil? Worse Than Even Miami Politicians Would Be

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Leo Correa
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AP
BURNING LUNGS: Charred remains of the Amazon rainforest smoldering in Brazil this month.

COMMENTARY

Here’s a dirty little secret about Amazon deforestation that liberals prefer you overlook: the slash-and-burn may be ugly under right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, but it was bad when leftists controlled the rainforest, too. Under former President Dilma Rousseff, the liberal darling who ruled Brazil from 2011 until her impeachment in 2016, Amazon deforestation actually increased.

In no way does that excuse Bolsonaro’s reckless efforts to accelerate the trend – which in 2019 have resulted in an alarming 85 percent rise in Amazon fires that have destroyed more than 7,000 square miles of rainforest. What it points out is that Brazil, left or right, is and largely has been a lousy steward of an emerald ecosystem known as the lungs of the earth.

The Amazon’s vast, carbon-sucking foliage is one of the world’s most important checks on global warming. Given those climate-change stakes, it’s not surprising a retributive impulse toward Brazil emerged at this week’s G-7 summit of the world’s major economic powers in France.

It was the urge to treat Brazil as an environmental pariah in much the same way the world is treating Venezuela as a human-rights pariah.

If you’re a South Floridian, imagine the Amazon under the supervision of the Miami-Dade County Commission – a perennial collection of development lapdogs who rarely if ever met an encroachment on the Everglades it didn’t like.

READ MORE: Brazil Experts Warn South Florida the Amazon Crisis Not As Distant As It Seems

The key difference between the Everglades and the Amazon is that the former has the protection of a functioning democracy. When, a decade ago, the commission tried to let Lowe’s build a megastore on Everglades wetlands beyond the Urban Development Boundary, Florida officials struck it down. Most recently, the proposed 836 highway extension that threatens the Everglades – which the commission strongly OK’d last year – is under state and federal review.

In Brazil, a nationalist, pro-development demagogue like Bolsonaro – who jokingly calls himself “Captain Chainsaw” when asked about the Amazon – faces few if any such enviro-checks and balances. And so, when French President Emmanuel Macron and other heads of state told Bolsonaro this week to wake up and smell the charred mahogany trunks, he could dismiss them, accuse them of colonialism, insult Macron’s wife and then demand Macron apologize to him.

Brazil is and has long been a lousy steward of the planet's lungs. But the world outside Brazil, from Trump to meat addicts, shares the blame for what's happening inside Brazil.

The international community, starting at the G-7, is now mulling ways to make Brazil turn from Amazon arsonist to rainforest environmentalist. To find a means of backing up Macron’s fairly reasonable declaration that “we can’t let [Bolsonaro] destroy everything.”

We saw a glimpse of that resolve just before the G-7. Norway and Germany, exasperated by the wire photos of Amazon smoke blocking out the sun as far away as São Paulo, decided to suspend almost $75 million in donations to Brazil’s Amazon fund.

Global criticism did finally move Bolsonaro this week to order fires stopped for 60 days. But it will probably take economic-related sanctions – again, the kind being levied to squeeze Venezuela’s regime – to chasten him long-term.

As a journalist who has seen those senselessly logged mahogany trunks lying on the Amazon floor, I’ll admit that hammering Brazil and Bolsonaro that way is tempting.

But I’ll also concede it probably won’t work. Among the many reasons: Soybeans. Meat. And hypocrisy.

INSATIABLE DEMAND

This summer U.S. soybean exporters are making a self-serving but admittedly credible enviro-case against President Trump’s trade war with China. Tariffs are keeping U.S. growers from satisfying China’s insatiable soy demand. So farmers in Brazil – one of the world’s biggest soy producers – see a lavish opportunity to fill the void. But that means clearing more Amazon forest into fields, a big reason for this year’s rash of fires.

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Credit Eraldo Peres / AP
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AP
CAPTAIN CHAINSAW: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in Brasilia this month.

Meanwhile, global meat consumption keeps rising even faster than population growth, meaning major producers keep scrambling to keep up. Brazil is one – and for its ranchers to keep up, they need to slash-and-burn more of the Amazon into cattle-grazing pasture.

Finally, the U.S. and the international community stand a better chance of forcing regime change in Venezuela than they do influencing Amazon reform in Brazil. That’s because they still carry a moral authority regarding the former that they simply don’t regarding the latter. European deforestation may not be as serious as Brazil’s, but it’s a troubling enough reality that Bolsonaro can call his Euro-critics hypocrites.

As for the U.S., Trump tweeted this week that his kindred spirit Bolsonaro is doing “a great job.” Enough said.

And that’s the other dirty little secret about the Amazon. If it sounds as if I’m suggesting the world outside Brazil shares the blame for what’s happening inside Brazil…I am.