When Environmentalism Becomes Political: Brazil’s Refusal to Accept G7 Aid for Amazon Forest Fires

Written by: Ariana King

Climate change. It’s a looming issue that threatens the entire globe, yet not all political leaders are willing to combat it. Take Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro as an example. In late August, he rejected $22 million of proposed aid at the G7 summit for quelling fires in the Amazon rainforest. Regarded as the world’s best defense against climate change, the Amazon is the world’s largest reservoir of carbon dioxide and plays a crucial role in stabilizing CO2 levels. Unfortunately, the Amazon has seen an 85% increase in fires within the last year and is on the verge of what scientists call a “tipping point.” Once this occurs, the destruction of the Amazon will be too severe to reverse, and the rainforest will lose much of its power to ameliorate global warming. Yet this drastic increase in fires is not due to climate change itself but the policies of  Bolsonaro, the right-wing “Trump of the Tropics.” Since his election, Bolsonaro has rolled back regulations set to help preserve the Amazon, preferring instead to protect the nation’s agricultural business over the rights of indigenous peoples and, moreover, the land itself. Many say these lax regulations have encouraged farmers to clear land illegally and that the resulting heightened deforestation is a great contributor to the sharp increase in fires. Yet, despite the global consequences for the Amazon’s destruction, Bolsonaro is not interested in collaborating with foreign countries that pose a threat to Brazil’s sovereignty.  

To make his case for Brazilian control of the Amazon, Bolsonaro first tried to deny the problem altogether by discrediting his own national scientific agencies and claiming the data they used to show the increase in fires was false. Next, he claimed that his opponents and the NGOs for whom he reduced funding started the fires to damage his reputation. When that argument wasn’t enough, Bolsonaro appealed to something a little more tangible: nationalism and anti-colonialism sentiment. This was obvious in Bolsonaro’s rejection of the G7 aid proposal, when he proclaimed it portrayed a “colonialist mentality” and represented “direct attacks on Brazilian sovereignty.” Whether or not these statements are entirely true, Bolsonaro’s rhetoric resonates with Brazil’s historical protection of the Amazon and colonial resentment. He strategically employed this powerful tool to persuade all Brazilians, not only his political base, to rally behind the cause. Adding to Bolsonaro’s rhetoric, the fact that the G7 leaders left Brazil out of the aid discussion provides further “proof” that the price for foreign aid is giving up control. 

Thus, it is clear that Bolsonaro has no interest in accepting international aid from “colonialists”, yet there are political consequences if he does not. The debate about how to quell the Amazon fires is far from over, as both Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron plan to revisit the issue and hope to put it on the G7 agenda. More concretely, Germany and Norway have threatened to slash millions in aid money set aside for Amazon conservation. Finland also seeks to pressure the country by banning Brazilian beef imports in an attempt to decrease deforestation. Needless to say, the international community is willing to take a stand, but it is unclear how effective these threats will be.

Given Brazil’s predisposition against colonial control and Bolsonaro’s ability to rally his people “behind the flag”, too much foreign intervention is likely to only bolster Bolsonaro’s efforts to keep the Amazon under Brazil’s control. However, all foreign pressure should not be discounted. Economic sanctions, like those proposed by Finland, may be able to influence Bolsonaro if his base is affected poorly and begins to withdraw their support. In the end, the political debate over how to prevent deforestation and man-made destruction of the Amazon provides a clear picture of why global efforts to stop climate change are immensely complicated. In this case, and in many others, foreign nations who offer aid must be conscious of their colonial legacy. One small way to do that is to give Brazil a seat at the table and prove that protecting the Amazon is in fact a global issue, not a sovereignty one.