“Our House Is On Fire”: Brazil Faces Global Outrage as Massive Fires Spread in Amazon Rainforest

StoryAugust 23, 2019
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The United Nations is calling for the protection of the Amazon amid fears that thousands of fires raging across Brazil and some parts of Bolivia are rapidly destroying the world’s largest rainforest and paving the way for a climate catastrophe. The fires have spread a vast plume of smoke across South America and the Atlantic Ocean that’s visible from space. They’re unprecedented in recorded history, and environmentalists say most of the fires were deliberately set by illegal miners and cattle ranchers. Indigenous people in Brazil have accused far-right President Jair Bolsonaro of encouraging the destruction. Bolsonaro has worked to deregulate and open up the Amazon for agribusiness, logging and mining since he came into office in January. We speak with Andrew Miller, advocacy director at Amazon Watch.

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. The United Nations is calling for the protection of the Amazon amidst fears thousands of fires raging across Brazil are rapidly destroying the world’s largest rainforest and paving the way for a climate catastrophe. The fires have spread a vast plume of smoke across South America and the Atlantic Ocean that’s visible from space. They are unprecedented in recorded history. And environmentalists say most of the fires were deliberately set by illegal miners and cattle ranchers.

The French President Emmanuel Macron called the Amazon fires an “international crisis,” saying they should top the agenda this weekend as leaders of the G7 countries gather in Paris, along with President Trump. Macron tweeted, “Our house is burning. Literally.” Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro responded by accusing Macron of having a “colonialist mindset.”

Fears are mounting for what the environmental destruction means for the planet and the global crisis. The Amazon produces 20% of the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere. The fires have sent massive plumes of smoke across much of South America, turning day into night in São Paulo, 1,700 miles away from the Amazon Basin.

Indigenous people in Brazil have accused Bolsonaro of encouraging the destruction. He has worked to deregulate and open up the Amazon for agribusiness, logging and mining since he came into office in January. On Wednesday, Bolsonaro accused nongovernmental organizations for the fires, drawing widespread ridicule and outrage. It came as indigenous people used social media to document how illegal loggers are setting fire to their territories. This is a woman named Célia, a member of the Pataxó indigenous community, speaking in a video that went viral across Brazil this week.

CÉLIA: [translated] Look what they’ve done to our reservation. For two years we’ve been fighting to preserve this land, and now those troublemakers come here and set fire to our village. As if it were not enough, the Vale mining company kills our river, our people, our source of life, and now they’ve come and set fire to our reservation. We won’t stay quiet! Tomorrow we will close the road, and we want the media to defend us!

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now in Washington, D.C., by Andrew Miller, advocacy director for Amazon Watch. Andrew, explain the scope of the problem right now in Brazil.

ANDREW MILLER: Well, the problem in Brazil is not just the fires that we’re seeing, which of course are incredibly visual and have really drawn the world’s attention to what’s happening, but the scope of the problem is much broader, really, in terms of the policies and the rhetoric of the Bolsonaro administration, which is not the first time, of course, that the Amazon has been under assault and not the first time that indigenous peoples have been facing threats. But we’ve really seen an acceleration of and, you know, an exacerbation of a lot of the symptoms. Of course, the fires, as you mentioned, are up essentially 80% over the same period last year, but we’re also seeing other symptoms, like deforestation rates also being up, you know, in a very terrifying way in recent months, and the pressures and threats that indigenous peoples are facing on the ground from the illegal miners, from the land grabbers, from the loggers.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you explain what Bolsonaro is charging, that NGOs are setting these fires? Talk about the map of the areas that indigenous people control, where these fires are.

ANDREW MILLER: Well, we’ve seen 10,000 fires lit just in the last week. So, the map of where the fires are is across the Brazilian Amazon and other parts of Brazil, actually. But if you look at the map of Brazil, if you look at the Brazilian Amazon from space, essentially, in some cases, you can see where the indigenous territories are, because that’s essentially where the trees are still standing. You know, so these fires are being set in areas where people are trying to — you know, want to carry out different kinds of agricultural activities. But as you saw in the video, they’re also going into indigenous territories. And that’s, again, symptomatic of the broader policies that we’re seeing from the Bolsonaro administration. They have said, in many cases, you know, essentially, they want to open up protected areas and indigenous territories to these — to extractive activities, to the agribusiness lobby, or to agribusiness activities there. And so, again, the fires are just sort of the latest manifestation of those policies.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about this in the global sense. You have the French President Macron saying this should be the top of the agenda of the G7, “Our house is burning,” to which Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil, responds, “That’s a colonialist attitude.” Right? That he’s saying, “It’s not your house, it’s ours.” Explain the significance of the Amazon, and then the response of other countries, like Norway, and what Bolsonaro is so furious about.

ANDREW MILLER: Well, of course, the Amazon, as people have focused on for decades, is such an important ecosystem, because of the biodiversity, because of, you know, what we call the ecological services that it provides, generating fresh water, generating oxygen, housing biodiversity, driving weather systems around the Western Hemisphere. In recent years, as we’ve talked more about climate change, or, really, climate chaos, the climate emergency that humanity is facing, the Amazon is seen in the light of helping regulate the climate and sequestering carbon, as we say.

And so, it’s — you know, there are many other crucial ecosystems around the world, and we’re seeing these tipping points, or we’re talking about the possibility of ecological tipping points, in terms of the thawing of the tundra, the melting of the ice caps. But certainly, in the Amazon, there’s a very strong concern — and we’ve seen this in mainstream media, The Economist wrote a whole front-page article about this several weeks ago — this concern that after a certain level of deforestation, the Amazon will go into — essentially, will go over an ecological precipice and will go into what’s called “dieback” scenario and will irrevocably turn into a savanna. The climate implications of that are horrifying, especially when you talk about these other ecological tipping points. So, there’s a very strong international significance to what’s happening.

You know, of course, in Brazil, there’s a very strong sort of sense of patriotism, and that very much gets mobilized in order to, essentially, critique international concern for the Amazon, and Brazilians saying that the world wants to come in and declare the Amazon is an international area. You know, so, there’s a strong critique coming, especially from extremist right-wing forces represented by Bolsonaro. And he says, you know, “This is ours. We don’t want you to intervene.” The reality, of course, is that Bolsonaro very much wants the international community to intervene in terms of investments, in terms of supporting megaprojects, in terms of entering into free trade agreements, which would exacerbate many of these problems. So, he very much wants that international intervention. He just doesn’t want critiques or conservation projects or anything that might limit what his government wants to do there.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the trade deal between the European Union and Brazil and what it would mean for the rainforest. The United States, Trump is a close ally of Bolsonaro —

ANDREW MILLER: Right. So —

AMY GOODMAN: — and fellow climate change denier, of course.

ANDREW MILLER: Well, of course. Yes, in recent years, Brazil has had a much stronger economic relationship with Europe, in terms of exporting different products, commodities, beef, also soy in order to feed beef. And that relationship continues.

Under Bolsonaro, there is a reorientation of Brazilian foreign policy towards the United States. And that is very much based in the sort of affinity that Bolsonaro feels with Trump. And, of course, Bolsonaro is called “the Trump of the Tropics,” in some cases.

And then, as we look at the specifics of what’s happening in Brazil and the policies and basically the way Bolsonaro has acted since he became president at the beginning of this year, there are many parallels with what the Trump administration has done in terms of, you know, lack of enforcement of existing laws, making changes to the regulations in laws to weaken protections of environment, protections of human rights — in the Brazilian case, of indigenous rights — and this pattern of essentially putting the worst people to lead different ministries, in the case of Brazil, and so putting climate deniers and putting people — the minister of environment is essentially an environmental criminal, from past activities before he became the minister.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds, Andrew. What do you think is most important for the globe right now, the response to what’s happening?

ANDREW MILLER: Well, there’s a lot of things that are important. People need to show their solidarity with indigenous peoples. People should come out in the global mobilizations that are happening around the Amazon, also the climate strikes that are happening in September. And people need to reevaluate their own —

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, but we’ll do Part 2, put it online, Andrew Miller of Amazon Watch. Very happy birthday to Julie Crosby! I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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