Brazil President Jair Bolsonro prides himself on being called “The Trump of the Tropics.” Like his North American hero, he is hell-bent on destroying both his country and the planet. And similar to his idol’s country, his nation occupies a unique position in the world that gives it an outsize influence on the fate of the planet, humanity and all other living creatures. For Brazil, that special standing comes from being home to more than 80 percent of Amazonia, the region drained by the Amazon River and its tributaries.
At this writing, vast areas of Amazonia are burning. Every minute, an area equivalent to one-and-a-half football fields succumbs to the flames that are extinguishing the lives of the Amazon’s oxygen-generating and CO2-absorbing trees and plants, not to mention millions of fauna. Moreover, critical, rainforest medicines have provided us with several thousand cures and pain relievers. Seventy percent of the 3,000 plants identified by our National Cancer Institute as having potential anti-cancer properties come from the Amazon rainforest. Its destruction means that potentially thousands of medical compounds will never be realized. In addition, 20 million indigenous people who call the Amazon home are being displaced.
These fires, overwhelmingly man-made, are the direct result of official encouragement by Bolsonaro, who believes that agricultural and commercial development of Amazonia trumps any stewardship obligations Brazil might have towards its own people or the rest of the world.
It is not too extreme to say that the Amazon region is the beating heart of Planet Earth. It provides 20 percent of the oxygen we depend on to live and breathe. It absorbs more than 20 percent of the carbon dioxide that, otherwise, would escape into the atmosphere and exacerbate global warming and climate change.
Because of President Bolsonaro’s destructive policies which, it must be added, are strongly supported by Donald Trump, that beating heart is in danger of heart failure. If this continues, then life on our fragile sphere is going to be very different. It will trend perilously toward Thomas Hobbes’ definition of life in the State of Nature that predated the formation of organized societies and governments: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Recognizing that this cannot be allowed to continue, the European Union is threatening to pull out of a recently negotiated trade agreement with “Mercosur,” the South American trade bloc consisting of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia. But that is likely not enough to dissuade Bolsonaro from continuing on his path to destruction.
Under intense international pressure, Bolsonaro grudgingly sent a token military contingent — untrained in wildfire fighting — into the Amazon to fight the 78,383 (at last count) separate fires. The recent G-7 meeting in France set aside a measly $22.2 million to combat the fires currently consuming the Amazon rainforest. Trump did not attend the climate meeting on this important subject and, of course, lied about “conflicting commitments” (the leaders he claimed to be meeting with at the same time were themselves at the climate gathering). No matter, because Bolsonaro rejected the aid, calling it “colonialism,” then walked that back and forth several times.
So, what can be done?
First, the nations of the world should impose travel bans to Brazil on their citizens. Brazil takes in almost $7 billion a year in tourist dollars.
Second, Brazilian beef and soy imports should be prohibited. This would have a two-fold effect: (1) It would deprive Brazil of $32.1 billion a year; and (2) it might encourage Bolsonaro to go easier on the Amazon.
Third, it is in the interests of humanity for the United Nations to invoke its authority to assemble an international team of firefighters protected by a robust peacekeeping force to intervene in Brazil and save the immediate situation. The argument against that will be that this would represent an assault on Brazil’s national sovereignty. The counter-argument is that this is a unique situation where a geographical accident has placed a resource vital to global health and survival within the borders of a country, and that this justifies collective action by affected nations to preserve and protect humankind and the planet.
Both the “Boy from Brazil” and deference to national sovereignty must step aside when there is a threat to global health. They cannot be permitted to stymie international action to save the world.
Tragically, the current U.S. regime will balk at any of these measures. Yet another reason to dispense with it next year.
Canandaigua Academy graduate Richard Hermann is a law professor, legal blogger, author of seven books and part-time resident of the Finger Lakes.