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Last week, the sky over São Paulo — Brazil's largest city — went dark from the smoke of ongoing fires burning in the Amazon rainforest. More than 40,000 fires have been reported so far this year.
The Amazon, the world's largest rainforest, is a hotbed of biodiversity often called the “lungs of the world.” Images of the fires, which can be seen from space, triggered alarm across the globe. French President Emmanuel Macron called the situation an "international crisis." Pope Francis called for "the commitment of all," and the hashtag #PrayForAmazonia went viral.
Most of the fires are believed to have been started by farmers burning previously cleared agricultural areas. This happens every year, but the number of fires has spiked significantly in 2019 as deforestation efforts expanded under Brazil's new president, Jair Bolsonaro.
Leaders at the G-7 economic conference agreed to $20 million in aid to fight the fires, but Bolsonaro said he may decline the aid unless Macron apologizes for perceived insults against him.
Why there's debate:
The fires have provoked debate over who has the power to decide what happens to the Amazon. Though the majority of the rainforest is in Brazil, portions of the Amazon fall within the borders of eight other countries. Bolsonaro has argued that what happens in Brazil should be up to Brazil. He has framed interventions by other countries as attacks on Brazil's sovereignty and has accused the G-7 leaders of trying to run his nation "like a colony."
The Amazon may physically cover only a handful of countries, but its impact is felt by the whole world. Though a popular claim about its role in creating oxygen is untrue, the rainforest is still seen as enormously important in supporting a healthy environment and fighting climate change.
The global impact of continued destruction of the Amazon has led some to argue that the international community should have more say in its future. This view raises questions about whether other nations have the right, or the power, to dictate what happens in Brazil.
The number of fires set by farmers in the Amazon tends to fall off as the rainy season enters the region in September, though forecasters say it may take weeks for rain alone to extinguish the blazes. It remains to be seen whether criticism will push Bolsonaro to change his policies to prevent further fires or deforestation in the future. One potential driver of change could be his approval rating among Brazil's citizens, which has plummeted since the fires became a major issue.
The Amazon is too important to let individual leaders decide its future
"One person shouldn’t have the power to set policies that doom the rest of humanity’s shot at mitigating rising temperatures." — Franklin Foer, the Atlantic
Brazil's rights within its borders shouldn't be subject to the whims of other nations
"It cannot be that Brazil 'owns' its forest until such time as other, more powerful countries declare that its choices are causing the world harm. — Noah Millman, the Week
The public can force companies that do business in the Amazon to change
"As the weight of international opprobrium is brought to bear on the Bolsonaro administration, those concerned with the plight of the Amazon must call out the powerful economic forces that drive, and profit from, its destruction." — Andre Pagliarini, Jacobin
Win-win solutions that could protect the Amazon and benefit Brazilians are possible
"The world also cannot stand by and let the Bolsonaro government destroy the Amazon. … Rich industrialized countries who need the Amazon to survive should fund social programs for poor Brazilians who compose a large majority of our supremely unequal country, in exchange for preservation of this vital environmental asset." — David Miranda, the Guardian
The task of preserving the Amazon is too much for one country to handle
"Brazil should receive help not only because what happens in the Amazon will affect the entire world, but because it should not bear the cost of preserving the Amazon all alone." — Frida Ghitis, CNN
Any lasting change will need Brazil to be a willing partner
"Boycotts and sanctions may be necessary. But Brazil ultimately needs help more than condemnation. Policing the Amazon is expensive. Fencing it off is not enough. Far better would be an economic system in which the forest is valued at least as highly as the field, and in which natural assets are nurtured, rather than exploited for short-term gain." — Jonathan Watts, the Guardian
Indigenous communities have the right to decide what happens on their ancestral land
"The people for whom the rainforest is both home and national territory are also those best positioned to safeguard the forest’s survival." — Mitch Anderson, Thomson Reuters Foundation
It's hypocritical for developed nations to criticize Brazil
"Now that Europe has developed through deforestation and fossil fuel use, it is telling Brazil not to develop through deforestation and fossil fuel use. Bolsonaro is the backlash against such hypocrisy." — Michael Shellenberger, Forbes
Local citizens, with proper support, should guide the future of the Amazon
"Differences over concepts of sovereignty need not rise to the level of hard words and actions. Both Brazil and France can find ways to uplift the local people of the Amazon so they do not need to cut the forests. Secure in their own sovereignty, the local people can then ensure Brazil’s sovereignty while also helping protect the planet." — editorial, Christian Science Monitor
Climate change makes traditional ideas of sovereign countries obsolete
"The traditional understanding of the nation-state demands that — up to a certain limit — each nation has control over its own affairs. Climate change poses a problem for this framework: The burning Amazon affects not just Brazil but the whole world." — Quinta Jurecic, New York Times
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Cover thumbnail photo: Bruno Kelly/Reuters