Amazon fires: Solutions lie beyond nationalist politics, a new green vision must be global in scope

The world’s greatest forest is on fire. The Amazon rainforest is burning away at record rates, in thousands of forest fires spread over an area bigger than India.

Samrat August 28, 2019 09:27:59 IST
Amazon fires: Solutions lie beyond nationalist politics, a new green vision must be global in scope
  • Even before these fires started, the Amazon was already in the process of being murdered.

  • An area of Amazon forest the size of three football fields fell every minute last month due to deforestation.

  • Climate change, air and water pollution, and the effects of dams in case of transboundary rivers, do not stop at national borders.

Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire

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The world’s greatest forest is on fire. The Amazon rainforest is burning away at record rates, in thousands of forest fires spread over an area bigger than India. The massive fires are visible across South America in satellite images taken from space. Old growth forests that grew over centuries are disappearing in minutes. The Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, a Right-winger who is keen on “development”, has belatedly called out the army and air force to try and control the blaze, while stressing on his country’s sovereignty and cursing French president Emmanuel Macron for his “colonial” mindset for suggesting that a major trade deal between the European Union and a grouping of South American countries including Brazil should be kept on hold over environmental issues.

However, even before these fires started, the Amazon was already in the process of being murdered. An area of Amazon forest the size of three football fields fell every minute last month due to deforestation, according to data from Brazilian satellites cited in an article in Business Insider. That was just ordinary “development”. The fires themselves were started by farmers keen on quick “development” who organised a “day of burning” that got out of hand, according to multiple reports from Brazil. The fires were mainly restricted to areas and provinces ruled by Bolsonaro’s allies.

Amazon fires Solutions lie beyond nationalist politics a new green vision must be global in scope

An aerial view of a tract of the Amazon jungle burning as it is being cleared by loggers and farmers in Porto Velho, Rondonia State, Brazil. Reuters

The Amazon rainforest is the biggest in the world. The second-biggest is the Congo Basin rainforest in Africa. That one, too, is falling to “development”, which means the clearing of land for plantation farming and mining. The last remaining old growth forests in India, in the Northeast and Central India, are under assault as well. In Arunachal Pradesh, illegal logging is rampant, and the desire to build more than a hundred hydroelectric dams, despite opposition from indigenous communities, has been common to the Congress, BJP and local parties. On the other side of the planet, in Brazil, it seems to be the same story. Illegal logging, hydroelectric dam projects, opposition from indigenous groups, and the venality of politicians are common features there as well.

Corruption forms the thread that unites and motivates political and business interests in Arunachal, Chhattisgarh, Africa and Brazil. The faces change, the characters remain the same. There is the local businessman, keen on making his quick bucks. There is the local politician, who is an entrepreneur himself – he has to invest a lot of money to win the elections, where democracy is in existence, and hopes to profit from this investment through cuts from “development” projects later. There is, perhaps, a local militant group that eventually turns into a mafia; this was the case in the Congo. There is the big industrialist in the capital, far removed from the grit and grime, who will invest in the big dams or big mines. There is the big politician who will facilitate that “development”.

That whole long chain is implicated in the ongoing global ecocide. The spike in Amazon forest fires this year, and the enthusiasm on the part of farmers and ranchers to clear fresh land, have global linkages. Brazilian beef imports to the United States were suspended in 2017 over unsanitary conditions and animal health issues. After President Trump met President Bolsonaro earlier this year, the two announced that steps would be taken towards resuming imports of Brazilian beef into America. Meanwhile, the trade war between USA and China has hit Chinese imports of soy beans from America. The Chinese are switching to importing Brazilian soy beans. It so happens that soy farming and cattle ranching are the two major industries in cleared Amazon rainforest land. If there’s a spike in clearing of land, it’s probably because the local ranchers and farmers expect to make a killing with major new markets opening up.

The burning of the Amazon rainforest, the pillage of the Congo Basin in Africa and, at smaller scale, of Arunachal Pradesh in India, all follow inevitably from the understanding of what is most important. It is commonly understood around the world now that economic development is priority number one. Everywhere on earth, the goal of governments is more or less the same. It is to facilitate “growth” and “development”, by which is meant an addition to the Gross Domestic Product figures, a booming stock market, the building of highways and malls, tall buildings and flyovers, brisk sales of the latest everything. Concerns over the air we breathe and the water we drink cannot compete with concerns over falling share prices; they are not urgent enough. Climate change is actively denied as happening at all, or happening due to human actions, because nothing must get in the way of “growth”. This rhetoric starts with the most powerful man on the planet, Donald Trump, and it is repeated in country after country by the mini-Trumps who have magically mushroomed everywhere.

The problem is fundamentally a political one. It is a politics that stands on the twin pillars of economic growth and nationalism and in turn channels all human energy into raising those towers ever higher. Whether this helps ordinary human beings lead the best quality of lives that they could is not considered. The Amazon fires bring the question into focus. Bolsonaro is right in saying that it’s Brazil’s internal affair, but Macron is right too in saying that it’s the world’s lungs that are burning away. The Amazon produces as much as 10 percent of the oxygen we all breathe. Therefore, what Bolsonaro does in Brazil affects us all.

Similarly, how much beef Americans eat, and how much soy the Chinese consume, are unfortunately matters of relevance to the world. The building of dams on the Brahmaputra, one of the world’s greatest rivers, is a matter of concern to the planet. The discharge of plastic waste into the Ganga is not an Indian or a Hindu issue, just as the discharge of plastic waste into the South China Sea is not a Chinese issue. These are global issues.

The world is suffering from a crisis of politics. The old ideas have collapsed and the new ideas enjoying an unchallenged run almost everywhere are variations on the twin themes of nationalism and economic development. There is a need and a space for a new global politics of opposition, and the colour of this politics is green – the green of plants and trees. Every province in every country on the planet has to find ways of living with nature, not in opposition to it, because the issue of how ordinary people can live good, healthy, happy lives must be the core concern of politics.

Everything else – identity, religion, equality - is a means to those ends.

Since the problems have global linkages that extend beyond national boundaries, the new green politics must be global in vision and scope. Climate change, air and water pollution, and the effects of dams in case of transboundary rivers, do not stop at national borders. The solutions cannot be found in politics of nationalism.

They will have to be sought through a green, humanist internationalism.

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