Wednesday 18 September 2019

Editorial: 'Why we must act as rainforest burns'

A fire burns a field on a farm in the state of Mato Grosso (Leo Correa/AP)
A fire burns a field on a farm in the state of Mato Grosso (Leo Correa/AP)


When the Taoiseach threatened to veto the EU-Mercosur trade deal unless the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, took action to combat the raging fires threatening the Amazon rainforest, it was immediately labelled political opportunism.

But rather than trying to sustain the Irish beef industry, it became obvious within a matter of hours, that Mr Varadkar was, in fact, leading Europe in tackling a climate change disaster that has the most serious potential consequences of the entire planet.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who had initially labelled the situation "an international crisis", quickly backed the Taoiseach's suggested course of action, demanded that the matter be placed at the top of the agenda at this weekend's G7 meeting in Biarritz, and called President Bolsonaro "a liar". Finland, current holder of the EU presidency, said the veto was worth examining. A spokesman for the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, said it was an "acute emergency" which threatened not just Brazil, and its neighbouring countries (rainforests in Bolivia and Paraguay are also burning, and Peru is on high alert) but the whole world. However, she stopped short of threatening a trade veto.

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The 73,843 fires reported to be out of control, represent an 83pc increase on 2018. The importance of the Amazon rainforest - the lungs of the world - cannot be overstated. The complete loss of this vital resource would cause damage equivalent to all that mankind has done since the Industrial Revolution, 140 years ago, resulting in a temperature increase of three to four degrees, and a rise in sea levels of seven to eight metres. Every fifth breath you take involves oxygen produced in the Amazon region - 20pc of the world's total. Two mature trees produce enough oxygen for one person to breathe for a year. In addition, the rainforest currently holds trapped 127 cubic tonnes of harmful carbon dioxide - one mature tree can absorb 22kg in a single year.

President Bolsonaro came to power last January, promising to develop the Amazon region for farming and mining, and recently fired the head of the Brazilian national environment agency for reporting the facts on climate change in the rainforest. An admirer of US President Donald Trump, he threatened to follow his political idol by withdrawing from the Paris Accord. But realising this could imperil the Mercosur trade deal, he has adjusted this position to sticking with the Accord "for now". He responded to the criticism and protests at Brazilian embassies around the world, by claiming other countries were "invoking a misplaced colonialist mentality", and interfering in the internal affairs of Brazil. He claimed he did not have the resources to fight the fires, and ludicrously tried to put the blame on NGOs who were, he said, "whipping up environmental psychosis", instead of on those farmers, loggers and wildcat miners who are illegally invading the forests - homelands of indigenous tribes - in the belief that they have the tacit support of their president.

But last Friday he did eventually give in to the international pressure and sent in the army to fight the flames. However, that pressure will have to be maintained, and much more is needed. The majority of the Brazilian people want the rainforests protected, and responsible representatives of Brazilian agriculture recognise the danger to their future export trade from the present situation. While the Taoiseach got the ball rolling with the veto threat, it must be noted that such a blunt instrument would hit the other parties to that trade deal, too - Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. Tactics need to be refined, and perhaps there is merit in trying to persuade the people of South America that they can have a better relationship with Europe by maintaining best environmental practices, rather than threatening them if they are remiss on this issue.

At the end of the day, the Amazon rainforest lies in the sovereign territory of Brazil and a number of other states. And unless we are planning to invade the region and take control of something vital to us all, then we will have to rely on diplomacy and effective persuasion.

It's a question of emphasising the carrot over the stick.

Sunday Independent

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