The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The world wants to save the Amazon rainforest. Brazil’s Bolsonaro says hands off.

Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Porto Velho, Rondonia State, Brazil, on August 21, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)
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RIO DE JANEIRO — For as long as Brazil has claimed most of the Amazon rainforest as its own, it has guarded it jealously.

The military, which regards the rainforest as perhaps its central responsibility, built one of its main bases in the jungle city of Manaus. Foreign scientists have been eyed with skepticism. Development of the Amazon has been seen as both a tool for economic advancement — and to ensure the forest stays Brazilian.

Now, amid raging fires in the Amazon and an international outcry over environmental policies critics say are exacerbating the crisis, long held fears that others are coveting what belongs to Brazil are flaring once again.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a former fringe politician who came to power by appealing to nationalistic and antiglobalist sentiment, has said the international condemnations betray a modern day “colonialist mentality.” The former commander of Brazil’s army, Brazil’s army, Eduardo Villas Boas, lashed out at “direct attacks on Brazilian sovereignty.” Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo called for the “governing of Brazil by Brazilians.”

Why the Amazon is burning and what it means for climate change

The fires and the international concern they have provoked again revealed a central conflict in the Amazon: Who gets to decide what happens to it? Is Brazil, which commands of two-thirds of it, the primary warden? Or should the international community have a role in safeguarding the world’s most precious forest, which scientists say is essential to curbing the destabilizing effects of global warming?

“Our house is burning,” wrote France President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday, tweeting a picture of the burning forest and calling on Group of Seven countries to discuss the emergency at their summit this weekend.

Not your house, was the reply in Brazil. Our house.

The jostling for position has further complicated the response to the unfolding crisis. The Amazon, which is often referred to as the earth’s lungs, accounts for one-fourth of the carbon dioxide absorbed by the worlds’ forests, is rapidly being devastated by fire.

Since January, nearly 75,000 fires have burned in the Brazilian Amazon, according to the country’s National Institute for Space Research, an 85 percent increase from the same point last year. In the last two years, the area razed by fire has more than doubled, from 3,168 square miles during the first seven months of 2017 to 7,192 square miles during the same period this year, the institute reported.

Disturbing images of the forest aflame and cities cloaked in smoke this week ignited a rapid and overwhelming international backlash that Brazilian leaders are struggling to contain.

The challenge before them is now twofold: How to defend the Amazon itself, and how to defend Brazil’s image externally.

Bolsonaro, who complained on Thursday that Brazil didn’t have the resources to quell the forest fires, has convened emergency meetings and now says he’s considering sending the army to fight the fires. A state of emergency in Amazonas state has been issued, with other states expected to follow. More than 1,000 firefighters are trying to extinguish the blazes, flying drones to map areas at risk.

The Amazon is burning. Bolsonaro says his critics are setting the fires, to make him look bad.

Flights throughout the Amazon were halted Friday as heavy smoke obscured the skies. Hospitals were deluged with patients suffering from smoke inhalation as rates of pneumonia and respiratory problems tripled in some states, according to Rondonia state government statistics.

Meanwhile, protesters are preparing demonstrations in 40 Brazilian cities and four European capitals on Friday. They condemn environmental policies of the Bolsonaro administration, which wants to develop the Amazon to stimulate Brazil’s dormant economy.

But perceived inaction by the Brazilian leader may end up further damaging Brazil’s economy.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel characterized the fires as an “acute emergency” on Friday and backed Macron’s call to put the issue on the G-7 agenda. Finland asked the European Union to consider banning Brazilian beef imports over fears that cattle farming is leading to widespread deforestation. A leading German newspaper is calling for sanctions against Brazil. And Germany and Norway may soon cut tens of millions of dollars in aid slotted for Amazon conservation projects.

The Europeans are urging the strengthening of environmental protections that critics say have loosened since Bolsonaro came to power. Deforestation has risen dramatically on Bolsonaro’s watch. In July alone, an area half the size of Rhode Island was lost.

The threats from international governments could spook Brazil’s powerful commodities industries — if they fear profits are at stake — into demanding that Bolsonaro do more to safeguard the Amazon. But analysts warn that too much foreign pressure could backfire.

“Fear about foreign invasion of the Amazon has been a central pillar of Brazil’s identity forever,” said Brian Winter, vice president for policy at Americas Society/Council of the Americas. “I don’t think international pressure, no matter how loud it gets, has any chance of changing government policy.”

The fears were heightened this month when Foreign Policy magazine asked in a headline, “Who will invade Brazil to save the Amazon?” The headline was later changed, but it consumed attention here for days, and has since been used by supporters of Bolsonaro to raise suspicions of foreign intentions.

Now, as outsiders again question Brazil’s stewardship of the rainforest, Bolsonaro may feel emboldened.

“The Bolsonaro administration is trying to produce a rally-around-the-flag effect,” said Matias Spektor, an associate professor of international relations at Fundação Getúlio Vargas in Sao Paulo. “They are trying to denounce Macron and Merkel and the Norwegians and the international press and the NGOs as a coalition that is set on suspending Brazilian sovereignty over the Amazon and it’s our duty to fight back.”

He said how the international community demands action will, to a large degree, dictate how the Brazilians respond.

He added: “If the international community sounds interventionist, chances are that Bolsonaro will be more successful in rallying people around the flag.”

Jennifer Hassan in London contributed to this report.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed a 1989 quote to then-Sen. Al Gore. A spokesman for Gore says Gore never said “Contrary to what Brazilians think, the Amazon is not their property, it belongs to all of us,” and that he opposed the sentiment.