By Rhett A. Butler

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro likes to assert that foreigners deserve no say over the fate of the Amazon because it is a national sovereignty issue. His logic: Brazilian Amazon is Brazil’s sovereign territory and therefore it has the right to do what it wants with it, whether that be clearing it for cattle pasture and soy fields or making the decision to conserve it.

In making the argument, Bolsonaro at times lays out a grand conspiracy under which a body like the U.N. tries to “internationalize” the Amazon, claiming it as the domain of the world. This conspiracy theory is not new — it was a common refrain under Brazil’s military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985 and is still frequently used by opponents of Amazon conservation efforts.

With worldwide attention now on the fires burning in the Brazilian Amazon, Bolsonaro is again using this rhetoric. For example, today he cited Brazil’s sovereignty (as well as perceived “insults” from French President Emmanuel Macron after Bolsonaro slighted Macron’s wife) as the reason for rejecting a US$20 million G7 contribution toward firefighting efforts.


Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images

A protester holds a sign that reads "Burn fascists, not forests" during a demonstration demanding something be done about the fires that have been breaking out at an unusual pace in Brazil this year, causing global alarm over deforestation in the Amazon region, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on August 23, 2019.

As fires rage, some on social media are raising the idea of the Amazon being the domain of the world. But this discussion plays directly into Bolsonaro’s narrative, strengthening his hand.

This strategy is the wrong approach for those concerned about the future of the Amazon. Instead, concerned people of the world should talk about how a healthy and productive Amazon actually underpins Brazil’s sovereignty by strengthening food, water, and energy security, while supporting good relations with its neighbors.

This argument is straightforward and grounded in good science — science by Brazilian scientists.

Water Security

Through the process of transpiration, the trees of the Amazon are responsible for generating much of the ecosystem’s rainfall. As a whole, the Amazon rainforest acts as a “water pump” that delivers precipitation across much of South America by creating a cycle that pulls moisture from soils and off the tropical Atlantic and delivers it far inland, beyond the borders of the Amazon.

Antonio Donato Nobre, a Brazilian scientist who is famed for talks about the “flying rivers” above the Amazon, says the Amazon keeps southern South America much greener than areas at similar latitudes on other continents and also diminishes hurricane activity along the Brazilian coast. Disrupting this function could be catastrophic for water security in Brazil and beyond.

Scientists warn that scarcity of water supplies is a real possibility if the combination of rising temperatures and deforestation push the rainforest ecosystem toward a tipping point where it shifts toward a drier, less-forested landscape similar to the adjacent Cerrado, a woody savanna that covers more than 20 percent of Brazil. Such a transition could even shift the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), which circulates moisture around the world near the equator, exacerbating droughts from the Southern Amazon down to Argentina.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

Residents are pictured while a fire burns a tract of Amazon jungle as it is cleared by loggers and farmers near Porto Velho, Brazil on August 27, 2019.

Food Security

The vast majority of agriculture in Brazil — and South America as a whole — is produced in areas that receive direct rainfall or runoff from the Amazon. South America’s agricultural heartland across Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina is especially dependent on the Amazon. Should the Amazon tip toward a drier savanna-like ecosystem, South America’s agricultural powerhouses would be challenged to identify other viable sources of water.

Energy Security

More than 70 percent of Brazil’s electricity comes from hydropower. Any extended disruption of rainfall potentially affects the country’s grid with knock-on effects for rural and city dwellers alike. Replacement with other renewables or fossil fuels is a long-term investment.

National Security and Diplomatic Relations With Neighboring Countries

Brazil’s neighbors benefit from the services afforded by a healthy and productive Amazon. If degradation of the Amazon reaches the point where it starts to affect water availability, drive smoke and haze over population centers, or trigger outflows of refugees, it could become a source of friction between Brazil and its neighbors.


Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images

Fire consumes the Amazon rainforest in Altamira, Brazil on August 27, 2019.

In summary, disrupting the ecological function of the Amazon risks disrupting the economic foundation of Brazil. In other words, a healthy and productive Amazon is necessary for a healthy and productive Brazilian economy.

When Bolsonaro rallies his base by talking about opening up the Amazon to deforestation, he’s taking a very short-term approach. Farmers and ranchers will be among the biggest losers in the long-run if the Amazon rainforest tips toward something drier.

Instead of talking about internationalizing the Amazon, critics of Bolsonaro and his policies would be wise to look for opportunities to find common ground with his supporters. The economic well-being of Brazil seems like a good place to start.

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The News Lens has been authorized to publish this article from Mongabay, an environmental science and conservation news and information site.

TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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