Amazon Fires Heat Up Political Crisis in Brazil

The fire reached the banks of the Madeira River, near Porto Velho, capital of the state of Rondônia, in northwestern Brazil, where there were 4,715 fires from January to Aug. 14 this year, according to monitoring by the Amazon Environmental Research Institute. Credit: Courtesy of biologist Daniely Felix

By Mario Osava
RIO DE JANEIRO, Aug 23 2019 – August is the month of major political crises in Brazil, but no one suspected that an environmental issue would be the trigger for the storms threatening the government of President Jair Bolsonaro, just eight months into his term.

Protests against the fires sweeping Brazil’s Amazon rainforest are spreading around the world, especially in Europe, and are beginning to be held in Brazil, where they are expected to rage over the weekend in at least 47 cities, according to the Climate Observatory, a coalition of environmental organisations.

“Bolsonaro Out!” is the cry heard in the streets of Barcelona, London, Paris and other European cities, and in Brazilian ones as well.

The increased use of fire to clear land for agriculture, since July, seems to be a reaction to the insistence with which the president and his Environment Minister Ricardo Salles have insulted the environmental movement and dismantled the system of environmental protection, reviving the appetite of landholders, especially cattle ranchers, for clearing land.

The international press has widely condemned the government’s anti-environmentalist attitudes, as have several world leaders, making Brazil the new climate change villain.

“The crisis became political because of the response by Bolsonaro, who, instead of announcing measures to address the problem, decided to politicise it,” Adriana Ramos, public policy advisor for the Social-Environmental Institute (ISA), told IPS.

The first reaction by the far-right president was to blame the forest fires on nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), such as ISA – precisely the ones that have worked the hardest to promote environmental policies and laws in this megadiverse country of 201 million people.

Brazil’s Amazon jungle covers 3.3 million square kilometres, accounting for 60 percent of the entire rainforest, which is shared by eight South American countries.

Map of fires in Mato Gosso, the Brazilian Amazon state most affected by fires, and the largest soybean producer. The highest concentration occurs in the center-north of the state, the area with the highest production of soybeans, corn and cotton. In the extreme northwest is Colniza, the municipality that registered the largest number of fires, and which illustrates the encroachment by agriculture in the rainforest: Courtesy of the Life Science Institute

Map of fires in Mato Gosso, the Brazilian Amazon state most affected by fires, and the largest soybean producer. The highest concentration occurs in the center-north of the state, the area with the highest production of soybeans, corn and cotton. In the extreme northwest is Colniza, the municipality that registered the largest number of fires, and which illustrates the encroachment by agriculture in the rainforest: Courtesy of the Life Science Institute

The stance he took was a clear indication that Bolsonaro does not intend to assume his responsibilities, but will look for culprits instead, as he has done on many issues, from economics to public safety, since he became president on Jan. 1.

“Bolsonaro does not need NGOs to smear Brazil’s image around the world,” says a communiqué protesting his remarks, signed by 183 Brazilian civil society organisations.

This is “an international crisis,” said French President Emmanuel Macron, who announced that he would address the issue at the Aug. 24-26 summit of the Group of Seven (G7) advanced economies in Biarritz, in southern France.

Both France and Ireland have made it clear that they will not ratify the free trade agreement between the European Union and the Southern Common Market (Mercosur – Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) if the Brazilian government continues to violate its environmental and climate commitments.

Comparative table on fires with respect to the same period in 2018, with a cumulative increase this year of 87 percent until Aug. 19 August and 205 percent between Jul. 15 and Aug. 19. Credit: Courtesy of the Life Science Institute

Comparative table on fires with respect to the same period in 2018, with a cumulative increase this year of 87 percent until Aug. 19 August and 205 percent between Jul. 15 and Aug. 19. Credit: Courtesy of the Life Science Institute

The exponential increase in the use of fire to clear land is a reflection of the expanding deforestation, according to the non-governmental Amazon Environmental Research Institute (Ipam).

This year, as of Aug. 14, the number of fires rose to 32,728, 60 percent more than the average for the past three years. Drought, a common factor in this destruction, does not explain the fires on this occasion, as the current dry season is less severe than in previous years.

In central-western Mato Grosso, Brazil’s largest soybean-producing state, there were 7,765 fires, compared to just over 4,500 in the previous two years, when there were strong droughts.

Colniza, the most affected municipality in Mato Grosso, is an example of the expansion of the agricultural frontier.

Vinicius Silgueiro, geotechnology coordinator at the local Life Centre Institute (ICV), told IPS that the fires were set both to “clean up” the area deforested in previous months and to “weaken” the primary forests for subsequent deforestation.

“A sensation of impunity and the dismantling of the institutions for environmental oversight and conservation provoked the resurgence of the slash-and-burn technique,” he said.

The cutting in half of the budget of the Prev-Fire, a system for preventing and fighting forest fires, was one of the factors, he said.

“In addition, the presidential discourse and his attacks” on the government agencies that monitor and combat deforestation “encouraged” the sectors that destroy forests illegally, he argued.

The effects are not limited to the Amazon jungle. Clouds of smoke darkened the skies over São Paulo on the afternoon of Aug. 19 and burn particles were identified in local rain, about 2,000 kilometres from the probable sources: Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia, or the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso in the southwest and Rondônia in the northwest.

São Paulo, a metropolis of more than 22 million people, has been suffering from this kind of air pollution for more than a decade, due to the burning of extensive sugarcane fields in nearby municipalities in the interior of the southeastern state.

The smoky air over Porto Velho, capital of Rondônia, an Amazonian state in the northwest of Brazil, on the border with Bolivia, where deforestation is also intense. Particulate air pollution from the fires is affecting health throughout the Amazon and even reached São Paulo, some 2,000 km southeast, on Aug. 19. Credit: Courtesy of biologist Daniely Felix

The smoky air over Porto Velho, capital of Rondônia, an Amazonian state in the northwest of Brazil, on the border with Bolivia, where deforestation is also intense. Particulate air pollution from the fires is affecting health throughout the Amazon and even reached São Paulo, some 2,000 km southeast, on Aug. 19. Credit: Courtesy of biologist Daniely Felix

But the ban on the use of fire in the harvesting of sugarcane and its mechanisation eliminated that factor of respiratory illnesses, which has now reemerged as a result of the fires in the distant rainforest.

Fires also occur in other ecosystems, especially the Cerrado, Brazil’s vast central savannah, where drought even causes spontaneous combustion of vegetation.

But the Amazon jungle is indispensable for feeding the rains in the areas of greatest agricultural production in south-central Brazil.

That’s why big agricultural exporters are now calling for government measures to curb deforestation. They fear trade sanctions by importers, especially in Europe, which at this stage seem unavoidable.

The agribusiness sector was an important base of support for Bolsonaro’s triumph in the October 2018 elections.

It has a strong parliamentary “ruralist” bloc and mainly consists of anachronistic segments seeking profits by expanding their property rather than boosting productivity, such as extensive cattle ranching, which is encroaching on the rainforest and indigenous lands, undermining environmental conservation.

The devastation of the Amazon “was foreseeable” since the electoral campaign, because of Bolsonaro’s discourse in favor of “predatory exploitation of forests and indigenous reserves,” said Juarez Pezzuti, a professor in the Nucleus of High Amazon Studies at the Federal University of Pará (UFPA).

“We, the researchers of the Participatory Biodiversity Monitoring programme, can no longer visit study areas” in the middle stretch of the Xingu River Basin, in the Eastern Amazon, “because it is not safe,” he told IPS from the northern state of Pará.

The “grileiros,” the people who invade public lands, destroy forests and threaten to attack local residents and researchers, he said.

This environmental crisis has political consequences.

Since January, Bolsonaro has lashed out at the widest range of sectors, upsetting large swathes of society, including students, scientists, lawyers, artists and activists of all kinds.

At any moment one of his outbursts could become the last straw. The environmental issue could seriously damage his popularity, which has been declining since the start of his term, as protecting the Amazon rainforest has the support of a majority of Brazilians as well as much of global society.

“Let’s wait and see what the taskforce created by the government can do to address the problem. We have to give it the benefit of the doubt for the sake of the greater collective interest” – the conservation of the rainforest, said ISA’s Ramos, from Brasilia.

As he saw his image threatened due to the fires in the Amazon, Bolsonaro decided to install a “crisis cabinet” of his ministers to discuss measures against the use of fire to clear land, which has upset people throughout Brazil and around the world this month.

G7 Leaders Urged to Promote Gender Empowerment

The G7 leaders in 2018.

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Aug 23 2019 – As leaders of the seven major industrialised nations (G7) meet in the coastal seatown of Biarritz in the south west of France, one of the world’s leading women’s organisations is calling for the protection and advancement of women worldwide.

Katja Iversen, President/CEO of Women Deliver, and a two-time member of both G7 Gender Equality Advisory Councils (GEAC), is delivering a strong, gender-inspired message to the leaders: “Firstly, ditch the gender discriminatory laws you have on your books. Secondly, push progressive ones.”

“Thirdly, invest specifically in implementation of progressive laws, and also invest in women’s and civil society organisations (CSOs) that work every day to drive progress. And lastly, monitor, measure and be ready to be held to your promises.”

The four recommendations  are in the Biarritz Partnership on Gender Equality.

The G7 countries, comprising Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the United States, plus the European Union (EU), are holding their 45th annual meeting in France, August 24-26.

Women currently comprise nearly 50 percent of the global population of 7.7 billion people while the G7 accounts for more than 58 percent of the world’s  net wealth..

Iversen,  whose organisation is described as a leading global advocate for the health, rights and wellbeing of girls and women, has also brought together diverse voices and interests to drive progress for gender equality, with a particular focus on maternal, sexual, and reproductive health and rights.

In an interview with IPS, Iversen said that within the four focus areas, Women Deliver has identified 79 examples of laws and policies that advance gender equality, drawn from different regions of the world.

While this list is not comprehensive, she said, the examples show that progress is possible and is, in fact, happening.

“We call on the G7 and other world leaders to take these as inspiration, and act before they meet again in 2020, both at the G7 but also at the global Generation Equality Summit to be held in Mexico and France respectively.”

In Canada, abortion is allowed by law without specifications on gestational limits, it is available to women of any age, and it is covered by insurance in hospitals.

Colombia has compulsory sex education with curriculum tailored to the students’ age. Paraguay provides contraception free of charge and without an age restriction.

In India, a 2005 law reforms the discriminatory inheritance practices and establishes equality in land inheritance between unmarried girls and unmarried boys.

And in Rwanda, beginning 2010, at least 30% of parliamentary candidates had to be women – and today more than 60% actually are.

Meanwhile, the Gender Equality Advisory Councils (GEAC) have called on G7 leaders to:

  • End gender-based violence;
  • Ensure equitable and quality education and health;
  • Promote economic empowerment;
  • Ensure full equality between women and men in public policies.

Katja Iversen, the President/CEO of Women Deliver.

Excerpts from the interview follow:

IPS:  Can you tell us what the Gender Equality Advisory Council is, and what role it plays at the G7?

IVERSEN: The G7 Gender Equality Advisory Council was created by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to promote gender equality as an issue that deserves the attention of the G7, along with economic development, trade, technology and everything else that heads of state work on. This was last year when Canada held the presidency of the G7.

I guess we did a pretty good job since French President Emmanuel Macron right away said that he was going to continue the idea under France’s presidency. He formed his own at the beginning of the year, and I and a couple of others were asked to continue.

Both independent Councils have brought together activists and advocates, Nobel prizewinners, UN, civil society and business leaders, and a diverse group of people with different perspectives and expertise to share—ranging from education, gender-based violence, women’s economic empowerment, women’s health, indigenous rights, youth engagement, technology, climate change, LGBTQI issues, and male engagement.

Trudeau, Macron and others know that leaders must invest in politically and economically in gender equality to create a healthier, wealthier, more productive and more peaceful world. Our role has been to show the G7 leaders what they need to do to drive progress.

What has been exciting and gratifying about these Councils is that it has really changed the conversation on gender equality. I mean, I talk about gender equality all the time, the members of the Council’s talk about it…but not everybody does. But more and more now do, and we see the discussions being much more prominent – and substantial – in governments, businesses, and in society at large.

IPS: You have served on the 2018 inaugural GEAC and now this one. Can you tell us about the experience of working with two different groups?

IVERSEN: I’m so proud of the work of both Councils and the fact that the various issues related to gender equality have been elevated to the global stage in such a big way.

Prime Minister Trudeau really went out on a limb. It seems a little crazy to say that advising G7 leaders on how to bring about gender equality was a radical idea in 2018. And yet it somewhat was.

We got a lot of leeway, so we didn’t just say – these are things that are good for women and these are things that are bad for women. We were able to show how to make gender inequality history, and make the case that gender is cross-cutting and countries must put a gender lens to their priority areas —the economy, the climate, technology, security, health, education, whatever. The prime minister insisted that we be truly independent, and that we were welcome to criticise Canada, where they were not doing well enough.

President Macron formed a bigger council to expand the work, but also to go deeper, and we have come up with specific recommendations to drive gender equality from a legal perspective. What this council is recommending is for governments to ditch discriminatory laws, push for progressive laws in their place, and put these priorities into the national budget.

IPS: How did you establish priorities for the GEAC and what was the process like?

IVERSEN: It has been fascinating. The work takes time and consensus can be hard won but the process is also invigorating, because we all learn from each other, and because the results are a lot more powerful.

That’s exactly what the G7 needed: ideas, energy, and consolidated advice from a wide range of experts with different lived experiences. And done in a kind and collaborative manner. Gender equality is not a war, it is an investment where everybody wins.

In the 2018 Council, we outlined many, if not all, of the cross-cutting issues that need a gender lens in a report to the G7. This year we focus on what kind of legislation we could recommend. We honed in on reforms in four areas: Ending gender-based violence; ensuring that health and education are high quality, inclusive, and equitable; promoting women’s economic empowerment; and ensuring full gender equality in policies and public life.  Investment in these areas would move the needle on gender equality.

IPS:  What has been the impact of GEAC in 2018 and what do you hope to achieve this year?

IVERSEN : Prime Minister Trudeau’s creation of an independent Gender Equality Advisory Council put the issues of gender equality on par with the other economic and social issues at the 2018 G7. And President Macron saw the impact that elevating gender equality had, and embraced the idea of establishing his own council.

Ideally, the G7 will remain a platform to promote gender equality and all the economic, political, and social benefits that result from it. But we want all governments to join this work. Not just because it’s the right thing to do but because doing so is better for countries politically, economically, and socially.

IPS: Are commitments enough? How do you hold governments accountable for their commitments made at G7 to ensure tangible, sustainable outcomes?

IVERSEN: Words matter. But some words matter a little more in this context and those are the ones that are written into legislation. Promises are important but they are not enough and we know that. 

We need action. But experience tells us we also need accountability. Monitoring and evaluation mechanisms show what is working and whether promises are kept. It gives governments opportunity to learn and adjust – and it gives civil society advocates arguments and information to hold governments accountable to their promises. 

That is exactly why Women Deliver, UN Women, and OECD together with the Council have created a relatively simple – and affordable – accountability framework to accompany the Biarritz Package. Therefore, we’ve strongly encouraged France take the accountability framework and invest in it. 

IPS:  You mentioned civil society organisations. Can you tell us a bit more on what role civil society organisations can play?

IVERSEN: It is a good question and I will answer it – but then let’s also save some time and take a look to the future.

Civil society plays a crucial role when we talk about gender equality and about instituting legal and profound change. There are women-led organisations that focus on local issues and there are global NGOs that tackle a broad set of problems all over the world. And there’s everything in-between.

Let’s look to Ireland where women-focused organisations led the year-long campaign that finally legalised abortion. Let’s look to Uganda where civil society, not least youth advocates were instrumental in preventing the government from banning sexuality education. Let’s look to the MeToo, Time’s Up and Ni Una Mas movement in South America that is changing perceptions of women and apathy about gender-based violence. That is real fundamental change.

Big change comes when the different sectors band together – when government, private sector, the judiciary, civil society, and even the private sector finds common ground and push together. That is the point we are getting to regarding gender equality and that is why this G7 Summit is important and why the next year will be instrumental.

In addition, programs intended to serve young people are often designed without meaningful youth engagement, and so impact falls short. The ideas and experience of young people must be included in the design and implementation of all policies and programs designed to serve them.

2020 marks the beginning of the UN’s Decade of Progress on the SDGs. It is also the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action on gender equality. It’s hard to remember now but that was revolutionary and we are looking for another big push on this road to gender equality – whether in relation to women in leadership and the economy, health, or education. There are big plans for activities in 2020 and Women Deliver is part of that.

The call for a more gender equal world is echoing throughout the world. And the notion that a gender equal world is a healthier, wealthier, more peaceful and a BETTER world is gaining traction. The genie is out of the bottle, and we are not going backwards.