Why does Bolsonaro have a point about the Amazon rainforest?

In 2019, when criticised about clearing the Amazon rainforest, Brazilian President, Senhor Jair Bolsonaro declared that “The Amazon is ours. No country in the world has the moral right to talk about the Amazon. You destroyed your own ecosystems.” We have all watched with growing alarm as they burn the Amazon’s rainforests to clear the land for farming, timber or mining. But he does have a point! We cleared our forests many centuries ago to gain economic value from the land, why shouldn’t the Brazilians do the same? We look at some alternative approaches to finger-pointing and sanctioning to provide tropical countries with incentives to maintain and regenerate their rainforests.
How can we suggest this? Humour me for a moment while I drag you through a very quick history lesson. If you take an industrialised country such as the UK, the glaciers from the Ice Age receded around 7,000 years ago which allowed trees to make a comeback. Over the next 4,000 years they came to cover more than 90% of the land area where trees could grow. So, back then, the British landscape was pretty similar (if somewhat colder) to that of the Amazon. 
The arrival of the Beaker People some 3,000 years ago saw the start of the process of clearing the ‘wild wood’ to make way initially for farms and then settlements followed by villages followed by towns. This clearing process did not have a significant impact on the environment until the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century meant that the volume of carbon generated started to catch up and overtake the ability of the global flora and other carbon sinks to absorb it. 
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So President Bolsonaro is correct! The British Isles (apologies to Ireland for dragging them into this) have more than decimated their natural habitat and have flipped from being net carbon absorbers to being significant net carbon emitters.
However the lesson that we need to learn here is not one of history but of economics. Effectively all the Ancient Britons were seeking was economic value from the land where there was none before, which they achieved by converting it from woodland to farmland. Their descendants have continued the process and have made it ever more efficient. 
As an example today an average British farm will generate a net farm income per hectare of around £750 ($960). Shooting up the commercial scale a bit, the largest of supermarkets have around one hectare of selling space. That one hectare will generate about £4 million ($5.1 million) of profit a year.
So why shouldn’t the tropical countries extract the same economic value from their hectares as we have in the industrialised world? We are pushing the boundaries of hypocrisy by suggesting that countries such as Brazil should take one for the team (or the planet) by not monetising their forests just because we butchered our woodland in our pre-history.
In the meantime our economies continue to belch carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere while the belchers try to assuage growing concerns by presenting Corporate Social Responsibility programmes which barely tickle the edge of the problem. The name Canute springs to mind.
If you feel that the Brazilian President’s viewpoint is a touch extreme and that a more moderate voice would better influence you then look no further than Sr. Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, the ex-President of Peru. His party, Contigo, is comfortably closer to the political centre than Senhor Bolsonaro’s Alliance for Brazil party. 
Back in December 2015, at the time of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP 21) he wrote an article in The Guardian entitled: Climate talks: rich countries should pay to keep tropical forests standing.
He very much made the same point as his Brazilian counterpart while diplomatically circumnavigating the ‘You’re all a bunch of hypocrites’ implication to suggest some innovative approaches for compensating the tropical countries. He proposed that rainforests be treated like utilities and that industrialised nations should pay for their services.
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If we are serious in the industrialised world about taking meaningful action before we hurtle past the environmental tipping point we need to reach beyond the greenwash. Firstly we need to marginalise the ‘Contrarians’. These ‘Climate Change Deniers’ are individuals and groups that are funded by industries related to fossil fuels. They tend to cherry pick the science to claim that global warming reports are vastly overstated and even if the mercury is creeping upwards it is just down to global and solar cycles rather than human intervention.
We then need to break the piggy banks and provide a meaningful incentive for the tropical countries to protect their rainforests on behalf of us all. Why should they shoulder the burden when their GDPs per capita are fractions of those of the industrialised nations (e.g. USA’s around $65,000 while Brazil’s is around $9,000)?
So what constitutes a meaningful incentive? It is quite simple! If a landowner, which could be a farmer, an indigenous community or a government department, can achieve a comparable return per hectare of forest to that of a hectare of farmland, commercial forest or a mine they have a sound reason to leave the trees where they are.
How will the industrialised countries fund this meaningful incentive? Carbon taxes for both individuals (flights and petrol) as well as companies are an obvious and simple solution.  They could also use carbon credits to mitigate the level of tax paid (or generate tax rebates).
So what is stopping us? Firstly political will is always difficult to generate on any issue that extends beyond the term of a Parliament or a Presidency. While I will never advocate breaking the law you have to admit that the Extinction Rebellion did make a difference. It is basically down to each voter to let their MP or Senator know that their next vote is going to the party with the most credible environmental policies which transparently transcend greenwash.
Secondly there needs to be a mechanism for transferring money from the temperate to the tropical regions that bypasses bureaucracy. International projects and off-setting schemes only deliver on average 30% of the money donated to the intended recipients. In some cases, only 10% arrives because of bureaucracy, scams and corruption.
Technology and social media can play leading roles in fast-tracking these funds to the rainforests. The challenge will be maintaining integrity through transparency without heaping bureaucracy and cost into this part of the process as well. There is a big opening for a 21st Century solution.  
While the funds may take a direct route to the forest floor there is no reason why this process cannot support tropical governments’ environmental strategies allowing funds to be freed up for other initiatives.
As a final thought, such an innovative approach would very much develop President Kuczynski’s suggestions, not only paying the utilities bill for the carbon sequestration service but also protecting us from pandemics, preserving the biodiversity and the indigenous communities that make the rainforests their home.
Jim Jefcoate

Jim Jefcoate

having spent 30 years in the food supply chain i have become very aware of the need for environmental balance. for me the protection of the rainforests is the key to preserving that balance


  • This a great message Jim. Whilst the world, quite rightly, is fighting its own battle against Covid19 right now, we must ensure that this sort of debate doesn’t disappear. The likely outcome of the investigation into the outbreak is, partly at least, going to point to the dislocation of wildlife and habitats due to human intervention and destruction in the interests of financial gain. This is not a story, it is based on facts and we have to recognise globally that something has to change. Rather than needing a schoolgirl motivating thousands around the world, let’s hold our own adult leaders to account and make the grown-ups listen too.

  • I will always struggle to agree with Bolsonaro. However it is clear that we need to find a way to support the tropics.

  • Everything you say makes 100% sense but raises ‘huge’ global issues over which my brain immediately spins and enters into devils advocate mode, a thought process many see as negative but which for me has huge value in helping open up debate and the seeking of solutions! And while ‘sustainability’ has become a dirty word in some quarters it’s something that for me still resonates – not the 3 interlinking circles but the 3 concentric circles with the environment sitting round all, so my big question is where to from here!?

    • Lindsey, I love the idea of the 3 concentric circles. In fact, I would take it even further and say that they are not 2 dimensional circles but you are looking down on a 3 dimensional cone with the environment at the bottom supporting the social element which itself is supporting the economic element. I think we need to spread the debate as widely as we can and then use innovation to move us forward. For me carbon taxation is the given as it is the necessary stick to start the change in behaviours. But it will be innovation that will be the carrot that will really get the donkey trotting forward.

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