New Rule: Let’s Not Invade the Amazon

New Rule: Let’s Not Invade the Amazon

Last Monday, Prof. Stephen Walt published a controversial article on his Foreign Policy blog. The title (which he did not choose and has since been changed) was regrettable: “Who Will Invade Brazil to Save the Amazon?” Written as part of the fallout from Brazil’s new (and terrible) deforestation policy, the post asks what exactly should the international community do to prevent states like Brazil from causing irreversible damage to the environment. Walt, in traditional Realist fashion, answers bluntly: “Brazil isn’t a true great power, and threatening it with either economic sanctions or even use of force if it refused to protect the rainforest might be feasible”. While he does not personally recommend this approach, he does conclude that the chances of this happening are “increasing”.

The article has generated a lot of conversation within the Latin American international law community, and especially, of course, in Brazil. The ensuing discussion raised concerns not just on the merits of the article itself (why does the question of expansive criteria for the use of force arise only in cases involving developing nations and what does this say of international law?) but also on the negative impact that the post will have, given Brazil’s political context and history, and what, if any, precautions do experts and academics need to take when writing their articles on this topic. I may tackle the first question in a future post. For now, though, I would like to focus on the second.

You see, judging by Professor Walt’s subsequent comments, he seems to be unaware of a long history of nationalist narratives in Brazil and other Amazonian countries dating as far back as the 1940s – exactly the kind of crowd that current Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro needs to excite to implement his policies. On a tweet the day after publication addressing the barrage of aggressive replies he received from ultra-nationalist Brazilians, he expressed his hope that “patriotic Brazilians upset by [his] FP piece will read it carefully” and note that he was not recommending use of force nor absolving other top polluters.

This, however, is not the controversy that I – as an environmentally conscious Latin American – would have liked him to address. His article is part of a growing number of studies on how the international community can address the challenges of a global Climate Emergency and how force will increasingly be a topic of conversation to this regard. While well-intentioned by themselves, these studies need to be better aware of the historical background they intend to operate in. The Global South, and Latin America in particular, is incredibly sensitive to Northern paternalism/imperialism, and narratives (even well-intentioned ones) that stoke nationalistic fears may actually contribute to the destruction of the environment, not help save it. This is something that Global North experts need to be aware of if they want to be a positive force for change.  

The most pressing issue is thus not the sensitivities of ultra-nationalist Brazilians (after all, most of them would also support the destruction of the Amazon!), but rather the fact that, by being unaware of local contexts, these studies may end up being used to strengthen Bolsonaro’s deforestation policy by stoking old nationalist fires long held at bay by the success of international cooperation and multilateralism. Framing the issue of environmentalism in the language of force (and its inevitability), while perhaps an interesting thought-experiment, will have very real consequences in Brazil’s almost unimaginably polarized society. Brazil’s national discourse has been plagued by otherwise baseless fears that “the Internationalists are coming” to the Amazon since the 1940s. Turning climate change into a sovereignty issue will only damage an already embattled environmentalist movement.

Take, for example, the writings of Arthur Cezar Ferreira Reis, an influential scholar in Brazilian geo-politics and author of the 1970s book “The Amazon and International Greed”. For him, the Amazon’s vast unused land was the perfect place to solve the Global North’s overpopulation, water scarcity and natural resources problems. “The so-called imperialism of strong nations is not an invention of literature” – he says – “it exists, and it did not exhaust its cycle of vitality. It cannot be nor must it be underestimated. Worse, though, is the tendency to internationalize vast swathes of the world, that now is seen as a necessary operation to protect those that do not have where to live or that protest against the hunger that torments them”. For him, then, clear political motivations lie behind any humanitarian concern for the Amazon.

“Now” – he continues – “the great truth is that foreign interest in the Amazon is not reduced to a desire to understand it as an exotic space or as production grounds for any raw material that may complement those that the Orient or Africa export. It is a much livelier interest, that hides other purposes, political purposes, that must be given due consideration, because they spell danger and demand a policy capable of preventing it from generating a new very bitter reality for Brazil”.   

This nationalistic narrative has been expressed in many different ways throughout the ages. From Getulio Vargas’ March to the West policy of the 1940s, promoting domestic immigration to non-coastal lands, to the Military Dictatorship’s slogan of “Integrar para Não Entregar” (Integrate to avoid Conceding) in the 60s, promoting massive infrastructure projects in the Amazon.

Such a deep-rooted concept of “international greed”, coupled with the appearance of the internet, has created a very rich field of ultra-nationalist conspiracy theories surrounding the Amazon. The most popular one is that of FINRAF, roaming Internet forums since the early 2000s. According to it, US geography textbooks are teaching students (in very poor English, but never mind that!) that the Former International Reserve of the Amazon Forest (FINRAF) has passed to the full control of the United States and the United Nations. According to a clearly forged photocopy of the book, this happened “due to the fact that the Amazon is located in South America, one of the poorest regions on earth (sic) and surrounded by irresponsable, cruel and authoritary (sic) countries” that were “strange”, “kingdoms of violence, drug trade, illiteracy and a (sic) unintelligent primitive people”. While absurd and evidently fake, the conspiracy theory pops up every so often in Facebook groups and WhatsApp chat rooms, stoking nationalistic fears.

It is because of this background that foreign analysts need to be cautious when describing possible solutions to the Climate Emergency. A paternalistic and neo-colonial logic of “this is not just yours, it’s also ours” will likely trigger an aggressive response. After all, as one Brazilian farmer told Sky News: “What have other countries done? Germany, England and so on? They deforested everything, they planted and got rich”. This is selfish and misguided considering the state of the Earth’s environmental health, but not historically incorrect. The international community needs to find a better way – a peaceful way – to solve the Climate Emergency, without falling into the same familiar neo-colonial tropes implying that developing nations cannot be trusted with their own riches and that developed states need to intervene to prevent disaster (a very common and present narrative in archaeology debates, for instance).   

Solving the Climate Emergency is probably one of the most difficult challenges that lies ahead of humanity as a whole. The last thing we need is to give the Bolsonaros of this world the option of saying this is not a question of environmental sustainability, but a question of territorial integrity and sovereignty – the realization of Ferrerira Reis’ nightmarish scenario, fifty years after it was initially foreseen. To address this challenge, we need all hands on deck and a few ground-rules. That the solution needs to be a peaceful one should be one of them. That we should be mindful of our local impact, should be another.

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Environmental Law, Latin & South America, Use of Force
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