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Opinion Amazon fires: Brazil’s President is committing ecocide. We must stop him

Lloyd Axworthy is chair of the World Refugee Council and a former Canadian foreign minister. Allan Rock is president emeritus of the University of Ottawa and former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations.

The crisis in the Amazon rain forest holds at least two important lessons for humanity. First, decisions by one government about environmental management can have life and death consequences for people all over the world. And second, it is urgent that the international community find ways to influence rogue states whose irresponsible policies accelerate global warming and undermine the collective effort to address the existential threat posed by climate change.

Rain forests are a natural resource of unique value, not just for the countries in which they are found, but for the entire world. There is evidence that their destruction would have a devastating impact on global temperatures, weather patterns and agriculture.

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One of the world’s great rain forests is located in the Amazon basin. More than 60 per cent of that rain forest is found in Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro’s reckless and irresponsible environmental policies have put it at grave risk. Mr. Bolsonaro has called upon private interests to accelerate deforestation. Emboldened by his urgings, ranchers and loggers have put the torch to vast swaths of the Amazon, where fire outbreaks are up 80 per cent this year. Those fires create a double jeopardy: They release massive amounts of carbon dioxide and they leave a smaller forest to absorb less greenhouse gas.

At first, the fires were left to burn uncontrolled, as the Brazilian government refused to fight them. Faced with a storm of withering criticism, Mr. Bolsonaro finally reversed course and called in the army. Whether it actually tackles the raging blazes remains to be seen.

The outcry came from all over the world because the consequences of Mr. Bolsonaro’s folly will be felt in every global region. Scientists modelling weather patterns have demonstrated that without rain forests, agriculture would face drastic effects not only in the tropics but also in North America, Europe and Asia. Rainfall patterns would change, temperatures would rise and extreme weather events would become more common. Conditions in fragile states would worsen, putting lives at risk from conflict and famine. The number of climate refugees would soar, exerting even greater pressure on an already strained global capacity to manage the forcibly displaced.

(It is difficult to believe that 10 years ago there were serious discussions of Brazil acceding to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, given its (then) political clout and global influence. Mr. Bolsonaro’s appalling behaviour spells the end of that ambition.)

Given what is at stake with climate change, is it acceptable that a single government can unilaterally adopt environmental policies that put millions at risk? Mr. Bolsonaro has claimed the sovereign right to do as he pleases on Brazilian territory and has described as “colonial” all efforts to influence his behaviour.

But sovereignty is not absolute. UN member states have already unanimously decided, by adopting the Responsibility to Protect, that sovereignty must give way when a state is unable or unwilling to stop genocide or other mass atrocities within its own borders. The international community will, as a last resort, step across the “sovereign” border to prevent or stop such mass atrocities from happening – in the name of humanity.

Surely, the same logic applies in the circumstances created by the government of Brazil. Sovereignty is not an absolute value in and of itself. It should not shield a regime that puts lives at risk by deliberately hastening climate change, or whose refusal to act puts one of the planet’s critical environmental resources in jeopardy.

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Such governments should know that their intransigence will be met by a collective response. If a tyrant such as Mr. Bolsonaro deliberately burns a rain forest and refuses to reverse course, why not have multilateral green helmets sent across the Brazilian border to extinguish the fires that threaten us all? At the very least, steps must be taken to modify the recalcitrant state’s behaviour, such as an escalating series of denunciations, embargoes and sanctions.

The Group of Seven made a modest start this weekend by committing to assistance in fighting the fires. But Mr. Bolsonaro’s “ecocide” must be confronted more directly or else he will simply find other ways to achieve his purpose. Canada can lead that effort at the UN and elsewhere.

In the Amazon, more than just Brazil’s sovereign interest is at stake. Brazil is the trustee of a critical global asset. If the government of Brazil puts that asset at grave risk, thereby endangering the lives of others around the world, then the international community must act – in the name of humanity.

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