Let it Burn: State Sovereignty in the Age of Climate Crisis

Law & Theory Sep 27, 2019

By Elizabeth Murphy

"You have to understand, the Amazon is Brazil’s, not yours”

- President Jair Bolsonaro

Climate change represents a civilizational threat, and efforts to intervene around the world inherently conflict with the dominant norms that govern the international system–namely unfettered state sovereignty and the rigidity of territorial borders. A state with full autonomy over its resources may misuse or destroy them, even to the detriment of the planet as a whole. As climate change leads to resource conflict, extreme natural disasters, and migratory displacement, states must collectively question whether or not land and resources should be solely controlled by the state within which they are found. Otherwise, they should be preserved and monitored by an equitable and just iteration of international law.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro’s government has unfettered control of a massive portion of the Amazon, the world’s largest remaining rainforest. As a right-wing populist focused on economic growth (albeit concentrated into the hands of a few), Bolsonaro accelerated the destruction of the forest’s resources and sold land for profit, attracting international backlash. The norm of state sovereignty –a relatively modern phenomenon stemming from the 1648 Peace of Westphalia– allows him to have control over the area, even as his policies threaten the future of the biodiversity held within the Amazon as well as the lives of those who inhabit it. Even as his decisions affect the entire planet.

This summer, the Amazon experienced the highest levels of deforestation ever recorded in such a time-span, with 1,115 sq km of forest cut down in August alone. Meanwhile, forest fires have also caused a great deal of destruction, and while this is not included in the deforestation measurement, it is a direct consequence of deforestation practices. In the month of July, 2,254 sq km of forest was cleared by fires. This is the result of dry forest conditions due to both farm land and tree clearing which renders forests more susceptible to fires.

Anti-deforestation movements face setbacks despite half the forest land being ostensibly protected by the government, as half of that is either private property or “occupied public land.” These lands are protected by an ineffectual law called the Forest Code which regulates how much deforestation can happen on each property annually, however the profits from using cleared land for agriculture often outweigh the costs of breaking these laws. Forest Code laws dating back to the 1960s require that 80% of one’s property must be forest, but this is seldom enforced, and even less so in recent times. Since he came to power in January, President Jair Bolsonaro has compromised the integrity of Brazil’s long-term anti-deforestation efforts. His platform supports the exploitation of forest land for agriculture, including soy production and cattle raising, as well as mining.

The effects of deforestation disproportionately affect Indigenous communities of Brazil, with a population of about 800,000 people who mostly live in Amazon areas. These forests are ancestral lands to many Indigenous communities, and the promotion of land exploitation would not only displace them, but also destroy their land’s community practices, traditions, and future use. Furthermore, the illegal invasion of these territories has brought violence against Indigenous communities. In July miners invaded Wajãpi Indigenous territory and brutally murdered their chief Emrya Wajãpi in efforts to gain control of land for gold mining.

In January, Bolsonaro placed control over Indigenous occupied land under the ministry of agriculture rather than an Indigenous agency. This compromises some of the best protected land, as the ministry of agriculture is greatly influenced by lobbying. Bolsonaro hopes that in the future, Indigenous reserves can be used for industrial farming and mining and that bringing modern industry to the forest will “modernize” Indigenous communities who he sees as trapped in their traditional practices, mirroring past colonial attitudes that painted ‘the other’ as barbaric or uncivilized.

The past months have dealt further blows to environmental efforts. Bolsonaro’s appointed environmental minister Ricardo Salles, who has been convicted of environmental fraud, announced in June that he is pushing to privatize the forest monitoring system. This would compromise Brazilian civil society, as locals would lose their say in environmental protection. In July, Bolsonaro fired the head of the National Institute for Space Research, an avid environmentalist, claiming the data he collected on deforestation was falsified.

Globally, deforestation would not only lead to the loss of huge numbers of plant and animal species, but also displace many of the 34 million inhabitants who rely on Amazonian resources. Since 2018, the United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees has recognized climate change and environmental degradation as a cause for refugee displacement. However, the UNHCR has found historically that environmental disaster begets migration across borders, making deforestation both an environmental and international refugee crisis.

As Bolsonaro continues to privatize industry and land without the popular consent of his people, it is a global responsibility to advocate for the protection of the Amazon alongside grassroots organizations and local communities affected directly by the disaster. The Bolsonaro government must be held accountable for his detrimentally extractive policies. Such policies not only threaten the largest rainforest in the world, but they rely on racist tropes and are driven by the false narrative of a civilizational mission, intrinsically linked to the colonial project. In an interview, Bolsonaro stated that by protecting Indigenous territories from industry, we are depriving them of resources. The crisis spans beyond the bounds of Brazil and must be attended to at an international scale.

International backlash and global “naming and shaming” against deforestation has little traction in Brazil, as Bolsonaro declares indignantly: “You have to understand, the Amazon is Brazil’s, not yours” in response to calls for environmental protection. There is a tension between state sovereignty and international intervention, the former of which is predominant in the current international system, and the latter of which is desperately needed. Such intervention would presumably be spearheaded by local grassroots organizations, NGO’s, the United Nations, and other states in the international system. Recently, clashes between French President Emmanuel Macron and Bolsonaro have played out over the internet as France’s intentions to protect the Amazon were met with petty posts on social media from Bolsonaro, even bashing the physical appearance of Macron’s wife. Macron proposed an aid package for Brazil at the Group of Seven summit in Biarritz in late August. Bolsonaro accused Macron’s efforts to combat forest fires in Brazil as neo-colonial and stated “respect for the sovereignty of any country is the least that can be expected in a civilized world.”

A future corrupted by the climate crisis will have to contend with an international system whose hegemonic norms include state sovereignty. Today’s prioritizing of economic growth over our climate will have lasting existential effects. A government willing to exploit natural resources and displace millions –particularly Indigenous communities– should not have uncontested jurisdiction over such biodiverse areas. Climate change is not confined within borders and the actions of profit-driven governments have a global effect, threatening the fate of all nations, thus providing jurisdiction to the entire international community. That community must come together, update international laws that protect our planet, and care for those rendered stateless by environmental disasters. Most importantly, however, the international system has to be reconfigured so that these international laws can be duly enforced; something that will invariably require a normative shift away from a reverence for unfettered state sovereignty.


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