Let Brazilians Sort Out the Problems of the Amazon

Page of a supposed US history book saying Amazon is international territory

The destruction of the Amazon forest is a subject dear to the heart of the
foreign media and environmental organizations but of virtually no interest to
the majority of Brazilians. The foreigners seem to think that by causing a fuss
every time the statistics on the latest deforestation are published they will
save this vast area.

I believe they are wrong and should change their tactics or look around for another cause to adopt. The Amazon region is doomed and will end up as barren and bleak as my native Scottish Highlands where the original forest was chopped down centuries ago. Foreigners tend to see the Amazon problem the way George Bush saw Iraq i.e. a situation in which the good guys should take over from the bad guys and educate the locals over the errors of their ways.

A recent example of this approach appeared in “The Independent” newspaper of London under the naïve headline “There is a way to save the rainforests..” by a columnist called Johann Hari who claimed the solution lay in the developed countries setting up a fund “as ambitious as the Marshall Plan – to preserve the remaining rainforests, and thereby prevent drastic destabilisation of our climate.”

As I read the article I wondered why Mr Hari’s unconvincing views on the rainforest deserved so much space in The Independent. He was very vague about Brazil and trotted out decades-old clichés like an “area the size of Belgium..was destroyed in the past year alone” and unproven statements like “So when you eat a burger, chances are you are effectively eating part of the Amazon”.

I suspected that most of Mr. Hari’s conclusions came from the Internet rather than any personal knowledge of the situation on the ground so I sent him an e-mail and asked if he had been to Brazil and the Amazon region.

He was kind enough to reply and informed me that he had indeed been to Brazil but not to the Amazon and had interviewed “several leading experts on the region, who have spent decades there, and read the reports compiled by all the leading environmental organisations, whose work is first-hand.”

I wrote back and asked if these experts had been Brazilian and whether he had raised his suggestion of the developed countries creating a “fund” to preserve the rainforest with them. I also expressed my view that his idea was a non-starter. At the time of writing I have heard no more from him but would like to make a few points about his article and try and put it into context.

There is a kind of foreigner, generally well-meaning, who thinks he knows better than Brazilians what is good for them and their country. Remember 20 years ago when Sting was constantly preaching the importance of saving the rainforest? Well (most of) the rainforest is still standing and it is Sting who has disappeared. 

This may seem a bit unkind as Sting was probably serious at the time – although if you read his autobiography you will see he shows no real understanding of Brazil. Compare his hectoring approach with the hands-on attitude of Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page who is married to a Brazilian and set up an orphanage in Rio de Janeiro.

Even that decidedly non-Green rock star, Mick Jagger, has done more in practical terms for the Brazilian economy, thanks to the hefty alimony payments he makes to the mother of one of his children who lives in São Paulo.

If Mr. Hari knew Brazilians a bit better then he would know that they would be insulted by any attempt to set up a fund to preserve what they regard as an integral part of their territory. The idea of gringos giving them money with lots of conditions attached in a bid to save the Amazon would be anathema.

You only have to see how much a respectable organization like the International Monetary Fund is hated by a large section of society even though the IMF came to the rescue of the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso three times.

The Catholic Church aside, Brazilians do not take to foreign (and even domestic) NGOs which they suspect as having hidden agendas or being front operations for corrupt politicians and public employees.

Brazilians of all political colors are also extremely defensive about the Amazon. The fuss caused by the posting on the Internet some years ago of what was purported to be a textbook for US schoolchildren showing the Amazon region under the control of the United States and the United Nations highlighted this. Although this was an obvious hoax many people believed it was true and there is still a widespread belief that the Americans are intent on grabbing the Amazon region some day.  

One of the reasons for this hostility is Brazil’s unwillingness to be compared with Third World countries which rely on hand-outs from international aid organizations and NGOs. Brazilians see their country as a powerhouse, blessed with more natural resources than probably any other place on earth, not some banana republic or African basket case that needs a push from rich foreigners to get it moving. The constant (if not somewhat obsessive) desire for Brazil to have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council shows this is where Brazilians see their rightful position in the world.          

Even, if by some amazing twist, this fund was set up no Brazilian would have any faith in it. Nor would it halt the destruction of the rainforest. Why? Because it would be seen as just another opportunity for Brazil’s corrupt politicians to get their hands on the money and siphon it off.

The do-gooding nations which had subscribed to the fund would see their money disappear into air along with the smoke from the latest tract of the Amazon forest to be torched.

John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish writer and consultant with long experience of Brazil. He is based in São Paulo and runs his own company Celtic Comunicações. This article originally appeared on his site www.brazilpoliticalcomment.com.br. He can be contacted at jf@celt.com.br.

© John Fitzpatrick 2008


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