President Macron’s proposal for the Amazon: Analyzing the Brazilian Government’s response
Bruno Maciel Santos
The ideas and opinions expressed here are the author’s only, and do not necessarily reflects Synopsis’s views or those of any other person or institution.
Recently, the Amazon drew the attention of the world media after French President Emmanuel Macron brought back to the international political debate the issue of the internationalization of the region in the G7 meeting happening in his country. In order to justify his proposal, Macron stated that “our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rain forest – the lungs which produces 20% of our planet’s oxygen – is on fire. It is an international crisis.”. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also demonstrated his worries about the deforestation of the Amazon and said that the organization is ready to hold an event to discuss the subject during the next session of the General Assembly. The trigger was the public data produced by the National Institute of Space Research (Inpe) showing significant growth in deforestation in the Amazon rain forest from 2018 to 2019 (for July it was 278% and in August it was 222%). Alarming as it might seem, it is necessary to understand the internationalization debate and the French proposal from a wider perspective relating it to the historical developments of the subject and the recent political context.
The Amazon region has an extension of 5.5 millions of square kilometers of forest and is shared by nine countries: Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, France (French Guyana), Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela. Approximately 60% of this area is Brazilian lands, with the Amazon biome accounting for 49% (approx.) of the country’s territory. In this sense, any proposal of internationalization of the Amazon region would considerably and directly affect Brazilian interests. The government’s posture regarding the French proposal is one of confrontation, treating the deforestation issue as a domestic matter and picturing any discussion about the attribution of international status for the region as a direct threat to its sovereignty, claiming also that the country lacks the resources to fight forest fires in the Amazon.
To show the seriousness with which the issue is being treated, President Bolsonaro ordered a Law and Order Guarantee Mission (GLO) to the region, sending more than 43,000 troops from the three services to fight the fires in the region — a move that can also be understood as signaling willingness to defend its territory —, in spite of the general reluctance of the Armed Forces at GLO missions. This move was supported by the high ranks of the military, which openly came to criticize the French President statements, reviving the long-lived fear of a foreign threat to Brazil’s jurisdiction over its Amazonian territory. This fear must be taken into account in order to understand Brazilian reactions when it comes to the Amazon. This sense of threat is quite widespread within the military, but it is shared by many citizens and politicians, particularly some from the Amazon itself, and from different strands of the political spectrum.
The lingering fear of a foreign threat to Brazil’s jurisdiction over its Amazonian territory
And long-lived it is. Internationalization of the Amazon is a recurrent theme since XIX Century, in the early days of Brazil’s independence. This debate can be divided in three categories : territorial disputes in the formation of the countries in the region; socioeconomic development projects for the region; and supposed economic and politico-military strategies allegedly masked by scientific expeditions to explore the regions resources. As an example of the first category there are the territorial disputes involving the French, the British, the Dutch, the Portuguese and the Spanish in the colonial period before the independence of the South American countries.
As for the second category, there is the case of the freedom of navigation in the Amazon River. For fear of losing its sovereignty in the region, the Brazilian government restricted the navigation in the Amazon river. In 1826, with support of the Brazilian minister in Washington, Silvestre Rebello, a steam ship of the Amazon Steam Navigation Company sailed to Belém where it unloaded its cargo with intention to proceed inwards through the river. Even though the company had the support of Rebello, the ship was barred from its intended course, generating a long debate about the freedom of navigation in the Amazon River. With the increase of the international pressures for the opening of the navigation in the river, in the 1850’s the Brazilian government signed a contract with the soon to be Baron of Mauá to introduce the steam navigation in the Amazon River with only national capitals, to foster the economy and development of the region. But the US pressures lingered on, joined by France and Britain, who had border issues in the region with the Imperial Government of Brazil, and by Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nova Granada, whose exports needed passage through the Amazon River to get to the Atlantic. This would result in the liberation of the navigation in the region in 1867 for fear of external aggression; in the words of the Brazilian minister in Washington at the time, “it would be more prudent to open the Amazon’s door than to see it broken”.
For the last category of episodes that contribute to the national perception that the Amazon region is object of international greed we could include the proposal originally presented by the Brazilian ambassador Paulo Carneiro at the first UNESCO conference in 1946 for the creation of the International Institute of the Amazon Hilea. The institute would ‘promote, conduct, coordinate, and publish studies’ about the Amazon and ‘prepare and accelerate the progress of the region and its peoples, for the well being of the whole humanity’. All the Amazon countries were present at the meeting that would create the institute, including the European countries who had possessions in the region: Britain, France and Netherlands. Notwithstanding, the Brazilian parliament rejected the proposal, under the leadership of former president Arthur Bernardes, for fear that it would lead to a loss of sovereignty and to a greater dominance in the region by the international great powers.
President Macron’s proposal could be framed as a case of the latter category, using data and arguments about the environmental problems in the region and the lack of effective Brazilian policies to deal with them to justify the discussion of an international status for the Amazon Forest. His proposal was made with a focus on Brazil, but fires are happening in other Amazon countries as well, and with some specific features that only make it more alarming and pressing to many in Brazil. With over 70% of Bolivia’s Santa Cruz Department under risk due to the low humidity of the vegetation and almost twice the number of burning focuses in relation to the historical average, the Bolivian government asked for international help to cope with the fires in the country, and many countries have obliged, including Argentina and Chile, but also others from outside the continent, such as Canada, the European Union, and Russia. Even if meant to be temporary and circumstantial, this increased foreign presence near the borders of Brazil by countries not only from outside the Amazon, but also from Europe and North America — even with the acquiescence of the Bolivian government —, is sure to raise the overall level of anxiety among the more nationalist ranks of Brazil’s society and politics. The recent turn of events in Bolivia, in which there was no one to succeed former President Evo Morales after the latter’s resignation, will not be perceived as reassuring; many are now probably wondering what some developments might be if a government becomes headless while hosting a significant foreign presence in what is perceived as an area “coveted by foreign powers”.
It’s also under the light of the “international greed over the Amazon” that significant portions of the military and of Amazon politicians take aim at some aspects of Brazil’s indigenist policies. The combination of the typical Amazon ecosystem and local peoples’ cultures (adapted to the Amazon ecosystem) require very large areas for the Indian communities. When they become established as reservations, the non-Indian populations of the region are constrained from economic activity within them; and, in some cases — the most famous of which is the Yanomami area —, reservations are located in the frontier between different countries (the Yanomami area of Brazil is contiguous with the Yanomami area in Venezuela), which is cause of great concern among the military. Therefore, the demarcation of large reservations is cause of a lot of strain between Amazon politicians and significant groups in the military vs. the federal agencies related to the indigenist policy. It also makes NGO’s and religious missions — Catholic and otherwise — involved with the Indian populations to be viewed with suspicion before Amazon politicians and parts of the Armed Forces — and even more so when those NGO’s and religious missions are from abroad (mostly from European, Japanese and North-American countries), or have significant international links, and advocate the preservation of the Amazon forest and the self-determination and preservation of the indigenous peoples and cultural way of lives; they are thought to be “spearheads” of a future initiative to “internationalize” the Amazon, and a threat to Brazil’s sovereignty and territorial integrity; or, by supposedly blocking Brazil’s access to natural resources in large areas, as a plot to keep Brazil underdeveloped and preempt its rise as a major player in the international arena. Though it may seem too far-fetched, extreme or irrational to many observers, practitioners, or activists, these notions have a significant audience in Brazil. Either believing it or playing to those feelings, President Bolsonaro also denounced NGOs in the Amazon, which “represent foreign interests”, raising the suspicion that the fires in the region were, in fact, provoked by them to draw attention against the government. The escalation between the government and indigenist NGOs increased, with many Indian leaders and NGO members promoting an international boycott campaign against Brazilian products. At the same time, some of those leaders received international recognition and awards for their work, e.g., Chief Raoni.
One of the most prominent pro-Indian organizations is the Indigenist Missionary Council (Conselho Indigenista Missionário — CIMI), which is part of the National Conference of the Bishops of Brazil (Conferência Nacional dos Bispos do Brasil — CNBB), the association of Catholic bishops in Brazil. CIMI is very vocal when it comes to violence against Indians and Indian communities, and is very active in advocating policies, including the demarcation of Indian lands. Therefore, some issues have developed between those groups more intensely concerned with the “international greed over the Amazon” and the Catholic church. Therefore, even the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, called for by Pope Francis back in 2017, but coincidentally took place in the wake of the controversy brought by President Macron’s statement, came to be at least partially interpreted under the light of the “internationalization of the Amazon”. Since it was announced, with the subject “Amazonia: new paths for the Church and for an integral ecology”, it raised many concerns in the military and intelligence community in Brazil, but those worries increased when the preparatory document (Instrumentum laboris) was published, in June 2019. The document draws attention to the situation of the forest and its Indian peoples, the importance of its preservation for the maintenance of the global climate and for the life on the planet itself. Another controversial issue is the denouncement of the violation of human rights in the region related to self-determination, territoriality, and previous consent and consultation of the indigenous communities. Another report called Violence Against Brazilian Indian Peoples, published by CIMI in 2018, along with preliminary data for the first nine months of 2019, shows that the number of Indian land invasions increased significantly under Bolsonaro’s government. Of course, their concern would be that those practices might help build a case for some form of international or multilateral intervention in the region; even worse, some would fear that, if it actually came to be, such intervention, or even the Indian areas in the region, might be turned into “political bridgeheads” in the region, with the independence of some areas grounded on Indian nation’s self-determination. Therefore, due to long-standing concerns (no matter if imaginary or real) over the internationalization of the Amazon, even legitimate concerns and well-meaning policy proposals tend to be understood in some political circles under a very bad perspective.
Brazilian Government’s response: an exercise in brinkmanship?
In his opening at the 2019 Session of the UN General Assembly, President Bolsonaro insisted on the subject of Brazil’s sovereignty over the Amazon, stating that “our Amazon is bigger than the whole Western Europe and remains barely untouched”. In the same line of reasoning, he argued that “it’s a fallacy to say that the Amazon is humankind’s heritage” and that some countries have behaved in a disrespectful and colonialist way, questioning Brazilian sovereignty. President Bolsonaro also stated that Brazil already has 16% of its territory as Indian land officially demarcated and he will not raise this number. In his view, the Indian communities are being used by foreign States that want to prevent Brazil from exploiting the abundant, strategic resources of the region. Another move was the remark that the Indian peoples are not united under one leader but are many and each one of the ethnic groups have its own leader, and so downplaying the role of some well-known figures as Chief Raoni, and presenting other leadership in the figure of Ysany Kalapalo, probably as an attempt to weaken claims related to the protection of Indian peoples. To sum it up, in his own view, President Bolsonaro would be denouncing what he sees as an instrumental use of environmental and indigenist causes by foreign countries (supported by NGOs and some national leaderships) to prevent Brazil from exploiting the region in its full potential, threatening the country’s sovereignty.
All this took place following the conclusion of a historical commercial agreement between Mercosur and European Union, after 20 years of negotiations. During the last G20 meeting in Japan, with the ongoing negotiations of the deal, the French President conditioned the conclusion of the negotiations to a Brazilian assurance that the country would stay and honor the Paris Climate Agreement. But even with the Brazilian government’s assertion that the country would do so, European environmentalists protested the commercial deal between the two blocks. In the same vein, news of the conclusion of the negotiations were greeted with protests from European farmers, specially in France. On the other hand, South-American industry and farmers were very optimistic with the future prospects for their sectors.
Naturally, such a comprehensive deal, embracing many different economic sectors and trade-related areas among so many countries, would necessarily face some opposition from domestic and transnational interests groups. In this case, European farmers and environmentalists turned out to be among the fiercest critics of the deal — which, in a sense, might be interpreted by President Bolsonaro and the more nationalist groups within Brazil as confirming their own views about the convergence of positions of environmentalists, powerful economic sectors within Europe, and their governments. Farmers would be worried with competition from South American agricultural products entering the European market — especially Brazilian and Argentinian products, which are cheaper and therefore might negatively impact the European producers. Environmentalists would be worried with the Brazilian government’s attitude toward the environmental protection of the Amazon rainforest and with its compliance with the international regime to mitigate climate change. With this in mind, let us now analyze both pleas, starting with the environmentalists’.
On the one hand, the idea that the Amazon is the “World’s Lungs” has been categorically rebuked by scientists, and it has been shown that, in fact, most part of the oxygen in the atmosphere comes from the oceans’ phytoplankton. Amazon’s importance for the environment is more related to global warming, acting as a cooler system. But be that as it may, the countries that contribute the most for global warming are the highly industrialized ones, which, in the Brazilian government’s view, achieved that level of industrialization and development at the expense of the same environment that they now want to protect, with the less developed countries bearing the costs. This argument can be traced back since the UN Stockholm Conference on the Environment in 1972, when Brazil participated defending its national sovereignty and advocated that the economic and population growth of the developing countries shouldn’t be sacrificed, and that it was of the developed countries the responsibility of bearing the costs of environmental protection. On the other hand, the European farmers’ worries with the South-American competition is also related to the deforestation of the Amazon. The expansion of the agricultural and livestock activities towards the north of the country led to significantly increasing deforestation. And even though the soil in that region is poor in nutrients, the big farmers have the resources to correct the soil, and there are a great abundance of water fonts for irrigation of the land and a surplus in energy production that would facilitate agricultural production and keep their products competitive, at the expenses of the rainforest.
From the economic standpoint, there seem to be incentives for Brazil to exploit large areas currently covered by the Amazon forest or, by playing a brinkmanship strategy, to use this fact as a sort of leverage in order to bargain for some kind of economic compensation from developed countries for foregoing those benefits for the sake of preserving the Amazon rainforest. This win-win situation (exploit the forest for economic development or preserve the Amazon for international compensation) makes the threat in the Brazilian brinkmanship strategy even more credible. In this sense, Brazil’s Minister for the Environment Ricardo Salles demanded more substantial actions from the European countries, beyond emergency help, like the payment of carbon credits. According to him, the value related to this credits would generate approximately US$ 2.5 billion in revenues to the country, a much higher amount if compared with the US$20 million offered by G7 countries for emergency use (called “charity money” by Bolsonaro), or with the R$50 million offered by the UK. In a recent trip to Germany, the Mr. Salles also suggested that foreign countries should pay an annual amount of US$120 for each potentially productive hectare of forest areas that remained untouched. The trip was an attempt to negotiate more assistance to the protection of the Amazon rainforest, but it was not successful: the German government stood its ground, promising nothing and demanding credible actions toward the preservation of the Amazon by the Brazilian government. The same happened in the COP-25 discussions, recently. Without any agreement on compensation measures for the protection of the forest, Brazilian Environment Minister stated that the “rich countries don’t want to open their carbon credit markets. They make demands and point fingers without ceremony, but when it comes to opening their wallets, they don’t want to”. This was said after a public recognition by the Minister that the Brazilian goal is “to get resources for those that live in the forest and need to be compensated for its preservation”.
The firing of Inpe’s Chief Director, Ricardo Galvão, after Inpe published data showing significant increase in Amazon’s deforestation, and the questioning of the veracity and validity of those data, may also be seen as a move to reinforce the Brazilian President’s brinkmanship, by showing his commitment to very environmental-unfriendly policies and, by doing so, increasing the pressure over developed countries so that they help Brazil to bear the costs of preserving the Amazon (which should include the opportunity cost for not using that part of the territory in its full economic potential). Some other moves made by the Brazilian government also seem to reinforce this brinkmanship strategy, such as the refusal to host the COP 25 and the extinction of the committee who managed the Amazon Fund (which also signaled that the U$3 billion assigned to the fund since its creation was not sufficient). Of course, on the other hand, it’s not impossible that those decisions are entirely taken out of sheer pique, and maybe we shouldn’t attribute such cleverness to those moves.
In face of the Brazilian posture, and responding to internal pressures, some European governments, like France, Austria, and Ireland, now put the Mercosur-EU Agreement in question. But European criticism to Brazilian environmental policy are nothing new. In 2017, for example, Norwegian Prime-Minister Erna Solberg made harsh remarks about the country’s environmental policy during then President Michel Temer’s visit. Besides the rhetoric, European governments took action freezing R$288 million that would be given to the Amazon Fund. But all these pressure moves proved little effective. Brazil gained support from US government, with President Trump being the only absent chief of government at the G7 meeting in which the environmental issues were discussed. UK’s government also showed its sympathies, not only offering financial help but openly stating that the French government was playing the environmental card to sabotage the Mercosur-UE agreement. Simultaneously, President Bolsonaro refused the US$ 20million help offered by President Macron in the name of the G7, demanding a formal apology by the French leader for calling him a liar and for threatening Brazilian sovereignty. Looking at South America, we could say that the Brazilian position was respected and that the countries were trying to articulate a common position and coordinate regional policies to deal with the fires and protection of the forest. Regional meetings were held and joint statements presented the agreed view that the Amazon is part of the their sovereign territories, but also recognizing that climate change is of global concern and that they need foreign financial help to deal with it.
With the support of US and UK to the Brazilian government, there was hardly any meaningful discussion about the internationalization of the Amazon region at the UN with practical repercussions, weakening the French position. The fact that the G7 final statement didn’t say anything about the Amazon shows that there was no consensus on that matter, signaling another French diplomatic loss. From the Brazilian side, the government is still strengthening its position, with the reduction of the budget of the Ministry of the Environment in 30% for the next year and reviving some old fashioned plans for increasing activities by the mining industry and energy sector in the Amazon region. The viability of the Mercosur-UE agreement, on the other hand is another issue. The internal pressures of interest groups, specially farmer’s and environmentalists, are making some governments to think twice. The Austrian Parliament was the first to reject the agreement, leading the country’s representatives to vote “no” in the European Council. But new elections will be held soon and a new composition of the Parliament may lead to a new motion in favor of the agreement. Another source of threat to the Brazilian position are the threats of trillionaire investment and pension funds to divest from Brazil due to its environmental policy. The exit of those funds may put a great challenge to the ailing Brazilian economy. To mitigate the problem, the government is seeking to attain a ‘green bonds’ certificate to assure the international investors that the projects in which their money is spent are environmental friendly. On the other hand, international investors showed that they are still interested in Brazilian assets and concessions in infrastructure projects, with 100% of this year’s public auctions being successful.
In essence, the discussion about the internationalization of the Amazon is perceived by some as a serious threat to the territorial integrity and domain of a great portion of Brazilian lands. These perceptions are framed in such a way that make it reinforced by the claims that the Brazilian government is not taking serious actions to preserve the Amazon forest, which would jeopardize all mankind due to its impact on the climate of the planet, leading to an increase of temperatures. A similar rationale is put forth in terms of alleged violations of Indian peoples’ human rights, which, the rationale goes, might then also lead to an international intervention in Brazil. The Brazilian government counter-argues that the Amazon forest is under due protection by the countries in the region, claiming their sovereign right over the land and stating that the environmental policies are in the right track. Nevertheless, the richness of resources of the Amazon region makes it very attractive for the exploration of the countries in the region seeking to develop their economies and societies. So, there is the interest of the industrial and developed countries to preserve the Amazon, be they based in environmental or in economic competition worries in one hand, and the interest of the countries of the region to profit from the forest, be through direct exploration or through the payment of the industrial and developed countries to keep the Amazon from being explored. The more conspiratorial argument that the foreign countries want to gain control and explore the forest for themselves does not make sense in this logic, particularly because of political and logistic costs. In this scenario, the Brazilian position in this negotiation seems to be denouncing the alleged interests of the developed countries, confronting the moral argument and employing a brinkmanship strategy to receive financial compensations for the preservation of the forest. At the same time, the Brazilian government claims to be working to prevent foreign players from spreading their internal influence in Brazil through the UN, the Catholic Church and NGOs grounded on the protection of the environment and Indian populations. On the other hand, the foreign countries from outside the Amazon region seek to apply maximum economic and political pressure to the Brazilian government so as to enforce the preservation of the forest — in the case of President Macron, backed by the threat of international control of the region in case it does not do as demanded, a move that didn’t gain significant track even among other advanced countries. The result of those pressures is hard to predict but we can expect a long negotiation with, probably, a not definitive result, implying that the subject will always return to haunt the Brazilian government.
 Collaborator at Synopsis Intelligence, Strategy, Diplomacy. Doctoral student in International Relations at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais — PUC Minas; Masters in Integration and International Cooperation at PUC Minas. Graduated in International Relations at PUC Minas.
 This division and the historical examples presented here are based on: Medeiros, Rodrigo A. L. Decodificando a Internacionalização da Amazônia: análise de uma geopolítica ambiental. Ed. Trampolim, 2018.; Castro, Flávio Mendes de Oliveira. O Brasil e sua Soberania sobre a Amazônia. Brasília. Dissertação (Mestrado em Relações Internacionais). Unb, 1992.; Diniz, Eugenio. O Projeto Calha Norte: Antecedentes Políticos. São Paulo. Dissertação (Mestrado em Ciência Política). USP, 1994.; Reis, Arthur C. F. A Amazônia e a Cobiça Internacional. Civilização Brasileira, 1982.[:]