By Dr. Noga Shanee & Nina Poletti
The burning of the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest has been a major story in mass and social media for the past week. From trending hashtags to opinion articles to emotional art representing the natural disaster, people have been sharing their fear and upset over this event. Much of this frustration and blame has been directed at Brazil’s president, Bolsonaro, notorious for his right wing pro-economic, anti-social, and anti-environmental statements and policies. Bolsonaro, on the other hand, denies culpability and instead has hurled accusations at environmental NGOs as those responsible for starting the fires. Surprisingly, we don’t entirely disagree with him.
The fires in the Amazon are especially dramatic because of the area’s global ecological importance, and they definitely deserve the attention they are receiving; however, destructive forest fires, related to environmental degradation, have been happening with increasing tendency for many years in all corners of the globe. The past five years have seen the highest temperatures in history, with July 2019 topping the charts as the planet’s hottest month ever and the entire planet, not just the Brazilian Amazon, is suffering. All Amazonian countries are burning, Central Africa is burning, Spain and Greece are burning, Madagascar is burning, North America is burning, Indonesia is burning. Even the arctic is not immune to this devastation and Greenland, Alaska and Siberia are all burning.
Every one of these fires releases huge amounts of CO2 into the air while further weakening ecosystems and make them more vulnerable to future fires. The number and intensity of fires have fluctuated around weather phenomena and deforestation rates. According to statistics by Global Forest Watch which uses satellite imaging to record forest fires, this year is, currently, not even a record breaking year for global fires compared to the past couple decades. The reports, which according to our understanding have started this media attention boom, are claiming that the incidents of fires in Brazil have increased upwards of 80% from last year. This sensationalizes this singular event and does not acknowledge that this has been a problem for a long time. These fires are an incredibly stark representation of all current symptoms of climate change and environmental degradation and therefore this media coverage is a great step forward, but we should not be made to believe that this is an exception. Our collective memories of significantly reported fire events, for example California’s 2018 wildfires and Indonesia’s repeated fires, are short lived and perceived as isolated events instead of the global catastrophe that they are.
Bolsonaro has been in power since January of this year, his policies and actions are destructive, dangerous and environmentally irresponsible; however, it is illogical to attribute sole responsibility for this global crisis to him. The Global North, on the other hand, has been meddling with the earth’s environment and with the Global South’s politics for centuries. Post-colonial, Neoliberal policies of international debts, free trade agreements, free markets, and little to no enforcement of international environmental agreements, etc. are all part of the Global North’s ways to control developing countries and direct them towards environmental and political recklessness. This crisis was not started by Bolsonaro, Trump or Putin; destructive world leaders are the symptomatic products of Neoliberalism, just as much as these fires are.
Bolsonaro’s comments about NGOs are strongly ridiculed and criticized in social media, but the NGO’s role as environmental defenders should also be questioned. Privatization is an important part of Neoliberalism and many countries have adopted this ideology to privatize and title land, water, forests, biodiversity, and fisheries. NGOs are, and always have been, a part of the Neoliberal system, and they facilitate privatization by taking over some of the most important roles of the government. They often justify and promote privatization by framing it as a conservation strategy. Mainstream environmental NGOs are increasingly modeling themselves on, and indeed directly reliant upon, commercial businesses. Being part of the dominant economic establishment positions these NGOs as conflicted in their ability (and desire) to take effective action against the root cause of environmental degradation which unarguably stems from uncontrolled capitalist exploitation, accompanied by corruption, broken nation states and a burgeoning world leadership crisis. These NGOs cannot challenge these overarching systems of oppression because they have become part of them.
NGOs’ certification schemes for logging, mining, palm oil plantations, large scale GMO agriculture and other environmentally destructive activities, as well as programs that focus on the financialization of nature, have been facilitating deforestation and environmental exploitation under the guise of regulation. Many of these harmful practices have been exposed before, but it does not seem to change the perspective of the general public about these institutions.
NGOs give us hope and take our mind off the destruction, but do not stop it. Large and wealthy NGOs do little to actually change the situation on the ground and instead create the spectacle of “saving the world” in order to draw attention and funders. They exaggerate their slightest successes and ignore the root causes of environmental deterioration; the dirty politics, corruption, social inequality, Neoliberal interventions, extractivism, etc. They treat cancer with paracetamol and celebrate it.
Although NGOs have obviously not been going around with a matchbox to start these fires, for many years they have confused the public by pretending to stop them; therefore, we find them just as accountable for the growing environmental disasters we are witnessing as Bolsonaro and other world leaders. Therefore, as much as we would love to see Bolsonaro being removed from his position and replaced by a much more responsible leader, this alone will not solve the problem. If we want to protect nature and our future on this planet we must dismantle and restructure not only the dominant political systems, but also the dominant private institutions declaring themselves the savers of the environment.
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 Klein, N. (2015). This changes everything: Capitalism vs. the climate. Simon and Schuster.
 Huismann, W. (2014). Pandaleaks: the dark side of the WWF. Nordbook.