Concern about the fires in the Amazon is huge. Is the Brazilian rainforest, and with it the whole earth, facing an ecological catastrophe? And are the economic interests of Brazil compatible with environmental protection? Jan Börner, a former Robert Bosch Junior Professor, researched the sustainable use of tropical rainforests. He explains where the fires come from, what their effects are, and why we should react more cautiously.
Mr. Börner, the fires in the Amazon have caused a great deal of global concern for the preservation of the Amazon rainforest. Some environmentalists and politicians anticipate an environmental catastrophe. What is actually happening on the ground?
We mostly tend to view the topic rather superficially: Fire is destroying the rainforest. But fires occur every year during the dry season in the Amazon. In the entire region, land is cleared for production by slash-and-burn. Many of the fires burn on already used or formerly used ground to be able to continue its cultivation. On the one hand, you’ve got the small farmers who grow maize and beans. On the other, there are the cattle farmers who light fires to free their pastures from bushes so that grass for their cattle can grow again. On top of that, there are uncontrolled wildfires caused by thunderstorms and drought.
So what makes this year’s situation something out of the ordinary then?
Besides the fires lit to preserve and recover existing agricultural land, you have the occasional neighboring, previously untouched forest areas burn down alongside them. It can be assumed that some farmers speculate that they will be allowed to use these later. Moreover, the number of registered fires is 70 to 80 percent higher than in the previous year – even though Brazil is not having a particularly dry year. The increasing number of fires could be the first effect of the changed policy of the new Brazilian government, which is much laxer about these things. Land users are becoming more daring again.
Jan Börner is Professor of Economics of Sustainable Land Use and Bioeconomics at the University of Bonn, Germany. Until 2017, he was Robert Bosch Junior Professor, researching the sustainable use of tropical rainforest with the support of the Robert Bosch Stiftung.
How has deforestation developed in the Amazon region in the past few years?
Between 2004 and 2012, the Amazon area deforested per year fell from around 28,000 square kilometers to between 4,000 and 6,000 square kilometers. This was mainly due to the then-government taking existing environmental protection laws seriously and enforcing them consistently. With the economic crisis in Brazil, environmental protection funds were cut from 2012 on and deforestation rates have risen again slightly since.
Can you already calculate the total deforested area for the current year from the current fires?
Not yet. New reliable data on the deforested area is usually not published by the Brazilian authorities until the fall. The increase in fires is nevertheless worrying and I expect the deforestation rate to go up again.
“People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”
You have researched approaches for the sustainable use of tropical rainforest. Is it actually possible to strike a balance between economic interests and environmental protection?
Our own findings on Brazil and many other studies on other tropical forest countries show that forest protection can work. However, it is almost impossible to transfer experiences from individual countries to others because the conditions vary too much. But it is very clear that the sustainable use of the rainforest is almost inconceivable without political will, because it is often cheaper for farmers to start over on new land instead of investing in the soil fertility of existing farmland. A serious environmental policy and consistently applied environmental laws are the basis for a resource-conserving approach to the rainforest and often also the prerequisite for new technologies and production methods to contribute to the sustainable intensification of agriculture.
What is your take on the international response to the fires?
The international community will have to lead any discussion with countries whose tropical rainforest is under threat at eye level: People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. If we compare, for instance, the annual per capita emissions of climate-impacting gases in Germany and Brazil, the German numbers are almost twice as high. To say that, in case of a fire, we will no longer pay for environmental protection in Brazil, seems dangerously patronizing to me if there is no contractual basis for such a move. No European country would put up with being told that. The Amazon is not a public good, but belongs largely to Brazil. There, too, an increasing number of people and organizations are demanding rainforest protection. We must continue to support them in the future with the means at our disposal.
What options does Europe have if we don’t want to stand idly by and watch?
We should try and maintain dialogue on environmental and rainforest protection with the Brazilian government wherever possible. The more of Brazil’s trade partners make the same points, the better. I consider it legitimate, not only from an environmental point of view, to demand that Brazil comply with its own environmental legislation in the production of internationally traded agricultural goods. Whether and when this is the case can be proven more and more effectively thanks to the growing transparency in the value chains. In the negotiations with Mercosur, the European Union could make more strategic use of this line of reasoning.