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Will a global alliance help fight the Amazon wildfires?

For Brazil's small farmers and big agri-food corporations, the economic value of the land matters considerably.



By Jean Pisani-Ferry (Core Issue)

Published: Mon 2 Sep 2019, 8:29 PM

Last updated: Mon 2 Sep 2019, 10:32 PM

On the eve of the recent G7 summit in Biarritz, French President Emmanuel Macron described the Amazon rainforest as "the lungs of our planet." And because the rainforest's preservation matters for the whole world, Macron added, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro cannot be allowed "to destroy everything." In reply, Bolsonaro accused Macron of instrumentalis ing an "internal" Brazilian issue, and said that for the G7 to discuss the matter without the countries of the Amazon region present was evidence of a "misplaced colonialist mindset."
The dispute has since escalated further, with Macron now threatening to block the recently concluded trade deal between the European Union and Mercosur, unless Brazil - the largest member of the Latin American trade bloc - does more to protect the forest.
The Macron-Bolsonaro dispute highlights the tension between two big recent trends: the increasing need for global collective action and the growing demand for national sovereignty. Further clashes between these two forces are inevitable, and whether or not they can be reconciled will determine the fate of our world.
Global commons are nothing new. International cooperation to fight contagious diseases and protect public health dates back to the early nineteenth century. But global collective action did not gain worldwide prominence until the turn of the millennium. The concept of "global public goods," popularised by World Bank economists, was then applied to a broad range of issues, from climate preservation and biodiversity to financial stability and Internet security.
Instead of the advent of global governance, the world is witnessing the rise of economic nationalism. But nationalism hasn't won the war. Despite Brexit and the rise of far-right parties in Italy and other countries, the European Parliament election in May did not produce the feared populist landslide. Nowadays, however, international collective action cannot be based on further universal treaty-based obligations. And because not all global problems are alike, mechanisms will provide a suitable template for collective action only in certain cases. When the various players are willing to act, a modicum of transparency and trust-building is sufficient to ensure cooperation. In other cases, however, the temptation to free-ride or abstain can be countered only by powerful incentives or even sanctions.
That brings us back to the Amazon fires. The interests of Brazil and the international community are not aligned. For Brazil's small farmers and big agri-food corporations, the economic value of the land matters considerably. But the rest of the world is mainly concerned with the rainforest's ecological and biodiversity value. Time horizons also differ: unsurprisingly, the wealthy in the Global North value the future more than the poor in the Global South do. Even if large segments of Brazilian society value the preservation of the rainforest, it is wishful thinking to believe that moral suasion and nudges alone will resolve differences between Brazil and its external partners.
In the case of the Amazon, the only hard instruments available are money and sanctions.
Through the transfer of more than $1 billion to the Amazon Fund since 2008, Norway already subsidises the preservation of the environmental service that the rainforest provides to the world. Macron's alternative is to coerce Brazil into valuing the environment by making trade deals and other international agreements conditional upon the country managing its natural resources sustainably.
Both options are problematic. Payments open an enormous Pandora's box, and reaching a significant scale requires an agreement on who will actually bear the burden: the annual social value of carbon capture by the Amazon rainforest is hundreds of times larger than the Norwegian transfers. Coercion is also tricky, because there is only an oblique logical relationship between deforestation and trade. But because there are no other options, solutions will probably have to involve some combination of the two. In time, the Macron-Bolsonaro spat may become a mere footnote. But other disputes pitting global concerns against national sovereignty are sure to erupt, and the world needs to find a way to manage them.
- Project Syndicate
Jean Pisani-Ferry, a professor at the Hertie School of Governance (Berlin) and Sciences Po (Paris) is a senior fellow at Bruegel, a Brussels-based think tank


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