Brazil Has the Skill to Stop the Amazon Fires. It Lacks the Will | Opinion

As heads of state prepare to make bold statements about climate change and sustainable development at the upcoming UN General Assembly here in New York, the Amazon region continues to burn. Satellite imagery pinpoints thousands of new fire alerts each week. NASA and the Brazilian Space Agency have warned that the levels of clearing and burning is far higher than in recent years. Politicians are bickering over who is responsible and what needs to be done.

Last week, leaders of the nine countries that share responsibility for the Amazon territory, met in the town of Leticia, Colombia, and issued a statement reaffirming their sovereignty over the region and pledging to do a better job. It as a tepid declaration, but it represented a significant improvement on previous statements from some of those leaders—including the current presidents of Brazil and Bolivia, who had previously claimed that there is nothing to be concerned about. Days ago, a group of prominent U.S. Senators, including presidential hopefuls, called for a halt to trade talks with Brazil if its government doesn't improve its rainforest protection.

For those of us who have worked in the region for decades, the most frustrating aspect of this political display is that Brazil already knows exactly how to protect the Amazon rainforest. In fact, Brazil is the only tropical country that successfully reduced loss of tropical forests on a huge scale, beginning in the mid-2000s.

The most urgent need is for the Brazilian government to revive its successful program that had combined daily analysis with its own satellite network to spot illegal clearing (estimated by MapBiomas to be over 90 percent of all clearings) and fires with effective enforcement on the ground. In the years following 2005, Brazil managed to reduce forest clearing in the Amazon by an astounding 70 to 80 percent. In contrast, the current government has defunded this work and weakened enforcement. Now is the time to display renewed leadership in this critical area and even help its neighbors by sharing lessons, capacity, and technology.

Second, we know that protecting Indigenous peoples' territories and the lands of traditional communities, such as rubber tappers and Brazil nut harvesters, is a great way to conserve rainforests. It's also consistent with international human rights law and the wishes of these vulnerable communities. Some Amazonian Indigenous communities have intentionally chosen to completely avoid direct contact with non-Indigenous people. These communities are threatened by the expansion of road building, logging, and farming. In recent decades, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and other countries in the region have made great strides in expanding recognition and protection of those who depend on the forest and this needs to continue. The reversal of this attitude by the current Brazilian government is nothing less than a direct attack on the lives and livelihoods of these communities. Some have likened this to incitement of genocide.

The third, scientifically proven solution for rainforest conservation is careful and profitable use of the forest by companies and communities alike. The Amazon boasts an incredible wealth of natural products—not surprisingly, since it is home to more species of animals and plants than anywhere else on Earth. The responsible harvest of fruits, oils, nuts, fish, medicines, fibers, and even wood from low intensity logging—along with ecotourism—are all compatible with forest protection and can support dignified livelihoods that provide additional incentives to protect the ecosystem.

Finally, there is a vital role for governments and businesses to play beyond Brazil. Last week H&M, the second largest fashion retailer globally, committed to cease buying leather altogether from Brazil, following other major brands, including North Face. Such boycotts are not ideal since they undermine those working legally and without deforestation both in the Amazon as well as other parts of the country. Any company that knows or suspects its supply chain may include products that may be contributing to forest loss and fires in the Amazon region should immediately engage suppliers to guarantee traceability that ensures this is not the case. If they cannot, then the boycott of those suppliers is justified and a powerful statement. Pension funds and investors should do the same, as some Swedish and Norwegian groups have already done.

Foreign governments have been longtime partners with Brazil, Colombia, Peru and other countries in the region, helping to finance efforts to better manage the Amazon. Wealthy nations must greatly increase their support for Amazon conservation, given the global importance of the region in regulating climate and weather patterns. The G7's offer of $22 million is beyond meager in comparison to the $945 million in donations to restore the Notre Dame cathedral after it burned. Brazil and other governments should welcome this partnership and well-intended offer of support, rather than tout conspiracy theories that there is a global plot to take control of the Amazon; besides, more than enough land has already been cleared to support massive expansion and intensification of its agricultural output for decades to come.

While we welcome the UN's important deliberations later this month, the time for speechmaking is long gone. It's time for action. Governments and companies, and their expert advisors and investors, should heed the outcry over in Brazil and around the world over the destruction of the Amazon and lead the way to a boldly hopeful climate future.

Tasso Azevedo is the former Chief of the Brazilian Forest Service and coordinator of MapBiomas. Nigel Sizer is Chief Program Officer with Rainforest Alliance.

The views expressed in this article are the authors own.​​​​​