How Brazil's Government Views The International Focus On Fires In The Amazon
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
We've been reporting this week on the fires raging through the Amazon. They've captured the attention of the world and prompted sharp criticism of the environmental record of Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Among the questions today - what steps is Brazil taking to fight the fires? I wanted to put the question to Brazil's top diplomat here in Washington. His name is Nestor Forster. He is Brazil's charge d'affaires. And we've come over to the embassy to meet him. It's this very funky-looking glass suspended cube above a lot of the other embassies here in Washington. Let's see what he has to say.
Well, we head into that glass cube, take the elevator up into a vast conference room.
Thank you for meeting with us today.
NESTOR FORSTER: Pleasure.
KELLY: Let me start with a basic question. How would you describe what is happening in the Amazon rainforest this summer? Is it a crisis?
FORSTER: To some extent, it is a crisis. We have this - this is a seasonal phenomenon that happens every year during the driest season in the Amazon. Now, this year represented a serious increase over last year. And since we realized that, we've been taking this very seriously. President Bolsonaro himself addressed the nation last Friday on a televised address, saying that he was mobilizing 43,000 troops to help provide the logistical support for the firefighters we have on the ground in the region.
KELLY: You described it as an annual phenomenon but that it is more serious this year.
KELLY: I mean, to put some numbers on that, Brazil's National Space Research Institute says the number of fires this year is up 85% from last year - 77,000 - many of them just in the last month. And it has not been a particularly dry year, on the contrary. So why?
KELLY: What's causing this?
FORSTER: It's not - let me tell you. It's not the question of the dry year. It's the question of the dry season, number one. But yeah...
KELLY: You're pulling out papers and showing me a bar chart.
FORSTER: Yeah. The bar chart here shows that we had, this year, half of what we had in 2005 or 2007 or 2010. So it's been worse. The important thing from, you know...
KELLY: But you acknowledge that this year...
FORSTER: Of course.
KELLY: ...Is breaking records.
FORSTER: Of course.
KELLY: It's the worst that it's been in more than a decade.
FORSTER: President himself acknowledges how serious this is and, you know, how urgent it is that we fight it. And that's exactly what we're doing.
KELLY: Why is it particularly bad this year, given that it has not been a dry summer?
FORSTER: Some years, you know - why was it as bad as it was in 2005 or 2007? We don't know. You know, more people are setting fires. Wildfires are increasing. The extent has been...
KELLY: This is not wildfires, though, to be clear. These are man-made fires.
FORSTER: Most of them are man-made fires, yeah - most of them. But look - fewer than we had before and below the average of the last 15 years. So let's not exaggerate and overblow this out of proportion because that's part of the problem - when we have this apocalyptic image of the Amazon burning out of control. It's not out of control, and our government is doing everything they're...
KELLY: You're saying it's under control.
FORSTER: Of course it is. I think it is under control. Of course. I mean, I don't know if you're familiar with the legislation - the environmental legislation in Brazil. It's one of the most strict anywhere in the world.
KELLY: Is the challenge in Brazil, as elsewhere in the world, in enforcing those laws?
FORSTER: That's always a challenge, you know? And they are...
KELLY: Are they being enforced right now, these strict environmental laws?
FORSTER: They - oh, of course they are. Of course they are. And they are, you know - and abuses are being fight. Let me give an example. We had - last June, we had the largest operation ever conducted to fight illegal deforestation, OK? This was the largest operation ever conducted. This was last June. This was before the first headline came out that the Amazon is burning and all this unwarranted hysteria, if you allow me to say so.
Now, let me bring you a point - important point here. When I talk about development, I talk about the 25 million Brazilians who live in the forest and who have a right to have access to economic development, to job opportunities, to quality of life. So we don't want to see the Amazon, you know, surrounded by a big fence for well-off Europeans to come during vacation time to visit, to see the exotic fauna while the 25 million Brazilians are there without opportunity.
KELLY: If I could just add here the one specific example - our correspondent based in Brazil, Philip Reeves, traveled to the western flank of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil recently. He was on the Chico Mendes Reserve. He met a man there - and interviewed him - named Leonardo DaCosta, a subsistence farmer living in a wood cabin who decided he needed more land to grow corn to feed his chickens. And so he sprinkled gasoline and set fire to the jungle. And our correspondent was just there - walked around, said it's an area the size of 15 football fields that have been charred. He's just seeing charred tree stumps.
How should I square that with your statement that you have very strict environmental laws that are being enforced?
FORSTER: Of course. They are being enforced. That doesn't mean there's - that there's no illegal activity. That's the one - a point that the president said - you know, I'm a law and order kind of guy. We're going to find environmental crimes, and whoever's done - doing this against the law is going to be persecuted. Now...
KELLY: But the question is whether the policies...
FORSTER: Of course.
KELLY: ...Of the government are emboldening...
FORSTER: The question - yeah.
KELLY: ...People to think, I can do this and get away with it.
FORSTER: No, no, no, no, no. That's a fallacy. That's just a fallacy. The important thing in what you said - the example you give is very good because that's the kind of person that we need to address, you know, in terms of, you know, what the alternatives are for his - to sustain his family so that he's not condemned to this very primitive way of doing things, which harms the environment.
KELLY: And my question is, does the government of Brazil see his need to have land so he can feed his chickens and grow corn on it more important than preserving the trees that were there?
FORSTER: It's not a matter of more important. That's the challenge, you know? It...
KELLY: But the trees are gone.
FORSTER: Yeah. I mean - the trees are not gone. The Amazon is, you know - 80% of the Amazon is intact over there. Do you know how - the size we're talking about here? I'm talking about the size of the states of Texas, California, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada combined. So let's not throw this out of proportion as if we had an apocalyptic fire burning here we don't have. We have spots of fire. We need to address that. We're doing our best to take care of the situation.
KELLY: You used the phrase unwarranted hysteria in terms of the global reaction...
KELLY: ...To the fires. You think that's true.
FORSTER: Absolutely. I think - I mean, the data shows that. It's not my opinion, OK? What I'm saying here is based on hard fact. If the fires we have in the Amazon this year are within the average for the past 15 years, why all the outcry now, you know?
Can I give an example? You want to...
KELLY: But to the numbers you acknowledged earlier, it's much worse this year. It's much worse since President Bolsonaro came to office.
FORSTER: But I mean, to try to pin this on President Bolsonaro seems disingenuous to me, you know? Do we blame the fires in California on whatever - whoever is the governor of California or the president here in Washington? - doesn't make sense. This is not a political issue. This is an environmental issue - needs to be addressed.
KELLY: The G7 - the Group of Seven - just pledged $20 million to help fight fires in the Amazon. President Bolsonaro turned it down. Why? Why not take all the help you can get?
FORSTER: Yeah. We didn't turn it down just like that. We are very open - Brazil is open to whatever international cooperation wants to come our way, as long as it has no strings attached. What do I mean by that? We don't like to see people discussing the Amazon as if it was - you know, the Amazon belongs to the world, to the - no, no, no. The Amazon within Brazilian borders belong to Brazilians.
KELLY: So you would take this money and any other money that were donated if it were up to Brazil to spend it as you see fit.
FORSTER: Exactly. It's a very basic thing. If I'm going to discuss what will be done with your house, you know, you'd like to be sitting at the table, right? And as the president very aptly said today, you know, Brazil is not for sale - not for $20 million, not for $20 trillion.
KELLY: Nestor Forster - he is Brazil's charge d'affaires here in Washington. Ambassador, thanks for your time.
FORSTER: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.