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The Amazon rainforests are still on fire. If Trump won't act, Congress will.

We can help combat the destruction of Brazil's forests from Washington, and here's how.
Image: A firefighter stands in a burned portion of the Amazon basin in Sorriso, Brazil, on Aug. 26, 2019.
A firefighter in a burned portion of the Amazon basin in Sorriso, Brazil, on Aug. 26, 2019.Mayke Toscano / Mato Grosso State Communication Department via Getty Images file

For President Donald Trump, maintaining his personal friendship with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro — another right-wing leader with authoritarian tendencies — is seemingly more important than leading the charge against the disaster unfolding in Brazil. The lungs of the world are still on fire in the Amazon rainforests, and American citizens and policymakers cannot let this climate catastrophe continue unabated.

We generally believe that bold action is needed to tackle the climate crisis and, right now, the crisis is most acute in Brazil. But, if the White House refuses to act — and our president is once again missing in action, having even skipped the meeting on climate change at the G-7 summit 10 days ago, when the leaders of the world’s wealthiest countries (except for the U.S.) pledged a mere $22 million to protect the Amazon — the U.S. Senate will.

Here are just a few of the things that Congress could do to help combat the destruction of the Amazon.

First, we must make clear that the fires in Brazil are a national security crisis and that we are willing to pause aspects of our bilateral relationship with Brazil until their government takes action to bring them under control, along with the ranchers and loggers reportedly starting. Nothing about our relationship with Brazil should be business as usual until Bolsonaro takes meaningful action to quell the fires and protect the Amazon.

Trump has talked of a trade deal with Brazil, but we shouldn’t even consider opening negotiations at this juncture. And we should freeze regular military exercises and exchanges: Our Air Forces and Navies have long participated in joint exercises in the region and outside of it, including training programs that Brazil is newly eligible to participate in as a major non-NATO ally.

Congress can also look to amend the Lacey Act, which bans the import of illegally trafficked wildlife, plants and timber, to include prohibitions on beef and leather from areas illegally deforested. Brazil already has laws on the books against farmers and ranchers using illegally deforested areas in the Amazon, and legislation that builds on the Lacey Act will help ensure that those laws are properly enforced in the United States — especially given the reported difficulties with supply chain verification discovered by multiple environmental groups. As appropriators, we intend to introduce an amendment to this end in the coming weeks as this year’s funding bill is finalized in the Senate.

Brazil’s sovereignty over the rainforest is unique among nations, and they should not be expected to bear the responsibility of preserving this crucial ecosystem on their own. Going forward, if Bolsonaro’s government commits to taking conservation seriously, we should stand ready to help Brazil develop its economy and provide opportunities to ordinary Brazilians that do not rely on destroying the Amazon.

This is an existential crisis, and we’ve got to start treating it like one.

Illegal deforestation and fires, of course, are not new to Brazil. They have been going on for decades, sometimes for infrastructure projects but more often to clear land for agriculture and ranching. A tough set of competing interests exists in Brazil, but there are ways to protect the Amazon that aren’t zero sum for business, indigenous communities and the environment.

And, from 2005 to 2012, Brazil showed the world as much, taking meaningful action to protect the Amazon and fight climate change by cracking down on illegal deforestation and improving agricultural practices. In less than a decade, deforestation plummeted 80 percent to the lowest levels since record-keeping began. And there was no tradeoff with economic growth: The country’s economy grew by $566 billion during this time.

But this year, Brazil's own data shows a dramatic reversal: a 105 percent increase in fires in the Brazilian Amazonia. What changed? Unfortunately, it’s pretty simple. Bolsonaro took office in January, after campaigning on opening up the Amazon to unchecked economic development.

Once in office, Bolsonaro weakened conservation policies and removed the Environmental Ministry’s authority over forestry and water. He cut the budget of the nation’s environmental enforcement agency by $23 million. As a result, enforcement actions fell by 20 percent during the first six months of this year.

The message he sent was clear: For ranchers, farmers, loggers and other parts of the business community who wanted to seize and exploit land in the Amazon, it was open season.

All countries — including the U.S. and Brazil — have an interest in seeing the Amazon survive. However, if the current rate of deforestation isn’t urgently reversed, the Amazon could soon reach what scientists call a point of no return, when the forest can no longer replenish its own rainfall and this lush ecosystem degenerates into a dry savanna. We must act together to save it, and ourselves, before it is too late.