Fires in the Amazon rainforest: the evolution of sovereignty in the framework of environmental interventionism.

di Trinità Dei Monti - 1 Ottobre 2019

  from Canterbury, United Kingdom


Fires in the Amazon rainforest: the evolution of sovereignty in the framework of environmental interventionism

An analysis from an International Law perspective

Background on the 2019 Amazon fires

The Amazon, often referred to as Earth’s lungs, is the world’s biggest tropical forest covering an area of 6.7 million square kilometres in South America, mainly occupying Brazil, but also Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela. The rainforest is vital not only for these states but for the entire world, due to its unparalleled biodiversity and its critical role in mitigating climate change when it comes to absorbing carbon and pumping oxygen.

According to Brazil Space Agency, this year alone almost 73,000 fires have been recorded in Brazil, signifying a worrisome 85% increase from the whole of 2018 (BBC, 2019a). While it is necessary to keep the issue in perspective, considering the recent fires happened during the dry season in far less alarming numbers than in the early 2000s (BBC, 2019b), it is necessary to acknowledge the seriousness of the events.

The most alarming feature of the fires is that they were deliberately started in order to clear the land for cattle farming and agriculture, a common last stage of the deforestation process in the Amazon (Amigo, 2019). Land clearing is quite a common issue in the history of Brazil, a country that has tried to portray itself as a leader in protecting the Amazon and fighting global warming in the past. However, the 2014 recession has made Brazil more reliant on the agricultural commodities it produces, mainly beef and soy, and on the powerful rural lobby (Symonds, 2019).

International outrage against Bolsonaro’s government

The situation has been further deteriorating under the current far-right government of Bolsonaro, which prioritizes economic growth and development above conservation. This has determined the weakening of the country’s environmental policies and law enforcement capacity, so that farmers and ranchers feel ‘safe’ committing arson (Amazon Watch, 2019; WWF, 2019).

The Amazon fires were met by international shock and outrage, as well as increasing political backlash against Bolsonaro’s government. UNSG Guterres (2019) and European leaders Macron and Merkel referred to the fires as an international crisis and called for urgent action (Phillips, T. 2019). Since the Brazilian government seemed unwilling to take action, some European states, as well as companies and NGOS worldwide, tried to boycott Brazil by threatening to halt trade deals and to ban Brazilian imports (Kauranen, 2019; Phillips, D. 2019). It is worth mentioning that an opposite reaction came from Trump, who stated his complete support for Bolsonaro (Brice, 2019).

At the G7 meeting in Biarritz, the leaders of the world’s richest countries pledged $22 million to combat the fires in the Amazon. However, Bolsonaro angrily rejected the money, arguing that major powers discussing a Brazilian problem without including Brazil, which is not a G7 member, evoked a misplaced colonialist mind-set (Pérez-Peña and Stevis-Gridneff, 2019; Dalton, 2019). Bolsonaro has later clarified his government will accept all foreign aid as long as Brazil has the authority to determine how to use it. He strongly defended the un-negotiable nature of Brazilian sovereignty (CBS News, 2019).

 The evolution of the concept of sovereignty throughout history

The recent issue of the Amazon fires, as well as the global problem of climate change, have generated the need for a revaluation of the traditional IR concept of sovereignty, a key word present in Bolsonaro’s recent claims. Origins of sovereignty trace back to the 1648 Peace of Westphalia and the subsequent creation of the Westphalian system, formed by equal, sovereign states having exclusive control over their territories. The logical corollary of the principle of sovereignty is the doctrine of non-intervention (Kinacioğlu, 2005). In international law, the principle of sovereignty is contained in the UN Charter (1945), more specifically in Article 2(4), which strictly prohibits the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state. In addition, Article 2(7) forbids UN intervention in matters within the domestic jurisdiction of states.

It is important to stress that the concept of sovereignty should not be intended as monolithic, but rather as a multifaceted, socially constructed institution that varies according to time and place (Liftin, 1997). Scholars and politicians have argued we now live in a post-Westphalian system characterized by globalization and internationalism that transcends traditional sovereignty (Strange, 1999, p.7). However, the concept of sovereignty has not become obsolete, but rather it has evolved together with the modern international system we live in and its new challenges.

From humanitarian interventionism to  environmental interventionism

A key example of the evolution of sovereignty can be found in the realm of humanitarian interventionism. In 2005, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) has been introduced by all member states of the UN as a global commitment to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

While the introduction of R2P has signified a shift from the non-intervention principle, it is crucial to understand that R2P does not undermine national sovereignty, but rather reinforces it. This is because R2P grows from an affirmative notion of sovereignty as responsibility (Ki-moon, 2009). Therefore, when a state allows mass atrocities, it is no longer upholding its responsibilities as a sovereign, and foreign intervention is needed to strengthen the notion of sovereignty itself (ibid., 2009).

Humanitarian interventionism has now been coexisting with the principle of sovereignty for the past 15 years, acting as a norm within international law and IR. This should therefore act as a strong precedent for the introduction of environmental interventionism as jus cogens. World politics already appears to be moving in this direction, seeing as the norms of sovereignty are shifting in the face of attempts to fight climate change. As a matter of fact, the gradual ‘greening’ of sovereignty is happening right in front of our eyes (Liftin, 1997). There are already over 1,300 MEA and over 2,200 BEA covering a wide range of subjects, including atmospheric policies, freshwater policies, hazardous waste and substance policies, the marine environment, nature conservation policies, noise pollution and nuclear safety (IEA, 2017; Birnie, 1977).

Obstacles to environmental interventionism: a ‘neo-colonialist’ mindset?

Once recognized that sovereignty and environmental interventionism can harmoniously live side by side, it is necessary to acknowledge the obstacles related to the introduction of environmental interventionism as a norm. It is possible to identify primarily two difficulties. The first is the fear that wealthy, powerful states could use noble ideals, such as human rights and environmental conservation, as a tool to play out their economic and foreign policy-related interests in key strategic areas of the world (Jurecic, 2019). Bolsonaro’s accusations against the alleged colonialist mindset of the G7 leaders reflect this concern.

It seems then necessary to appropriately regulate environmental interventionism. Firstly, it could be useful to formulate a fixed scheme of action in the event of environmental crises. The 2001 report on the Responsibility to Protect could be used as a sound template for the workable practice of environmental interventionism (Douglas, 2019). Based on the idea that deploying military force should always be a last resort, the report argues that strong non-military means, such as trade sanctions and economic boycotts, should be used first to deal with crises. This is precisely what has been happening as a reaction to the 2019 Amazon fires, with international attempts to apply financial pressure on Brazil.

Secondly, it is essential to forestall and thwart any manipulation of environmental interventionism in favour of country-specific interests. This can be done through the strengthening of international law, and in particular through the empowering of the UN as the main enforcer of justice within the international system.

Obstacles to environmental interventionism: rising populism and nationalism

The second obstacle consists in the current hostile environment of rising far-right populist and nationalist governments worldwide opposed to global cooperation and indifferent to climate change. However, it is necessary to remember that national governments are not the only actors in the modern international system, where non-state actors, such as civil society in all forms, can and should play a crucial role in the fight against climate change. An example of fruitful engagement is the one of the citizen movement initiated by young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (Venturini, 2019).

A positive conclusion…

To conclude on a positive note, the upcoming UN Climate Action Summit 2019 will hopefully sign a turning point in our common race against climate change and provide effective guidelines and norms to be implemented and respected by all actors of the international system.


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Autore dell’articolo *Laura Mariani, BA Student. at the University of Kent;

* i contenuti e le valutazioni dell’intervento sono di esclusiva responsabilità dell’autore