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The Amazon – ‘lungs of the world’ or ‘Brazil’s constitution’?

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In August 2019, the world’s attention turned to the fires burning in the Amazon. Scientists have since confirmed that the number of fires were approximately 80% higher than those that occurred in 20181 – and the most active for nearly a decade2.

While fires occur naturally in the Amazon every dry season, the difference this year was that many of the blazes were man-made. It’s this issue, and the lack of urgent action from governments in the region, which has attracted international dismay and condemnation.

The ‘lungs of the world’

Covering 1.4 billion acres, the Amazon represents half of the planet’s remaining tropical forests4 and provides a natural ecosystem that helps stabilise the world’s climate. The trees soak up billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2)4 produced by modern life – cars, factories, power plants etc. – that would otherwise trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere.

Burning the rainforest releases carbon and contributes to global warming – causing ice sheets to melt, sea levels to rise and ocean circulation to alter – impacting the global climate significantly.

The popular assumption is that the survival of the Amazon affects us all, right?

A national or international challenge?

Onlookers have placed the blame for this years’ fire on current Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, after he took steps to enable the construction of dams, bridges and roads, cut the national environmental protection budget and reversed several environmental regulations5 – all for ‘fairy tales of economic growth’, in the words of Swedish climate campaigner, Greta Thunberg6.

It took anti-government protests and intense global criticism before Bolsonaro ordered troops to fight the fires and set a fire ban. The incident also became subject to crisis talks at the G7 summit; world leaders pledged aid to tackle the disaster6, but President Bolsonaro rejected the offers amid ‘landgrab’ concerns7, stating that this was an issue related to Brazil, and not the rest of the world:

‘Using and resorting to these fallacies, certain countries, instead of helping… behaved in a disrespectful manner and with a colonialist spirit’6.

Since then, seven South American nations, including Brazil, have signed an Amazon protection pact8 to better cooperate through disaster response coordination and satellite monitoring. They will also work on reforestation projects and education initiatives, in order to ensure the same level of devastation does not happen again in the future9.

What is current international law on environmental intervention?

The Amazon rainforest fires have sparked contention over the justification of international environmental interventionalism. As it stands, there is no direct reference to matters of sovereignty and environmental interventionalism in the 2015 Paris Agreement10, nor a punitive system to ensure nations deliver on commitments to reduce emissions. But should there be?

At least half of the rainforest is currently protected against deforestation under federal law1. For Dr Daniel Nepstad, scientist and lead author for the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, there aren’t many illegal actors in this situation:

‘People forget that there are legitimate reasons for small farmers to use controlled burns to knock back insects and pests… the Amazon produces a lot of oxygen [and] so do soy farms and pastures’1.

Following the work undertaken by Brazil and neighbouring countries to preserve the rainforest, international intervention may therefore not be so much of a legal requirement, but perhaps more of a narrative shared by global media.

Make sense of international environmental law

The political and economic issues surrounding the conservation of the Amazon rainforest are many and complex, but the law has a unique power to set specific and enforceable boundaries. The best preparation for a role in environmental protection is to understand the systems that govern it, and the Online LLM in Energy and Environmental Law will do just that. To find out more, please fill out our request for information form today.


  1. SHELLENBERGER, M. (2019) Why Everything They Say About The Amazon, Including That It’s The ‘Lungs Of The World’, Is Wrong. Forbes [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 08.10.2019]
  2. UNKNOWN (2019) Uptick in Amazon Fire Activity in 2019. NASA Earth Observatory [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 02.10.2019]
  3. UNKNOWN (2019) Amazon. World Wildlife Fund [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 02.10.2019]
  4. PAINTER, J. (2008) Why the Amazon is Important. BBC Radio World Service [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 02.10.2019]
  5. MOORE, A. (2019) Amazon Rainforest Fires: Everything You Need to Know. Phys.Org [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 02.10.2019]
  6. UNKNOWN (2019) Amazon rainforest belongs to Brazil, says Jair Bolsonaro. BBC News [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 08.10.2019]
  7. UNKNOWN (2019) Amazon fires: Brazil to reject G7 offer of $22m aid. BBC News [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 08.10.2019]
  8. UNKNOWN (2019) Amazon fires: Seven countries sign forest protection pact. BBC News [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 08.10.2019]
  9. ACOSTA, L. J. (2019) Amazon countries sign forest pact, promising to coordinate disaster response. Reuters [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 08.10.2019]
  10. UNKNOWN (2019) Paris Agreement 2015. European Commission [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 03.10.2019]

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