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Saoirse McHugh: How Ireland can help in fighting the Amazon rainforest fires

Giving money to Brazil may not be the solution, but there are ways to make a difference.

Saoirse McHugh

In her fortnightly column for TheJournal.ie, Saoirse McHugh of the Green Party writes about what we can do as individuals in the face of climate chaos.

HORRIFIC IMAGES OF thousands of fires sweeping through the Amazon have dominated the news recently.

This iconic rainforest is now a microcosm of the battle between capitalism and life on earth.

The imagery is stark. Blackened, barren land runs right up to dense, old growth forest and enormous clouds of smoke cover the continent. The environmental cost of this destruction is incalculable.

The burning season in Brazil happens every year yet it seems like this is the first time it has reached Irish news.

One of the reasons the fires are getting so much coverage this time around is the apocalyptic weather that has been witnessed elsewhere around the globe.

Big fires across the Arctic circle, unprecedented melting of the Greenland ice sheet, and extreme floods and heatwaves from Bangladesh to France.

Additionally, scientists are warning that the Amazon is very close to a tipping point whereby rainfall patterns, altered by deforestation, will no longer sustain the rainforest and a vicious cycle of drying and dieback begins.

Furthermore, over the last year, the Irish media has increased its climate breakdown-related coverage as climate change is regularly cited as one of the top three most pressing issues for people in Ireland.

Since before he was elected president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro has been advocating for the expansion of commercial use of the rainforest.

He has given responsibility over indigenous lands and the forestry service to the agriculture ministry which is dominated by big agribusiness interests. He regularly insults and vilifies the indigenous people in his speeches.

He has claimed that the designation of huge areas of Brazil as indigenous lands is used by foreign interests to impair Brazil’s economic growth and has compared the indigenous people living in reserves to animals in a zoo.

There has been a marked increase in illegal miners, loggers, and ranchers moving into protected lands as they are seemingly emboldened by Bolsonaro’s promotion of violence and disregard for the people living in the rainforest.

These fires in the Amazon have prompted a large international response with many wondering what can be done to help.

Several people have suggested that we pay Brazil to keep the Amazon intact as it plays such a vital role in climate regulation and oxygen production.

I understand the logic behind this suggestion. In Ireland, we have already severely depleted our environment, often in the name of progress, and now hope other countries do not follow the same path.

Paying them would be a way to make it financially worthwhile for the country to halt deforestation. It would be a way that we in Ireland could continue exploiting and profiteering from our environment safe in the knowledge that the Amazon is okay.

However, the problems with this approach are numerous, not least because Bolsonaro could then hold the world to ransom for oxygen.

Finally, we would have a price on the air we breathe and it is reasonable to assume that oxygen could go the same way as clean water and good food: afforded by few and out of the reach of many.

It is this attitude towards the environment that has gotten us into this mess. The natural world is seen solely through the lens of financial gain and monetising the world’s oxygen only strengthens that worldview.  

Without paying for oxygen, there are multiple ways that we in Ireland can affect change and stop driving destruction of the Amazon.

Ireland spends a large amount of money every year searching for, creating, and expanding markets for beef and dairy products.

The demand for beef globally is growing at a faster rate than in Brazil and Ireland’s pursuit of new markets is helping create that demand to which beef producers in Brazil are responding.

If we refocused our agriculture away from product export and instead towards a sustainable production of food for Ireland we could stop contributing to the increase in global demand for beef and dairy products.

Boycotting products that drive deforestation sends a message by impacting the industries responsible.

Ireland imports a large amount of soy each year as livestock feed – soy production expands onto livestock pastures which drives further land clearance for cattle.

Products such as hardwoods, palm oil, and gold are also big contributors to deforestation in the Amazon.

This destruction is simply being driven by the search for profit, and so reducing the demand for these products reduces the demand for deforestation.

Lastly, and most importantly, we need to look at how we treat our own environment in Ireland.

It may not seem as important as Brazil because Ireland has been a green desert for many generations, but rewetting bogs, diversifying agriculture, reforesting and rewilding the country need to be top of our environmental concerns.

Pressure must be put on councillors and TDs to stand up for our human rights and the environment, to stop acting like the footmen of harmful industries and to do what is right at every turn.

We must lead instead of pointing fingers.

Realising that we can’t offload environmental action onto other countries while continuing to benefit from our own environmental exploitation will be difficult, but necessary.

In the end we cannot legislate for Brazil, we cannot bribe Brazil and we cannot buy Brazil.

We must put our heads down, look at the part we play in the destruction of the Amazon and do whatever we can, wherever we can.  

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Saoirse McHugh

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