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Who owns the Brazilian rainforest?

11 Sep 2019 - 10:25

The vehement discussion about the fires in the Brazilian rainforest these weeks calls to mind one of the classical theorems in environmental science: The Tragedy of the Commons. In a widely cited article dating from 1968, the American philosopher and biologist Garett Hardin discusses that commonly shared resources run the risk of overexploitation, as individual users will always try to maximise their own use of the resource irrespective of the fact that all users do the same. As a result, the resource will soon be exhausted and the benefits for all will diminish.

The theorem has often been used over the past decades, in particular by neoliberal economists to argue that the property rights of common resources have to be assigned to individual actors. This has for instance resulted in the greenhouse gas emission trading system introduced by the European Union, giving individual industries the right to pollute for a certain period of time. On the other hand, Nobel prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom has also demonstrated that there exist many communities in which common resources can be managed sustainably without having to divide them into individually owned parts.

The rainforest is to a large extent Brazilian territory, and the Brazilian state is therefore without doubt responsible for it.

To what extent is the Tragedy of the Commons applicable to the Brazilian rainforest? On a small scale, it certainly is for some groups. In particular for individual farmers and agribusinesses: by burning parts of it, the primary forest is destroyed and can subsequently be turned into farmland and pastures. The farmers profit individually until the whole resource is destroyed and the farmland is prone to get degraded from overuse. On a larger scale, however, property rights of the Brazilian rainforest in terms of national sovereignty are already clearly assigned: the rainforest is to a large extent Brazilian territory, and the Brazilian state is therefore without doubt responsible for it.

Putting aside his apparent personal resentments with the French President Emmanuel Macron, his remarkable words that NGOs have probably started the fires for own interests and his stated intentions to limit environmental enforcement in the rainforest, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro referred to exactly that national sovereignty when he first refused the funds offered by the G7 countries and then only accepted them conditionally. The New York Times quoted a government spokesman saying that “all external support is welcome, provided the decision over how those resources are employed is ours.”1

Seeing that the Brazilian rainforest is being destroyed without any reaction from the international community would also be unacceptable

Is Bolsonaro right with claiming this exclusive national right to decide about the rainforest as a domestic resource? The answer to that question is not as easy as it might seem. Let us imagine a possible reverse situation. What if the South American trade bloc Mercosur offered some funds to the Netherlands and Norway to make them stop exploiting their domestic gas reserves for the sake of humanity? It sounds as absurd as Trump’s recent offer to buy Greenland from Denmark. Yet, watching the Brazilian rainforest being destroyed without any reaction from the international community would also be unacceptable.

Therefore, some kind of say by the international community in the sound and sustainable management of the Brazilian rainforest might be justified. Under the obvious condition of course that all domestic resources in other countries with an importance to humankind would also fall under similar rules. It is still a daunting thought, but if properly applied in international environmental governance, it would mean a reversal of the Tragedy of the Commons: saving a resource by making it commonly owned – and properly managed.

 

Auteurs

Stephan Slingerland
Senior Visiting Fellow bij het Clingendael Instituut