The recent attention to the fires in the Amazon rainforest has given way to discussion, namely on social media, about the extent of the problem and what can be done about it.
Data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research show that fire incidents in the Amazon are indeed 80 percent higher from 2018 to 2019, but in fact the number is just 7 percent higher than the average over the last 10 years. That is not to say that these fires are not troubling, detrimental, and newsworthy. Rather, I am attempting to frame this issue as an ongoing one rather than a sudden crisis. Increasing fires in the Amazon have not resulted from sudden impacts of climate change nor a singular political policy, but rather from a more systemic set of economic and political conditions.
Brazil is considered a developing nation. Though it is the largest economy in South or Central America, and the 9th largest in the world, its low GDP per person, high inequality rates, low standards of living, and high infant mortality rates keep it from being considered developed. As such, economic growth is a central concern of both citizens and the government. In the last 50 years, much of this growth has been seen in the area of agribusiness. Through pro-development government policies — subsidies, government provided equipment, lax enforcement of laws — plenty of incentives have spurred production in the cattle, citrus, and soybean industries in Brazil.
In fact, Brazil is the world’s leading exporter of soybeans and the world’s top cattle and veal producer according to the USDA. Sixty percent of the Amazon rainforest is within Brazil and this is where a great deal of deforestation and fire-setting in exchange for economic growth (i.e. agribusiness) is taking place. What is happening in the Amazon is a perfect example of the Tragedy of the Commons.
In 1968, philosopher Garrett Hardin wrote a piece called “The Tragedy of the Commons” which described a game theory problem. When a natural resource is shared by many individuals, in this case the Amazon, and is unregulated, there is an incentive on the part of individuals to exploit that resource for their own benefit. The result, in Hardin’s view, is a spoiled, exploited resource.
Essentially, this is what we are seeing in the Amazon. This common resource is being exploited for the economic benefit of farmers — who, by the way can’t be blamed for wanting to find an economically feasible means of subsistence — at the expense of the resource. The government has laxed regulation around deforestation and has incentivized these farming practices and we are witnessing the results.
Hardin’s conclusion was that only top-down governmental solutions or free-market solutions could help alleviate this tragedy. Nobel prize winner, Elinor Ostrom, later demonstrated that a collapse of the commons is not a foregone conclusion if those sharing the resource work together to govern the commons. In other words, the tragedy is removed if a nested system involving the community, the government, and the market can be agreed upon.
It isn’t a neat and simple solution, but the problem is complex and requires a complex solution. The farming community would need an alternative means of subsistence and economic viability, the government would have to follow through on regulations, and we as global consumers would have to remove the demand for the cattle products. It isn’t as easy as donating to Leonardo Dicaprio’s Earth Alliance, but it is what empirical evidence suggests might just work.