Following catastrophic damage to the Amazon rainforest caused by an ongoing series of fires, the Brazillian government rejected $20 million pledged by the international community at the G7 Summit, alleging imperialistic ulterior motives on the part of French President Emmanuel Macron. However, Bolsonaro’s administration later stated that they would accept the aid, on the condition that the French President Emmanuel Macron apologize for his comments regarding Bolsonaro’s behavior and what appeared to be a disrespectful potshot at Macron’s wife. Furthermore, numerous environmental scientists and indigenous people have alleged that the cattle industry is starting the fires to clear land with Bolsonaro’s support, raising questions as to whether the President even cares about the rainforest and the people and wildlife living within it. Faced with this cataclysmic destruction, how should we view Brazil’s delayed response and this political back-and-forth between world leaders? What do you think these actions mean for the rainforest, and how might they affect global conservation and environmental protection movements?

Prof. Brian Donahue (AMST)

We should certainly be doing what we can to oppose Bolsonaro's polices and protect the Amazon rainforest. The problem is that "we" in the global North lack credibility and leverage until we really tackle the issues of climate change, environmental degradation and injustice. We in America don't have a leg to stand on, at the moment. If we are going to ask the Brazilians not to burn the forest, we need to be taking parallel actions ourselves. For one, we should be eating less meat--particularly feedlot beef. Second, we should be making sure that what animal protein we do consume is produced more sustainably. Along similar lines, if we are going to halt the destruction of primary forests in the tropics (and the boreal), we need to harvest more timber from regrown New England forests--say, to increase the supply of affordable housing--while still protecting ecosystem values such as storing carbon, water quality, and biodiversity. So for me, there is a connection between opposing the destruction of the rainforest and producing more food and wood responsibly here at home. In the end, though, that won't do much good unless we have policies that change the economic signals driving farming and logging around the world.

Brian Donahue is Associate Professor of American Environmental Studies and an expert on the farm and forest industry in New England.

Prof. James Ji (ECON)

From my understanding of the problem, the biggest challenge for the Amazons is that the decision-makers are not properly incentivized to protect the rainforest. The rainforest generates goods and services that are monetized in the markets: timber, profits from alternative land uses (ranching/farming), as well as valuable ecosystem services that the market does not incorporate: biodiversity, carbon sink, water preservation, etc. If these non-market ecosystem services are not taken into account when local residents, landowners or the government make decisions regarding the rainforest, then these decisions will be distorted against preservation. This is what economists refer to as "externalities": economic consequences not fully bare by the decision-maker, which cause the private market to fail to reach the desired outcome. With rising demands for agricultural products from Brazil due to the US-China trade wars, there will be more pressures on the Amazon rainforests, as the incentive to convert it to alternative purposes just got a bit stronger.

James Ji is a lecturer in the Department of Economics and the Environmental Studies Program at Brandeis.

Eleanor Kelman ’20

I feel as though environmentalism is one of the truly nonpartisan issues, and even if it isn’t at the forefront of a political leader’s activism, it should be a very important topic. Bolsonaro had no reason to initially reject the international aid, other than for personal issues far less pressing than the disappearance of such an essential rainforest. His grievances with Macron have nothing to do with the fact that the Amazon rainforest is “the lungs of Earth” and needs to be protected for the safety and well-being of the world’s wildlife and human existence. Bolsonaro’s actions demonstrate that he is ambivalent to environmental protection at best and resistant to it at worst, and we can only hope that humanity sees his inaction as the antithesis of good politics and works harder to fight for environmental protection and conservation of the planet.

Eleanor Kelman is majoring in Computer Science, Linguistics, and Hispanic studies. She is the events coordinator of the Students for Environmental Action club. 

Prof. Sabine von Mering (GER)

The situation in Brazil is a reminder that it is no coincidence we are witnessing a right-wing backlash worldwide at the very moment that the climate crisis is intensifying: One is orchestrated and the other caused by the fossil fuel industry. What should we do about it? Brandeis should divest from fossil fuels. The farmers in Brazil are cutting down the rainforest in large part to grow soybeans for cattle feed. This summer, the UN put out an urgent call that we must all reduce our meat intake. If you are worried about the rainforest I highly recommend that you do two things: stop eating beef and get involved with the climate movement. There’s a great opportunity coming up: The Global Climate Strike on September 20! More details at You could begin by joining Brandeis Climate Justice! I’d love to hear from anyone interested in doing more – email me at

Sabine von Mering is a professor of German and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality studies and serves as the director of the Center for German and European Studies.