Raoni In Da (Burning) House!

So the 2019 G7 meeting, in Biarritz, France, is now history. Pundits are pointing to the $22 million promised to Brazil to help extinguish the Amazon forest fires as the meeting’s one solid accomplishment – money that Brazilian President Bolsonaro has since rejected, in a growing feud with this year’s G7 host, President Macron.

You also might have heard how Macron exercised his host’s right to invite to hang out at the summit’s fringes a range of what we used to call Third World leaders: the Indian premier Narendra Modi, the Egyptian dictator General al-Sisi and the like. (Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif also showed up, but that’s another story.) You probably did not hear about another such leader who also appeared at Biarritz.

This is no joke; I’m quite serious here, so I call upon readers to stifle any ugly, prejudicial thoughts. In point of fact, this Indian gentleman (in the sense of native Western Hemisphere Indian) had a closer connection to what Macron and the other G7 leaders were trying to do to save the Amazon than any others present.

He is Raoni (full name: Raoni Metuktire), ambassador to the outside world of a leading tribe of Indians living in the Amazon area. He and his people certainly don’t welcome the increasing deforestation of the Amazon area, as it affects them directly. And he has been agitating against it for a long time.

This L’Obs piece (formerly known as Le Nouvel Observateur) unfortunately chooses the listicle approach to explaining Raoni. No need to replicate that here: Born sometime between 1930 and 1934, he is a chief of the Kayapo people, and his first contact with a Brazilian president was with Juscelino Kubitschek back in the late fifties. Later there was a film made about him and his tribe (called “Raoni,” in 1977) which was presented at Cannes and then made a candidate for Best Documentary for the 1979 Oscars. He also toured with Sting in 1989 through seventeen countries, with concert proceeds partly going to his Amazon cause. It was then that he got to meet then-France President Fran├žois Mitterand and Pope John Paul II. He has met every French president since then.

Raoni says: Bolsonaro OUT!

And he wants Bolsonaro gone, due to the special danger the Brazilian president poses to his tribal lands, and to the Amazon in general. Just prior to being called to Biarritz, he issued a public statement expressing confidence that “the French president and other international forces can exert pressure so that the Brasilian people make Bolsonaro leave and the Congress votes for his dismissal.”

No need to wonder at his attitude: Bolsonaro has clearly been disastrous for the Amazon through removing regulation and even encouraging more Brazilians to move there to exploit ever-more virgin land for ranching or farming, both of which require that it be cleared first. Yet the New York Times now has posted this timely piece giving the other side: many have in fact responded to Bolsonaro’s call to go stake their economic future on pieces of Amazonian land they have claimed and worked for themselves. They’ll tell you that all this fire is normal, both for the current dry season and as a routine tool used for the necessary clearing; says one, “We’re going to continue producing here in the Amazon and we’re going to continue feeding the world. There’s no need for all this outrage.” Understandably, from this point-of-view one can’t help but become annoyed, even outraged, at outside countries (most much richer than one’s own) trying to tell them how they can and cannot use their land.

But there is a need for the outrage. These local farmers do not appreciate the greater service the Amazonian rain forests serve for all humanity as an important factor against climate change. Nor does President Bolsonaro, for it was he who, shortly after coming into office, overturned the strict regulatory regime from earlier Brazil governments that sought to preserve the Amazon as much as possible, and who has rejected the G7 millions to help put out the fires. The fires will be extinguished – eventually – but little further cooperation in preserving the Amazon can be expected down the line from this Brazilian government, even as some EU member-states have brought the recently negotiated free-trade agreement with Mercosur into play, threatening not to ratify if Brazil will not cooperate.

Once you know all the facts – as is so often the case with climate change matters – things are even worse than you thought. The least you can do is gather all the allies that you can – experienced, level-headed ones with on-the-ground knowledge preferred. That’s why Raoni’s presence at Biarritz, if little-noted, was so important.

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