Fires in the Brazilian Amazon have jumped 84% during President Jair Bolsonaro’s first year in office and in July 2019 alone, an area of rainforest the size of Manhattan was lost every day. The Amazon fires may appear to be beyond human authority, but they are not free from human liability.
Bolsonaro had run his presidential campaign, promising to integrate the Amazon into the Brazilian economy. Once elected, he cut the Brazilian environmental protection agency budget by 95% and relaxed safeguards for mining projects on indigenous lands. Farmers arraigned their support for Bolsonaro’s approach as they set fires to clear rainforest for cattle grazing.
Bolsonaro’s spoliation will be most severe for the indigenous people who call the Amazon their home. But the destruction of the world’s largest rainforest may hasten climate change and thus cause more suffering worldwide. For this very reason, Brazil’s former environment minister, Marina Silva, called the Amazon fires a crime against humanity.
From a legal viewpoint, this might be a convenient way of prosecuting environmental destruction. Crimes against humanity are international crimes, like war crimes and genocide, which are deemed to harm both the immediate victims and humanity as a whole. For this, all of humankind has an interest in their trial and deterrence.
Crimes against humanity were first listed as an international crime during the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. No one was accused of crimes against humanity for causing the unprecedented environmental damage that pierced the post-war landscapes though.
Charging individuals for environmental crimes against humanity could be an effective impediment. But the question remains is whether the law will develop in time to prosecute people like Bolsonaro.
Until the International Criminal Court prosecutes individuals for crimes against humanity based on their environmental damage, holding individuals criminally accountable for climate change remains unlikely.