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  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

PART 2 - Enforcement of International Environmental Law to Curb Blazing of Amazon Rainforest

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

In April 2019, Brazil’s government pursued anti-environmental policies which resulted in the catastrophic Amazonian rainforest fires. Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s right-wing President came into power in January 2019 and declared an increase in deforestation, reduction in funding for environmental agencies and reduced environmental protections. According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) there was an 80% increase in fires in April 2019 compared to the same time in 2018.[i] Following pressure after global condemnation, he claimed that Brazil had a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to environmental crimes. But aside from criticism, what were the repercussions for such environmentally damaging actions?

Consequences of environmentally damaging governmental policies

The enforcement of international environmental law has had a complicated history. Treaties formed in the 1950s and grew in number and importance in the 1990s, yet even today there are struggles with their enforcement. The environmental law is enforced predominantly out of compliance[ii] and is not particularly effective. According to Carl Bruch, director of international programs at the Environmental Law Institute in Washington D.C, ‘the emphasis needs to shift from development of policies and institutions to implementation and enforcement.’[iii] The United Kingdom’s environmental legislation has been historically broad; its commencement delayed and statutes being conferred with wide discretions. At an international level, it is even more complicated. Currently, if a government wishes to pursue anti-environmental policies; it is theoretically able to do so.

It is not just Brazil’s government which has pursued anti-environmental policies. Many nations’ claims of their environmental policies contradict their actions. Russia, for example, has some of the strongest environmental democracy laws according to the Environmental Democracy Index[iv] and yet in practice have shown to be hostile to environmental activists.[v] While some, such as the United States under President Trump, have explicitly shown their apathy towards the issue by withdrawing from the significant Paris Agreements. Developing countries such as Malaysia and Cambodia equally scored low on the Environmental Democracy Institute.[vi] Equally, some countries including Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Bangladesh and Thailand do not have any provisions whatsoever against factories polluting the environment.

For many countries, the supposed restricting of economic growth is not worth the environmental benefits. However, as environmental issues are global issues, it is crucial that all countries contribute. Public environmental activism can be particularly impactful. This year there has been ‘the largest climate protest in history’[vii] with over 4,600 protests across 150 countries. In the United Kingdom, public concern for the environment is at its record high, with over 45% of 18-24 year olds citing the environment as the nation’s biggest concern.[viii] Tangible results in the UK are in the process of forming, such as the introduction of an Environment Bill and new targets for reducing carbon emissions.

How can consequential action be more enforceable in the future?

Although Jair Bolsonaro faced little more than criticism, measures can be taken beyond the law to ensure environmentally destructive policies have consequences. Beyond public activism, other governments can also exert pressure on governments with environmentally harmful policies. The EU for example, can pass laws requiring its companies which trade with Brazil or any other country, to fully trace their supply chains. As a result, there would be tangible economic consequences for government actions which would force a country to act in a more environmentally sustainable way.

Even though there is current freedom to act in an environmentally disadvantageous way, as demonstrated through the number of countries which undermine the environment in their policies; pressure can be exerted through the public and through institutions like the EU to encourage adherence and consideration of environmental concerns.

Jemima Gravatt (Environment)


[i] A Borunda, ‘See how much of the Amazon is burning, how it compares to other years’ National Geographic (29th August, 2019) >accessed 27th November 2019

[ii] M E O’ Connell, ‘Enforcement and the Success of International Environmental Law’ Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies Vol. 3, No. 1 (1995), pp. 47-64

[iii] Cited in K Brown ‘Most Countries Have Environmental Regulations. Very Few Actually Abide By Them’ (Pacific Standard, 29th January 2019) < >accessed 29th November 2019

[iv] Cited in J Worker, ‘The Best and Worst Countries for Environmental Democracy’ (World Resources Institute, 20th May 2015) < >accessed 27th November 2019

[v] I Lozovsky, ‘Russia’s Foremost Environmental Activist, in Exile: Oil Its at Fault for Everything’ (Foreign Policy, 24th April 2015) <> accessed 27th November 2019

[vi] Supra, Note 2

[vii] P Weston, ‘Climate Strike: Key stats from protests as more than 4,600 events are held in 150 countries’ The Independent (20th September 2019)

[viii] M Smith, ‘Concern for the Environment at record highs’ (YouGov, 5th June 2019) <YouGov >accessed 29th November 2019

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