There is near universal consensus in the West that Vladimir Putin is a war criminal. Calls to set up a Special Tribunal under the International Criminal Court in The Hague, sooner rather than later, are growing stronger by the day.

However, in the pecking order of war criminals out there, right now, continuing to commit their crimes, Vladimir Putin runs a very poor second to Jair Bolsonaro.

No single person has done more to accelerate the destruction of the Amazon rainforest than Bolsonaro, with deforestation rates increasing by more than 20% in 2021, reaching a 15-year high. Figures for February this year show a further 199 square kilometres lost, the highest February figure ever, more than 60% up on February 2021. The month of February is part of the rainy season in the Amazon. The implications of this for the Climate Emergency are horrifying.

Yet can you imagine Joe Biden or Boris Johnson calling out Jair Bolsonaro as a war criminal? No, you cannot. Even if there wasn’t a war going on in Europe. Even if the world wasn’t still coping with a pandemic.

But why not – apart from the fact that Ecocide (an individual committing crimes against nature) isn’t yet accepted as a crime as heinous as war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Vladimir Putin is killing people today, in real time, as seen on our TV screens, in the heartland of Europe. Our hearts reach out to those people; money, weapons, compassion – it all flows towards Ukraine in response to that very real suffering.

By contrast, Jair Bolsonaro is killing people (far, far more people) tomorrow, in future time, beyond our TV screens, pretty much everywhere in the world. And because we all suffer from a systemic temporal empathy deficit (it’s just not possible to care as much for a notional death tomorrow as for a real death today), nothing happens – apart from some tokenistic international condemnation from governments, with no prospect of Bolsonaro ever being arraigned in the International Criminal Court as the war criminal he so self-evidently is. Every bit as self-evidently as Putin.

And that’s because his immediate war is on Nature. On the Amazon rainforest. The lives of countless millions of people will be the collateral damage resulting from that ongoing devastation.

We’re not talking about some speculative computer modelling here. Just a couple of weeks ago, an article in Nature Climate Change explored two sets of satellite data between 1996 and 2016, showing that 76% of the Amazon became significantly less resilient during that time – in other words, less capable of returning to a stable state after the impacts of either drought or fires.

If that process continues, the Amazon rainforest will inexorably transform into savannah grassland, over a few decades, unlocking around 90 billion tonnes of CO2 (twice the current rate of total annual emissions) locked up in its trees and soil. Parts of the Amazon are already emitting more carbon dioxide than they are absorbing.

As I write this, hundreds of people are apparently still trapped in the theatre in Mariupol, hit by Putin’s missiles on Wednesday 16th March. Should they die (which seems all too possible), their names, one man, woman or child by one man, woman or child, will appear on the charge sheet when Putin is duly arraigned (in his inevitable absence) in front of the International Criminal Court.

Apart from the unbelievably courageous indigenous people and environmental campaigners who’ve done everything they possibly can (with near zero support from the Western world) to protect the Amazon, and who have died in the process, there will be no named individuals on Jair Bolsonaro’s future charge sheet. Even though there will be millions of them.

This week is Ecocide Mobilisation Week, made up of many events in different countries, all campaigning for the crime of Ecocide to be included in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, alongside war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity and crimes of aggression.

Improbable though this may seem, the Stop Ecocide campaign is making real headway, with many governments now looking at the possibility of including Ecocide under the Rome Statute. With both the EU and the UN moving towards much clearer advocacy positions to that effect.

It’s a campaign that needs all our support – even as we continue to do what we can to ensure that Vladimir Putin will – one day – pay the full price for his devastating war crimes in Ukraine.


Stop Ecocide International:

Ecocide Mobilisation Week: