Resource Sovereignty and Carbon Sink Conservation

Submitted by Sonja Johnston on Fri, 05/01/2020 - 15:04

Zachary Rosen is completing his B.A. in philosophy and history and holds the Dr. Jan Blumenstein Award in the Humanities as a 2019-2020 Undergraduate Fellow. Zachary’s research is in the political philosophy of climate crisis mitigation; specifically, his research investigates how the principle of permanent sovereignty over natural resources can be a barrier to meaningful mitigation action, especially with regard to the conservation of crucial carbon sinks like rainforests. Zachary gave the last presentation of our 2019-20 Fellows’ Lunch recently over Slack and provided the content for this blog post, based on his presentation.

Over the summer of 2019, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon region attracted international outrage. Fires in the region, which were up nearly 80% compared to the previous year were a direct result of the actions of the new President, Jair Bolsonaro.1 While campaigning for the presidency, Bolsonaro had often expressed the view that the Amazon was an underexploited economic asset for Brazil. Once in office, he seriously weakened existing environmental protection measures, defunded and reorganized the Ministry responsible for enforcement, and publicly expressed his support for economic development of the Amazon region.2 Facing condemnation from the international community, Bolsonaro declared that any response would be a violation of Brazilian sovereignty.

Was he wrong? According to traditional views of sovereignty, he was not. The exclusive right to manage and exploit natural resources is often taken to be a component of sovereignty authority.3 But terrestrial carbon sinks are responsible for up to 25% of global carbon absorptive capacity, and conserving carbon sinks like the Amazon is a crucial part of mitigating the worse effects of climate change.4 The imperative of conserving the Amazon would surely outweigh any economic benefit that its exploitation might deliver; but is this calculation compatible with the doctrine of permanent resource sovereignty? Zachary’s research investigates this tension by examining the connections between sovereignty, self-determination, and control over resources.

First, Zachary’s project surveys the existing justifications for resource sovereignty and argues that none of them can explain a permanent or inviolable version of the principle, according to which any outside pressure affecting resource management would be a violation. Then, he defends a qualified resource sovereignty based on the values of self-determination (the right of communities to be authors of their own institutions) and of located life-plans (the personal importance that we often place on particular places or resources).

Map showing the extent of forest fires in Brazil
Data from the World Meteorological Organization shows the extent of the Amazon fires in August 2019.


Zachary argues that respecting these values means that sovereign control over resources needs to be limited rather than absolute. One way of understanding the connection between sovereignty and self-determination is with the affected interests principle, which is the idea that being affected by a decision confers a right to participate in its creation. But affected interests won’t work on its own.5 A more plausible explanation might be that sovereignty ought to be limited when it threatens the stability of affected communities6 or when it threatens individuals’ human rights.

Indigenous groups protesting Brazil's policies involving the Amazon
Indigenous communities, whose protected lands are at risk, have protested Bolsonaro’s policies.


This research is part of a broader shift from understanding sovereignty as a system of rights towards a greater emphasis on sovereign responsibility. Mitigating the worst impacts of climate change will require taking a hard look at some of the beliefs and institutions that have made us so slow to act. The ‘everyone for themselves’ ethos that comes with sovereignty is ill-fitted for a project that will require cooperation and coordination on a global scale.


  1. Manuela Andreoni and Christine Hauser, “Fires in Amazon Rainforest Have Surged This Year”, New York Times (August 21st 2018).
  2. Letícia Casada and Ernesto Londoño, “Under Brazil’s Far Right Leader, Amazon Protections Slashed and Forests Fall”, New York Times (July 28th , 2019).
  3. See for examples Anna Stilz, Territorial Sovereignty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 219; David Miller, “Territorial Rights: Concept and Justification” in Political Studies 60, no. 2 (2012), 253.
  4. IPCC, Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC (2007), 515.
  5. Robert Goodin, “Enfranchising All Affected Interests, and its Alternatives” in Philosophy and Public Affairs 35, no.1 (March 2007).
  6. Cara Nine, “When Affected Interests Demand Joint Self-Determination: Learning from Rivers” in International Theory 6, no.1 (March 2014).