Image: Reuters / Paulo Whitaker TPX Images of the Day

Bolsonaro, the Amazon and the world’s next environmental catastrophe

Brazil’s far-right leader has designs on the rainforest—and we will all suffer the consequences
May 6, 2019

Dorothy Stang was 73 when she was murdered. Cornered by the man who would kill her, she said she did not have a weapon; instead she took out her Bible and read him a couple of verses. The gunman was unmoved—he shot her six times, with extreme brutality for such a frail body, and left her to die.

The murder took place in Anapu, a small city in the Brazilian state of Pará which is more than 2,000km north of Rio. Stang was known to all as Sister Dorothy. A missionary in the Catholic Church’s Pastoral Land Commission, she worked with peasants and small farmers for sustainable ways to develop the land. She was a fierce defender of the Amazon, but not simply as a place filled with magnificent trees and exotic animals: Sister Dorothy understood that the forest was a means of survival for many of Brazil’s poorest people.

This was what made her dangerous to wealthy farmers. She wasn’t merely defending some vaguely-defined concept of “nature;” she saw the Amazon as an empowering resource to people who would otherwise have nothing. Her presence was bothersome to powerful groups who sought to exploit the forest’s land for profit—so much so, that she had begun to receive death threats. Days before she was murdered, Sister Dorothy had reported her situation to officials tasked with protecting human rights, in the hope that the government would be moved to action. It was not.

It is easy to place this ugly story into the emerging narrative of Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil. On his way to the top, the new far-right president cast doubt on climate change, committed to slash environmental -protections and branded land rights activists “terrorists.” Since taking office on 1st January, he has banned environmental agencies from talking directly to the press, and flirted with ruinous Amazon mining schemes. He has painted those who wish to protect the Amazon as not just his enemies, but enemies of the whole nation. In sum, the Brazil he is building is, very starkly, a land where the might of loggers and cattle farmers will count for everything, and the vast wooded wilderness and its people will count for nothing.

Sister Dorothy’s murder, however, did not take place during Bolsonaro’s rule: it happened in 2005, under the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who led arguably Brazil’s most progressive government. These were the country’s golden years, the years of praise from the Economist, back-slapping meetings about the Third Way with Tony Blair and the glory of winning the rights to host both the football World Cup and the Olympic Games. Poverty rates were falling, and the economy was healthy. To outsiders, Lula also seemed like he was serious about the environment—he backed Kyoto, understood global warming to be real, and oversaw a slowing of the pace of Amazon deforestation rates.

Even during Brazil’s brighter times, however, the Amazon region has been scorched with ash—and the Amazon question drenched in blood.

The Amazon has a strange place in the Brazilian psyche. Most Brazilians are proud of the great rainforest’s vastness, of the rich diversity in both plants and native fauna. Yet in a country where basic sanitation is far from guaranteed for all, concerns about conservation take a backseat to other, more pressing issues. Though polling at number five among Brazilians’ main concerns, the environment is far behind violence, corruption and health—the issues that usually help decide elections.

Though the forest itself expands across South America, almost half of it is contained inside Brazil, covering some 4.1m km². To put that in perspective, if the Brazilian Amazon were a country, it would be the seventh largest in area in the world—even bigger than India. Parts of it are still entirely isolated from the rest of the nation, and on occasion, new species are found. But only about 12 per cent of the Brazilian population actually lives in the region, and the size of the country means most people never visit.

The Amazon exists, then, in a kind of vast abstraction in the Brazilian mind. Distant from most, it is almost a foreign land glimpsed in documentaries and read about at school. Every Brazilian has marvelled at the idea of its wide rivers, the beautiful blossoms of the victoria amazonica, its colourful birds—but these things are quickly put out of mind once the subject is over. Its preservation might, sometimes, be judged important. But it is seen as someone else’s responsibility.

The majority of Brazilian people do not explicitly vote for the Amazon to be cut down, of course. The image of the forest being burnt to the ground, of a sea of trees with vast, football-stadium sized holes in it, of animals suffocating to death from the black smoke spreading across the sky, is a miserable one. However, voting for the destruction of the Amazon is effectively what Brazilians have done for decades: one of the strongest political groups in the Brazilian Congress is the beef caucus, which represents big agricultural monopolies. The group often votes down any environmental legislation with impact, as well as any attempts to protect indigenous rights or promote agrarian reform.

To Brazilian agribusiness, the Amazon is untapped land that could make way for pastures or plantations. There is big money to be made: Brazil is the largest producer of soy in the world, while it also exports 1.6m tons of beef worth US$6.5bn every year. Most of the land used to generate these exports comes from the Amazon—in the past two decades, the number of cows in the Brazilian Amazon has risen from 37m to 85m.

The methods used to clear the land aren’t limited to chopping down the large, life-giving trees and replacing them with pasture or plantations; traditionally, the process involves torching vegetation and everything in its way, destroying nutrients from the soil. This not only speeds up the desertification process, but also reduces the lifespan of the land, resulting in further fires as farmers move on in search of richer soil.

The left is not immune from embroilment. The Brazilian Workers’ Party—the party of Lula and his successor, Dilma Rousseff—made several alliances with the caucus, and would constantly endorse big projects in the Amazon region, not caring about the fears of environmentalists and indigenous rights activists. Consider the Belo Monte dam—a former dictatorship brainchild that would become the fourth biggest dam in the world, built on the Xingu river. Its construction destroyed the livelihood of traditional populations—about 175km² of protected woods were chopped down, while a further 500km² was flooded.

Yet this project was brought to life not by any nefarious influence of the right, but by Lula himself. When the Rousseff government was about to collapse, one of its last remaining allies was staunch beef caucus congresswoman Katia Abreu, mocked by Greenpeace as “Miss Deforestation”(she later popped up as the Democratic Labour Party candidate for vice president).

In his virulent anti-environmentalism at least, then, Bolsonaro is not such an aberration. Neither he, nor his callous indifference to the Amazon, are extraneous forces put into Brazilian politics. But in many ways, they are its culmination. 

Though the Brazilian Amazon was considered of economic interest during the Rubber Boom of the late 1800s and early 1900s, it mostly remained untouched into the 1960s. It was the military dictatorship, which ran from 1964 to 1985 and whose political soil Bolsonaro grows out of, that changed that. Unlike its Chilean cousin, with its proto-Thatcherite small state economics, the Brazilian generals were hands-on and dirigiste in pursuit of modernisation. They saw the Amazon region as under-developed and its resources under-exploited. The dictatorship’s so-called “pharaonic projects” were an opportunity, they believed, to drag the isolated regions in the north into the future.

One of these projects was the plan for an immense highway called Transamazonica, the Trans-Amazon Highway, which began construction in the 1970s. It embodied everything about Brazil’s reliably unreliable handling of infrastructure projects: it was overly ambitious, unnecessarily expensive, and never properly finished. From the smallest hospital to the 2014 World Cup stadiums, few construction projects escape the same fate as the immense highway.  

It was supposed to be much more than a road. The government hoped to eventually house one million people in a series of villages and towns built alongside the highway. Every 10km there would be an “agrovillage,” with 48 to 64 houses, a school and a clinic. These would be under the supervision of an “agropolis,” situated every 50km along the highway, which would have 500 houses, shops and petrol stations. Finally, there would be a larger “ruropolis” every 150km.

These new homes would be for Brazilians primarily from the drought-affected northeast. But only 20 of the new settlements were ever built, with homes for just 20,000 families. Those families found scarce support when they arrived. Instead, there was hunger, disease, and a bitter terrain.

The road itself hardly constituted a success either. Starting from the city of Cabedelo, in the northeast, the highway was supposed to cut a swathe through the Amazon and reach the border with Peru—via a winding route at one point envisaged as 8,000km long. Eventually, the project was abandoned after 4,200km of road had been completed. And parts of the supposedly finished highway were actually just rough roads without tarmac. During the worst of rainy season, it is all but unusable for six months. This monument to failure cost the military regime about US$1.5bn; one can only wonder at the other tenebrous transactions that took place under the table.

The environmental damage, however, was done. If you were to pinpoint the moment where distance and volume would no longer keep the Amazon safe from human destruction, the Trans-Amazon Highway would be probably a good place to start. Once the way was open for trucks to drive into the heart of the rainforest, deforestation shot up, opening the way for loggers and cattle farmers. The forest had been broken; by the 1980s, a decade after the highway had first begun to cut a swathe through the rainforest, it was estimated that an area of 56,000km²—that’s almost three times the size of Wales—had been cut down.

The loss of ancient trees and undiscovered species attracted much ire, but it is the dictatorship’s massacres of indigenous people that was the unspoken horror of the Trans-Amazon Highway. To clear a way for the road, communities had to be moved. And when they refused to go, the military regime forced them. In a civil suit that is currently being heard in Brazil, federal prosecutors accuse the Brazilian state of genocide following the deaths and disappearances of an estimated 2,000 people when another highway, BR-174, was built. Prosecutors allege the Brazilian military dropped chemical bombs before soldiers slaughtered fleeing villagers.

The Brazilian dictatorship is often classed as “soft” when compared to those in neighbouring Chile and Argentina, because the number of people “disappeared” was only in the hundreds, not the thousands. But such tallies rarely account for what was done to Brazilian indigenous people: contact with the new settlers and builders meant thousands of Native Brazilians died from exposure to previously unknown diseases. On top of that came sexual abuse, torture, forced displacements and outright killings.

The dictatorship’s legacy was never repudiated. Instead, Brazil did what Brazil does: it forgot all about it, trying to find an easy way out of facing its history. The view that the Amazon is a backwards region that desperately needs some kind of gigantic project to move it forward is still a part of the country’s mindset. During last year’s election, even some on the left would talk complacently about how a flawed dictatorship at least believed in investing in the country. And now we’re governed by Bolsonaro, who positively praises the military dictatorship for the resolution it demonstrated through its inhumane acts. 

The 1980s were transitional times for Brazil; a fledgling democracy was coming to life, through a traumatic transition marked by the inauspicious death of what should have been the first civilian president, Tancredo Neves, and the turbulent economic policies of his successor, José Sarney.

Sarney was from a landowning dynasty, with little reason to care about the plight of the rainforest. But even he could not ignore the Amazon’s first dramatic assassination in 1988: trade unionist Chico Mendes, an environmentalist who had drawn international attention to the damage caused by cattle farmers and loggers. Part of a wider union pushback against dictatorship repression, Mendes was the most prominent member of the growing movement for the rights of rubber tapper workers in the Amazon region. (Rubber tapping is considered a much more sustainable way to use its resources than ranching or logging—the same tree can be used for more than 10 years.)

There are many parallels with Sister Dorothy’s death, a couple of decades later. Like her, Mendes had been threatened by farmers for years; his eventual assassin was the son of a wealthy farmer. The crime forced the Amazon into Brazilian politics with force for the first time; successive governments created more preservation areas and, in 2007, the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation was established as a part of the environment ministry.

Yet to track the limits of Mendes’s legacy is to begin to understand the Brazilian ambivalence towards the Amazon. Yes, his death enabled the rise of campaigning politicians such as Marina Silva, who later became Lula’s environment minister. But it did nothing to challenge the might of the all-powerful beef caucus; every government, even the ones led by people who should know better, chose to support agribusiness rather than confront it. And now we have a government that shows no sign of knowing any better. Recently, Bolsonaro’s environment minister, Ricardo Salles, spelled out his contempt for the murdered campaigner’s legacy boldly: “It is irrelevant who Chico Mendes was.” 

Bolsonaro’s rise to power is often described as the path of an insurgent—riding a wave of discontent, defending supposedly threatened “Christian values,” speaking with supposedly admirable (some would say Trumpian) “brutal honesty,” and—at every stage—posturing against the “establishment.” Yet for his big words “against all that has been going on,” Bolsonaro enjoyed essential backing from three exceptionally well-established caucuses in Congress: the Christian right, the pro-gun legislators and of course, the beef caucus.

The president’s threat to Brazil’s eden and the world’s lungs is not disguised: “The country cannot continue,” he has said, “with parts of its territory taken over by these reservations, these national parks, these protected lands.” A few months into his rule, the beef caucus is happy with the way things are going. Deforestation had already shot up during the 2018 campaign, with a 13.7 per cent increase from the previous year and a record high for the decade. The soy moratorium, which for more than a decade saw industry, civil society and government agree that soy could not be sourced from farmers who have cleared the forest, is unlikely to be renewed. Demands from the beef caucus for more land to be made available for cattle will be met.

Bolsonaro even attempted to scrap the environment ministry, something which raised alarms outside of the country and was a step too far even for agribusiness—there is such a thing as being too obvious in your intentions. Instead, the president has kept the ministry, but cut its powers. He also intends to repeal laws that enable the government to levy environmental fines. The already tenuous accountability would all but vanish completely. Environment minister Salles is an obvious partisan of agribusiness causes, with no other interest in an Amazon region that he’s never visited before. The Bolsonaro ideology, if its mishmash of conservative rhetoric and bigotry can be called that, sees global warming as a foreign leftist conspiracy intended to cut Brazil of its powers, by subjecting it to some sort of socialist border-straddling bureaucracy.

And so, the march into the forest continues. This matters, not only because of the loss of plants—many of which help make medicines—and animal life, but also for the potential loss of human lives if Bolsonaro follows the dictatorship’s lead in his dealings with both indigenous Brazilians and green activists. Bolsonaro has said several times he intends to “integrate” Brazilian indigenous people into the rest of the country, claiming that what these populations really want are the same benefits as everybody else. This is a poorly concealed threat to indigenous people, who are seen as the property of the Brazilian state to be used as it pleases, even physically so—Bolsonaro minister Damares Alves was accused of kidnapping an infant child from an indigenous community.

But the destruction matters, too, because the Amazon’s impact on the world’s environment cannot be over-stated. The rainforest is the world’s largest “carbon sink,” its trees absorbing some 2bn tons of carbon dioxide every year, equivalent to 6 per cent of global emissions. Those trees also release 20 per cent of the Earth’s oxygen. These numbers alone make plain there can and will be no happy ending to the climate change story without protection of the Amazon. But worse, much worse, the destruction of the Amazon also risks unleashing feedback loops of climate change that humanity will not be able
 to control.

The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report argued last year that the world had 12 years—now 11—to avoid a climate change catastrophe. That figure does not account for an Amazon torched in the name of progress by Bolsonaro. If there is a ticking time clock on human life as we know it, then the new Brazilian government is systematically stealing minutes off our existence. There was a time where the world could afford to think of Brazilian violence in the forest as a Brazilian problem. Yet for the first time since Brazil began its bloody history in the Amazon, it is not just this country that will face the consequences. It is the world.