On August 19, São Paulo, Brazil went dark at 4 PM. Drivers in Brazil’s most populous city were forced to turn on their headlights, creating a stream of white and red on the highway, and others took out their phones to record the phenomenon, triggering thousands of feeds around the world to light up with #PrayforAmazonia. The murky, midnight-like darkness was due to smoke from about 10,000 forest fires in the Amazon Basin. Low-lying clouds from a cold front combined with strong winds, blowing the smoke across a span of 2,000 miles. That day, locals found black water in containers used to collect rainwater. Soot, they realized, was what darkened the water.
After photos of the smoky eclipse in São Paulo were published, the burnings garnered international attention and condemnation, notably by the leaders of Germany and France. Germany previously suspended around $39 million in donations to projects under the Ministry of Environment due to concerns over increased deforestation, according to Deutsche Welle. French president Emmanuel Macron called the fires an “international crisis” and took to Twitter to call for putting the issue on the agenda for the G7 Summit, which occurred on August 29. Macron also took a jab at Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, saying that he was lying about his commitment to climate change. “Our house is burning. Literally,” Macron stated on Twitter.
In response, Bolsonaro accused Macron of having a “colonialist mentality” and for utilizing a Brazilian issue for “personal political gain.” The crux of his argument is that the Amazon is Brazil’s sovereign territory. And, regardless of whether or not the French president does have the mindset Bolsonaro accuses him of, France’s history with colonization is undeniable.
There have been more than 87,000 forest fires this year, the highest number since 2010, according to the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (INPE), the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research. Official figures show an 84 percent increase in forest fires compared to the same period last year with little over half originating from the Amazon rainforest. Many of them are caused by escalation in human activity.
Due to the alarm over the Amazon fires, Bolsonaro has come under increased scrutiny. Despite only taking office this past January, the Brazilian president has overseen the increase of man-made fires by the thousands. Much of the burning has been linked to Brazil’s agriculture and agribusiness industry. The role of the Bolsonaro administration in this? Allowing free rein to illegal burning.
During his political campaign, Bolsonaro argued that Brazil was underusing its natural resources, including the Amazon. In part, the president was referring to the Constitution of 1988, which recognized Indigenous peoples’ right to their traditional ways of life and to lands they “traditionally occupied.” Bolsonaro wanted to overturn that. “He promised [there would be] no more demarcation of indigenous lands and [he would] do everything possible to limit environmental restraints to encourage more agricultural and livestock production,” said James Green, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes Professor of Latin American History at Brown University and director of the Brazil Initiative at the Watson Institute for Public and International Affairs, to the College Hill Independent. But recent history shows that economic growth and deforestation do not have to be synonymous. From 2004 to 2012, Brazil grew soy and cattle production while reducing deforestation by 80 percent by encouraging farmers to improve efficiency and utilization of land they already own.
Bolsonaro’s call to exploit more resources is consistent with his political image. Bolsonaro himself came to power through the influential political coalition of the BBB—Boi, Bala e Bíblia, or Beef, Bullet, and Bible. The first B refers to the agribusiness sector, which along with agriculture, constituted 23.5 percent of Brazil’s gross domestic product in 2017 according to Reuters. Brazil, after all, is the world’s largest exporter in beef and soybeans. The latter product, in particular, is closely linked with Bolsonaro’s presidency. Take a look at any map depicting soybean production in Brazil, then compare it to a map of Brazil’s 2018 presidential election. Those who voted for Bolsonaro largely inhabit states where soybean production is flourishing.
Scientists in Brazil supported by the soy sector say the Amazon is not directly a victim of deforestation for the cultivation of soy because the majority of the crop is planted in the Cerrado region, or the savannah, which is located in the south of the Amazon, said Estevão Fernandes, Craig M. Cogut Visiting Professor at Brown and adjunct professor in the Social Sciences Department at Universidade Federal de Rondônia in Brazil. But the problem, in Fernandes’s eyes, is that soy production moved to the north of Brazil and “is now in the Amazon.” Specifically, production is occurring in the rainforest part of northern Mato Grosso and a diagonal strip at the port of Santarèm, according to Philip Fearnside, research professor at the National Institute for Amazonian Research, at the Pulitzer Center.
Bolsonaro’s actions have allowed a flippant disregard for the law. His blaming indigenous people as obstacles to development and criticizing environmental protections as too stringent “sends a clear signal to ranchers and agribusiness that the federal government is not serious about enforcing environmental regulations,” wrote Andre Pagliarini, a lecturer in Latin American, Latino, & Caribbean Studies at Dartmouth College and a contributor to Jacobin, in an email to The College Hill Independent. “He has created a climate of impunity for those who would profit most from deforestation.”
In Brazil, legal reserve legislation requires a property to leave 20 percent of its area for conservation if it is in non-forest or cerrado areas of the Amazon, 35 percent if in cerrado areas, and 80 percent if in forest areas of the Amazon. But since taking office, Bolsonaro has siphoned away funding from government agencies in charge of enforcing that law, according to Green. IBAMA, the Brazilian Ministry for the Environment’s administrative arm and the organization that oversees the protection of the rainforest, saw its budget cut 25 percent.
In an episode of the podcast UN Dispatch, Rebecca Abers, professor of political science at the University of Brazil, explained that one of the things Bolsonaro’s government did was “take the responsibility for deforestation away from the ministry of the environment,” which essentially reorganized Brazil’s government. The employees in those divisions were left without work. “They’re just sort of sitting around,” Abers said, “Basically the institution has stopped operating.”
This near purge of employees in institutions with climate-related missions ranged from contractors to the Director-General of the INPE. Around the time when the international community erupted over the fires, Bolsonaro fired the director of INPE, a government research center internationally recognized for its tropical forest remote-sensing applications. Its real-time Deforestation Detection System (DETER) is used to quickly identify areas where illegal deforestation is occurring and warn law enforcement. DETER has helped reduce “deforestation in the Amazon region when used in conjunction with law enforcement actions,” INPE said.
Earlier, the former director, Ricardo Magnus Osório Galvão, released INPE’s annual report detailing an increase of 88 percent in deforestation this past June compared to the same month one year ago. In response, Bolsonaro claimed that the goal of the report was to malign Brazil’s reputation. “The numbers, as I understand it, were released with the objective of harming the name of Brazil and its government,” Bolsonaro said in a press conference. After defending the accuracy of the satellite’s data, Galvão was fired.
Ricardo Salles, Bolsonaro’s secretary of environment who was convicted of environmental fraud late last year, believes the solution to the wildfires is to “monetize” the forest, according to the Financial Times. Like Bolsonaro, Salles believed that the regulations were too restrictive in the development of areas in the Amazon, pushing people to break the law. The secretary is a proponent of zoning regulation, which would open up the Amazon for development, one of Bolsonaro’s goals.
“The problem is that Bolsonaro is bringing all the government institutions to the cattle side,” said Fernandes. By replacing government employees with people who agree with his policies, Bolsonaro effectively created an imbalance in the democratic system. “It is not just [about] the soy, not just the forest, but also the politics behind all of this,” Fernandes added.
With increased international pressure from other countries regarding the Amazon forest, Bolsonaro has changed his rhetoric, instead accusing foreign governments of wanting to utilize the resources in the Amazon for their own countries’ gain. “Brazil is like a virgin that every pervert from the outside lusts for,” he said when discussing deforestation in the Amazon, according to The New York Times. In an address to the United Nations, Bolsonaro kept his disturbing portrait of the Amazon as a woman, saying that the forest “remains pristine and virtually untouched.” His public platform no longer mentions utilizing the Amazon’s natural resources. But privately, he continues to expand efforts in doing just that. Two months ago, Bolsonaro nominated his son to be the U.S. ambassador because he believes his son can “get a deal with Trump to encourage U.S. companies to come in and take advantage of the Amazon,” Green explained. Bolsonaro’s hypocrisy is evident in the same address he made to the U.N. “The Amazon is not being devastated nor is it being consumed by fire, as the media is falsely portrayed,” the president said. “Do not hesitate to visit Brazil.”
In his defense of Brazilian sovereignty, Bolsonaro accused other governments of wanting to internationalize the Amazon, which, Green notes, plays well to Brazilians of all political stripes. By making that allegation, the Brazilian president was able to weave a story that the extensive flora and fauna, the green in the national flag—and by extension, Brazil itself— is under threat. “Bolsonaro is changing the whole environmental problem into a nationalist problem,” Fernandes added.
However, Green cautioned that the issue should be raised in a way that does not disrespect Brazil’s sovereignty. “The way you raise the issue should be appropriate. In other words, not in any way indicating you have any desire to internationalize the Amazon,” Green said. Green drew a parallel between the Amazon and natural lands internationally, asserting that the Amazon is as much the world’s as “the Great Plains [and] the Rocky Mountains… The Black Forest in Germany is the world’s also. So, I think we have to respect national borders.”
Brazil, Green continued, has a right to decide what happens within its own borders. Talks about internationalizing the Amazon, which constitutes 60 percent of Brazilian territory and is an integral piece to the country’s identity, would only alienate Brazil’s citizens, further stoking Bolsonaro’s inflammatory accusations of a modern “colonialist mentality.” A headline published in early August by Foreign Policy—“Who will invade Brazil to save the Amazon”—caught the eye of Bolsonaro supporters, who then utilized it to raise alarm over the possibility of foreign intervention.
It is an age-old concern, and one Brazil has historically been troubled by. In the 1960s and ’70s, Brazilian generals overseeing the Amazon operated under the phrase occupar para não entregar, “occupy it to avoid surrendering it.” But they did so without acknowledging the millions of people already living in the Amazon, many of which are “desperately poor,” wrote Pagliarini. “They need jobs, incomes, sustainable ways to live that do not depend on perpetuating a hardscrabble existence,” he continued. Other countries are limited in what they can do. Rather, it is Bolsonaro’s policies and goals that are doing the most harm to the Amazon and those living in the forest.
The solution, as Green sees it, is to support efforts to put pressure on Brazil to return to previous environmental protection regulations. This would take a variety of forms ranging from protests to letters to Congress. Green referenced a group of environmentalists, many of them youths, who went to the Brazilian embassy in Israel to voice their concern. Similar actions have been taken in other countries, from Colombia to South Africa. In contrast, Mat Jacobson, Senior Director of Forests at Mighty Earth, a global campaign organization, argued in an interview with the Independent that more attention should be given to agribusiness and corporate consumption as a whole.
“Just as [the Brazilian people] have the right to decide who their leaders are, we have the right to decide what we buy” as consumers of Brazil’s products, said Jacobson, who was also highly involved with other campaign organizations, including Greenpeace in Canada and the U.S. “I don’t think that’s an issue of sovereignty at all.” Jacobson’s reasoning was that if there was no market for the products, there would be no incentive to burn down the forests.
He added that this year is the fifth-year anniversary of the New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF), in which governments and companies agreed to halve the rate of deforestation by 2020 and end natural forest loss by 2030. The declaration was first endorsed by the United Nations Climate Summit in September 2014. However, it is voluntary and non-binding if an endorser is unable to or does not uphold their promise. Jacobson pointed out that JBS and Cargill, two large food processing companies that agreed to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains by 2020, have yet to do so. With only three months left in the year, it “is likely impossible” that 2020 targets will be reached, according to a recent report released this month by NYDF. “This destruction in the Amazon is a direct result of [companies like Cargill] not following through on their commitment,” Jacobson said. “They need to be held accountable at a point where consumers have influence.” This method would attack the meat of Bolsonaro’s objective: opening up the Amazon for development.
What the international community can do to effect change while respecting Brazil’s national sovereignty, however, remains ambiguous. Engage embassies and opening discussion on the issue? Or create change by impacting one of the most important sectors of Brazilian economy? Then, as Bolsonaro likes to harp on, there is also the hypocrisy of developed countries denouncing what Brazil, a developing country, does with its natural resources when the former historically profited from their own and other countries’ resources. By appealing to all Brazilians, Bolsonaro effectively created an 'us vs. them' mindset, turning the focus of domestic critics away from his own destructive policies. “If the international community sounds interventionist, chances are that Bolsonaro will be more successful in rallying [Brazilians] around the flag,” said Matias Spektor, associate professor of international relations at Fundação Getúlio Vargas, in an interview with The Washington Post.
At the 74th Session of the United Nations, Bolsonaro stated that Brazil had “suffered in the hands of international media because the fires in the Amazon awoke in us a feeling of patriotism.” Olavo de Carvalho, an ultra-right wing political pundit who was, according to Bolsonaro’s son, instrumental in helping Bolsonaro win the election, said the Amazon “must be occupied militarily. Amazonia is ours and we have to assert national power there. End of story.” Occupar para não entregar indeed.
Fires in the Amazon tend to peak in the September dry season. It remains to be seen how serious our prayers for Amazonia will need to be.
AURIA ZHANG ’22 urges people to keep the pressure on Bolsonaro.