Is Bolsonaro to Blame for the Amazon Fires?

The Amazon forest in Brazil has been burning for a long time. Although we are seeing the sharpest increase of fires in years, the destruction and looting of the largest reservoir of biodiversity in the world is not a recent phenomenon. Since 2015, when the current economic crisis hit Brazil, fires have been increasing progressively.

The area of the Amazon rainforest comprises of more than two million square miles, and covers eight South American countries. It is home not only to a formidable diversity of animal and plant species, but also to a broad array of human societies. Scientists estimate that more than one million people lived in the region when the Spanish and Portuguese colonisers arrived at the end of the 15th century. A tiny proportion of them, 400 tribes approximately, resist until today, struggling to preserve their culture and way of life.

Different causes underlie this unprecedented surge of fires. Global warming is one of them, but above all, we must blame an administration that never showed the intention to preserve the environment. According to the Brazilian Institute for Space Research (INPE), the main reason for the current fires, which are mostly human-caused, is illegal land-grabbing for pastoral farming.

Bolsonaro’s disrespect for the environment and the Amazon native people was clear from the beginning of his presidential bid. His usual bawls at NGOs, environmentalists and social movements testify it. In one of his numerous outbursts of rage, he accused NGOs of setting the forest on fire to damage Brazil´s reputation. On another occasion, he told journalists that NGOs treated native populations as animals in a zoo. With these remarks, Bolsonaro seeks to divide the indigenous people, turning them against the environmental movement. He also tried to lure indigenous leaders (known in Portuguese as “caciques”) with false promises of progress and wealth.

According to the Brazilian Institute for Space Research (INPE), the main reason for the current fires, which are mostly human-caused, is illegal land-grabbing for pastoral farming.

The Brazilian president has a clear strategy to spread deforestation. Even before his inauguration, he announced the dissolution of the Ministry of Environment into the Ministry of Agriculture, a department historically controlled by the agribusiness sector. Doing this would mean something like throwing chickens into a wolves’ lair. After widespread public outcry, he had to back down. But the temporary setback did not mean that he had given up on the idea of loosening environmental legislation and allowed the exploitation of the Brazilian rainforest. Once in power, he set in motion an orchestrated plan to dismantle monitoring agencies, especially IBAMA (Brazilian Environment Institute), FUNAI (National Indian Foundation), and the previously mentioned INPE.

In tone with the plan, Bolsonaro’s administration abolished the Ministry of Labour, a department that played a critical role in curbing illegal forms of labour in the Amazon. Well into the 21st century, informality and even slavery are recurrent practices in the region. They are usually associated with illegal deforestation and land-grabbing. Armed groups working for big farmers and land occupiers intimidate and supress any resistance to these practices coming from indigenous people and civil society groups. According to Bolsonaro, Brazil’s labour laws overprotect workers at the expense of employers and businesspeople. Unfortunately, this is not only his personal opinion but something in which most of the Brazilian economic elite strongly believes.

After the current Brazilian constitution came into force in 1988, ending 20 years of military rule, the country saw important advances in terms of land demarcation for native populations. The fundamental law recognises several rights, primarily their right to use the land and to live according to their traditions. Created in 1967, FUNAI became a crucial player in that respect, mapping out and protecting lands inhabited by these communities. Bolsonaro transferred FUNAI to the Ministry of Agriculture, the same thing he unsuccessfully tried to do with the Ministry of Environment. This time, however, no one could stop him. Since then, not only has the rate of land demarcation sunk, but we are witnessing an upsurge in invasions of indigenous property by land-grabbers. Once again, we see the hands of the agribusiness industry, which has always opposed land reform in Brazil.

The links between Bolsonaro and the agribusiness sector became public in October 2018, during the second round of the presidential elections, when the powerful farming lobby declared its support for the retired army captain. This probably meant the transference of millions of dollars to his campaign. Bolsonaro is now paying back the generosity.

There is an apparent connection between the environmental crisis and the terrible economic downturn affecting Brazil at the moment. Bolsonaro´s economic plan relies on privatisations of public companies and austerity reforms to reduce the federal deficit. High rates of poverty and unemployment are creating more inequality. In the Amazon region, which comprises more than half of the country, the situation is even worse than in the more industrialised Southern and South-eastern Brazil.

The Brazilian government should welcome any international assistance, as long as it does not mean giving up its sovereignty over the region. Nevertheless, as the situation in the Amazon becomes more critical, the Bolsonaro administration is showing clear signs that it will not live up to the task of dealing with the problem. His nationalist bursts against Macron are mere rhetoric. His strategic alliance with the agribusiness sector represents a severe threat to the environment.

As suggested above, the destruction and looting of the Amazon is an endemic problem in Brazil. A set of environmental policies to address the issue must include tightening legislation, penalising deforestation and illegal land occupation, strengthening the environmental agencies, and allocating massive investments in technologies to detect illegal activities in the forest.

The Bolsonaro administration is not willing to formulate such a plan. It is doing precisely the opposite, and we cannot trust him. At the current pace of deforestation, the Amazon will turn into a savannah, as scientists warned, sooner than we think. We are approaching the point of no return. Once there, the future of humanity on earth will be under threat, unless we do something now.

This article was first published on SOAS Spirit

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