As the world watches in horror and terror as the Amazon burns, scientists have made clear that the cause, principally if not entirely, is human activity.
Here in Brazil, that human activity has human names and faces: those of Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian president, and his extremist environment minister, Ricardo Salles. They have not merely permitted these devastating fires, but have encouraged and fueled them.
They have done so with a toxic brew of radical ideology, political corruption and banal greed. Put simply, the ongoing destruction of the Amazon is taking place because of policy choices made by those who now rule Brazil.
The magnitude of these fires, and the severity of the dangers they pose to the world, have been widely demonstrated over the last week. As the New York Times reported on Wednesday, the National Institute for Space Research documented that it “had detected 39,194 fires this year in the world’s largest rain forest, a 77% increase from the same period in 2018”.
The raging fires have become so potent that the smoke they generate plunged the western hemisphere’s largest city, São Paulo, into total darkness in the middle of the day on Tuesday. What was particularly shocking about that sudden event was that the Amazonian fires are hundreds of miles away from that city, but have become so dense and overwhelming that they snuffed out light in that distant major metropolis.
To the extent one can locate any silver lining in this literal dark cloud, it is that the cause of these fires are almost entirely manmade, which means they can be stopped with changes in human behavior – specifically, with policy changes by Brazil’s new government.
Bolsonaro’s election victory last November was a shock to the Brazilian political system because, as a congressman for almost 30 years, his retrograde and unhinged views had relegated him to the fringe of politics life. His presence in the congress was regarded by most as a national embarrassment; that he would one day occupy the presidential palace was unthinkable.
But as has happened in numerous other countries in the democratic world, including the US, a series of crises and failures validly attributed to the establishment class have driven large sections of the country’s population into the arms of any self-styled outsider, no matter how demagogic and radical.
Among Bolsonaro’s many extremist views is climate denialism as stubborn and extreme as any prominent world figure, if not more so. He has long dismissed the scientific consensus about climate scenarios as a hoax. And he campaigned on an explicit pledge to exploit – ie destroy – the Amazon, which currently provides 20% of the world’s oxygen and which climate scientists widely regard as the most valuable asset humanity possesses in our increasingly difficult battle to avoid climate catastrophes.
Since his election, Bolsonaro has not only made good on his promises to fundamentally subvert our country’s long-standing commitment to protect the Amazon, but has done so with a speed and aggression that has surprised even his most virulent critics. To be sure, Bolsonaro’s predecessors – including those from the center-left Workers’ Party – have earned their share of valid criticisms from environmentalists for harming the Amazon for industrial gain. But – after just eight moths in office – Bolsonaro’s damage to the world’s greatest rain forest is in an entirely different universe of magnitude.
Deforestation is an affirmative goal of Bolsonaro. That can be achieved by cutting down trees or, more efficiently, by simply burning large areas that Brazil’s agricultural industry wants to exploit. It also means displacing the indigenous tribes that have lived in those forests for centuries: people for whom Bolsonaro has repeatedly expressed contempt. Their displacement from those lands has often been accomplished with violence against environmental activists and indigenous leaders.
Bolsonaro’s choice for his environment minster, Ricardo Salles from the so-called New Party (Partido Novo), exemplifies the radical and even violent anti-environmentalism fueling these fires. Last year, Salles, while serving as a state environmental official in São Paulo, was found guilty of administrative improprieties for having altered a map to benefit mining companies.
He was fined and deprived of his political rights – including his right to seek elected office – for eight years. Bolsonaro evidently viewed these transgressions as a virtue since he announced his selection of Salles to serve in his cabinet a mere three weeks after his conviction.
In 2018, Salles – now the custodian of the Brazilian Amazon – ran for federal Congress with a political ad that displayed bullets from a rifle as his solution for environmental activists, indigenous tribes impeding the destruction of their land, and “leftists”. Salles lost his bid for congress, but was rewarded with a much more powerful position: Bolsonaro’s environment minister.
Bolsonaro and Salles view deforestation as such a pressing priority that they openly despise anyone who seeks to impede it. Earlier this month, Bolsonaro fired a top scientist after he warned the country that deforestation was taking place at an unprecedented and dangerous rate. Last month, when a reporter asked Bolsonaro about the damage being done to the environment by his industrial policies, the president contemptuously told the reporter he should defecate less: “One day yes, one day no.” And, in the face of rising political pressure over the Amazonian fires, he infamously, and baselessly, blamed environmental groups this week for having started them.
The agencies charged with safeguarding the nearly one million indigenous people in Brazil have suffered such severe budget cuts under Bolsonaro that they are now barely functioning. During the campaign, he vowed: “Not one centimetre will be demarcated for indigenous reserves or quilombolas.” In late July, gold miners invaded an indigenous village and one of its leaders was stabbed to death.
All of these dramatic changes have occurred not only from ideology but also political captivity. Along with rightwing evangelicals and supporters of Brazil’s past military dictatorship, Brazil’s powerful agribusiness sector is a critical component of the coalition that swept Bolsonaro into office.
Their gamble on Bolsonaro has paid dividends: a huge array of previously banned pesticides has been approved for use this year with virtually no debate or study. One result: the death of 500 million bees in the last three months alone.
Worst of all, deforestation is consuming the Amazon at a horrifically rapid pace. As the New York Times put it this week: “The destruction of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil has increased rapidly since the nation’s new far-right president took over and his government scaled back efforts to fight illegal logging, ranching and mining.”
The government agency responsible for monitoring deforestation documented the loss of “1,330 sq miles of forest cover in the first half of 2019, a 39% increase over the same period last year”.
What the world is witnessing is as deliberate as it is dangerous. It is insufficient, and arguably offensive, for already developed and rich western powers which have done so much damage to the planet to simply dictate to Brazil that it must not exploit its resources the way the west has done with such great environmental damage.
But the world also cannot stand by and let the Bolsonaro government destroy the Amazon. In lieu of unilateral decrees that smack of arrogant colonialism, rich industrialized countries who need the Amazon to survive should fund social programs for poor Brazilians who compose a large majority of our supremely unequal country, in exchange for preservation of this vital environmental asset.
Identifying the culprit – Bolsonaro and Salles – is necessary but not sufficient to avert the environmental disaster. The Amazon belongs to Brazil, but the need to save the planet belongs to all of humanity, and all of us must bear this burden collectively.