By Carol Pires – The New Yorker
As fires have surged in the Amazon, the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s disdain for environmental-protection measures has drawn international attention.
In January, 2012, Jair Bolsonaro, who was then a retired military officer and colorful but not politically relevant far-right congressman, was caught fishing illegally in a federally protected marine-wildlife reserve. Bolsonaro—wearing a white, Speedo-like bathing suit—was discovered in a small, inflatable boat inside the Tamoios Ecological Station, an area with a half-mile radius that serves as a refuge for penguins, seals, whales, and dolphins in the state of Rio de Janeiro.
An agent with the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) issued Bolsonaro a ticket for ten thousand reais, or roughly twenty-five hundred dollars. The following year, Bolsonaro introduced a bill in the legislature that would have barred guards with IBAMA and other environmental agencies from carrying guns, although he was otherwise a longtime defender of gun-ownership rights in Brazil. Later that year, Bolsonaro filed to get legal permission for him—and him alone—to fish in the Tamoios reserve. Ultimately, the fine was dismissed, the bill went nowhere in congress, and the courts decided it would be a bad idea to grant one lawmaker special permission to fish in a sanctuary.
Last year, Bolsonaro was elected the President of Brazil, after running a nationalistic campaign that echoed, in many ways, the politics of Donald Trump. A climate-change skeptic, Bolsonaro argued that more land in the Amazon rainforest should be opened for farming, mining, and logging. Under his leadership, IBAMA’s budget has been cut by twenty-four per cent. Bolsonaro has also repeatedly threatened to transform the Tamoios reserve into a Brazilian Cancún, brimming with tourist hotels. The agent who wrote him the ticket for illegal fishing, back in 2012, was fired from a senior government position. And Bolsonaro has installed opponents of environmental regulations in offices throughout his new administration.
This week, Bolsonaro’s disdain for environmental-protection measures attracted global attention when he initially rejected an offer of twenty million dollars in international aid to help fight forest fires burning in the Amazon. The proposed funding was one of the few concrete achievements to come out of the annual G-7 summit of the world’s largest democracies. The French President, Emmanuel Macron, who hosted the meeting in the resort town of Biarritz, insisted that countering the fires should be a top priority. At first, Bolsonaro rejected the aid offer, citing an ongoing feud with Macron in which the two leaders have exchanged insults. Then he said that he would consider accepting the aid if Macron apologized. “He will have to withdraw his words, and then we can talk,” Bolsonaro said.
Scientists believe that the Amazon’s absorption of greenhouse gases plays a crucial role in slowing climate change. They have declared the spread of fires in the world’s largest rainforest a global crisis. As the forest shrinks, the region is growing progressively drier. Scientists fear that the Amazon could reach a tipping point where its gradual transformation into something closer to a steppe will be irreversible.
Bolsonaro has dismissed environmental groups’ concerns and encouraged loggers to deforest more of the Amazon. On August 10th, in what became known as Fire Day, farmers in the town of Novo Progresso, in the state of Pará, set fires on their properties to clear land and show their support for Bolsonaro. Satellites operated by Brazil’s space agency detected a surge of wildfires. Now the blazes are so widespread that, last week, smoke-darkened skies over São Paulo, thousands of miles to the south.
Based on satellite data, space-agency officials estimate that the number of forest fires is eighty-three per cent larger than last year. Bolsonaro has dismissed these numbers as fake, called environmentalists’ focus on the Amazon a form of “environmental psychosis,” and fired the head of the space agency. The President also claimed that environmental N.G.O.s had set the fires to damage the image of his government.
Bolsonaro and his cabinet have rolled back environmental regulations across Brazil. His Minister of Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply is a former congresswoman known as the “queen of poison,” a reference to her effort to lift restrictions on the use of pesticides. Since Bolsonaro took office, in January, the agriculture ministry has approved hundreds of new pesticide products, some of which have been banned by the European Union. The new head of the Brazilian Forest Service supports allowing jaguars and other endangered species to be hunted in the rainforest. For his environmental-policy czar, Bolsonaro chose an ally of agribusiness named Ricardo Salles, who had been sued when he served as the state environment secretary for São Paulo for altering the borders of an environmentally protected area “with the clear intention of benefiting economic sectors, notably mining.” After Salles was criticized by environmental organizations, Bolsonaro declared, “We got it right.”
IBAMA agents have reported being met with increasingly violent responses from miners and forestry workers as they perform their environmental-protection duties. When officials from the agency destroyed equipment used in environmental crime in the Amazon, as per regulations, Bolsonaro criticized them, saying that the government “fine industry” should be shut down. In October, inspectors were stopped halfway across a bridge in an indigenous reserve in the northern state of Rondônia by a group of loggers carrying machetes and sticks. One inspector reported that one of the loggers said, “Now that Bolsonaro has won, this indigenous land nonsense is over. It’ll all be ours.” In the state of Pará, individuals with links to illegal logging burned down two bridges on the Trans-Amazonian Highway, in retaliation to a crackdown by IBAMA in the area. Since Bolsonaro took office, the agency has carried out no major operations to slow deforestation, and the number of fines imposed by the agency has sunk to its lowest level since 1995.
On the eve of the G-7 summit, Macron called the fires an “ecocide” and threatened to block the free-trade deal between the European Union and Mercosur, a trade bloc consisting of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay. Bolsonaro responded by endorsing a post on Facebook that said that the French first lady, Brigitte Macron, was unattractive. Recent opinion polls have shown a decline in public support for Bolsonaro, as the country’s economy has been slow to recover from a deep recession, and scandals have beset his government. Bolsonaro, however, continues to have one strong supporter. On Tuesday, Trump tweeted, “He is working very hard on the Amazon fires and in all respects doing a great job for the people of Brazil – Not easy. He and his country have the full and complete support of the USA!”
In Bolsonaro’s Brazil, a Showdown Over Amazon – The Intercept
Alexander Zaitchik – The Intercept
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