In the early sixteenth century, as Portuguese colonizers surveyed their corner of the New World for profitable commodities, they were struck by the bright red tree trunks they encountered along the coast. It is believed they called the tree pau-brasil on account of its fiery coloration, pau being Portuguese for “wood” and brasil a derivative of brasa, or “ember.” Once it was discovered that the tree produced a potent red dye, rapacious merchants devastated the supply using the coerced labor of the indigenous Tupí people.
Warren Dean, who wrote the definitive history of that process, noted that “what is lost when tropical forest is destroyed is not only greater in variety, complexity, and originality than other ecosystems, it is incalculable . . . cataloguing a tropical forest is well beyond our resources, now or in the imaginable future. The disappearance of a tropical forest is therefore a tragedy vast beyond human knowing or conceiving.” The world is again staring that tragedy in the face as capitalist predation blazes a trail of staggering destruction across the Amazon rainforest.
The Amazon rainforest extends over two million square miles, roughly two-thirds of which is in Brazil. Given that the rate of deforestation in the region has spiked dramatically this summer, observers have quickly identified a prime culprit: President Jair Bolsonaro, who took office in January after running the most reactionary election campaign in Brazil’s recent history.
As National Geographic reported last October, Bolsonaro’s win over the center-left Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad “set off alarm bells among indigenous communities and environmentalists over the fate of the Amazon rain forest. Activists and native leaders are particularly concerned by Bolsonaro’s campaign pledges among other things to rollback protections of the rain forest and indigenous rights.” Beto Marubo, a native leader from a protected indigenous reserve larger than the states of New Hampshire, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island combined, told the publication that “if what he has promised comes to pass, there will be chaos and upheaval in the Amazon.”
Marubo and others were right. Robust environmental laws are only as good as their enforcement, and enforcement is seemingly nowhere on the agenda of Bolsonaro and his minister of the environment, Ricardo Salles, who posited that the best way to protect the rainforest is to “monetize” it. Salles, who was found guilty of administrative impropriety favoring the powerful Federation of Industries of São Paulo (FIESP) during his time as environment minister for Brazil’s wealthiest state, is reportedly deeply suspicious of his own staff, fostering a climate of surveillance and distrust of longtime professionals. Perhaps ironically, he is a member of Partido Novo, a relatively new technocratic party that brands itself as a hip and neoliberal yet nonideological alternative to Brazil’s traditional parties (Novo has unsurprisingly carried water for Bolsonaro from the beginning.)
While Bolsonaro’s presidency has been an emergency from day one for ordinary Brazilians, the massive fires in the Amazon have finally sparked the intense, worldwide condemnation that Bolsonaro has long deserved. In response, Bolsonaro has nursed an aggrieved nationalism, dismissing criticism as “colonialist” sabotage. Former army chief Eduardo Villas Boas for his part called any discussion of the Amazon in an international forum that excludes Brazil — like the upcoming G7 summit in France — a “direct attack on Brazilian sovereignty.”
Framing the issue as primarily about sovereignty rather than social and environmental justice appeals to Bolsonaro’s backers in the military, who have always zealously monitored any foreign encroachment on the Brazilian Amazon. Influential sectors of the armed forces believe that wealthier countries are already waging “an indirect war” for control of the Amazon using the Catholic Church, NGOs, and international organizations like the United Nations to chip away at Brazilian authority in the region.
Aside from Bolsonaro himself, who has suggested that the fires are the work of political rivals seeking to undermine his administration, Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo has struck a notably undiplomatic tone. “The ‘environmental crisis’ seems to be the last weapon in the left’s arsenal of lies,” Araújo tweeted on Thursday evening, denying that anything was amiss in the Amazon. The Bolsonaro government, he wrote, “is opening the economy, radically reforming the state, driving out corruption, fighting crime, unleashing the nation’s energies, signing agreements and forming new partnerships and alliances with key countries around the world . . . putting its weight behind freedom and human dignity, against gender ideology and other mechanisms of psychosocial control, defending open integration and democracy in South America.” He concluded: “Yes, many national and international forces want to recolonize Brazil. They will not succeed.”
Araújo’s ravings capture the bizarre nexus between disregard for the Amazon and assertive nationalism that has percolated in the political imaginary of the Bolsonaro persuasion. In part, this is an attack on science itself — Bolsonaro called data collected by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), showing that deforestation in June was 88 percent higher than the same period a year ago, “a lie,” and intimated that INPE director Ricardo Galvão was working on behalf of a biased nongovernmental organization.
Supporting commercial interests over the needs and demands of Amazonian residents, a great many of whom are indigenous, is also a pillar of Bolsonaro’s agenda. Fostering national development at the expense of minority protections sums up the extent of his economic plans. In response, indigenous people, whose homes and livelihoods are most directly impacted by the rainforest’s decimation, are staging increasingly vocal and visible protests. “The hearts, hands and feet of indigenous women hold knowledge and it is we, indigenous women, with our bodies, who will decolonize this Brazilian society that has killed our history and our memory,” activist Célia Xakriabá proclaimed earlier this month during the First March of Indigenous Women.
Notwithstanding the president’s bloodlust or the foreign minister’s tweetstorm, Canada, Germany, Norway, France, Finland, and the United Kingdom all publicly expressed concern over the situation. These governments, of course, are hardly all paragons of environmental proactivity. But their criticism of Bolsonaro has pushed Brazil closer to the status of international pariah than at any point since the military regime (1964–1985), when right-wing generals presided over rampant torture and disappearance of dissidents. As ashes blacken the sky, biomes burst into flames, and people lose their way of life to the insatiable greed of speculators, developers, and large landowners, solidarity should be welcomed wherever it can be found.
This is not an argument for depoliticization. To the contrary: as the weight of international opprobrium is brought to bear on the Bolsonaro administration, those concerned with the plight of the Amazon must call out the powerful economic forces that drive, and profit from, its destruction. After all, outlets like the Wall Street Journal, to say nothing of international finance and multinational corporations, endorsed Bolsonaro as a “Brazilian swamp drainer” who, despite fascistic, homophobic, misogynist, and racist rhetoric, “isn’t proposing to change the constitution, which constrains the military at home.”
Changing the international narrative around Bolsonaro means pushing those who elevated and normalized him to publicly revise their assessments. In a recent interview from prison, for example, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva placed the blame on large landowners who support Bolsonaro. Anybody worried about the environment and social justice under the Bolsonaro government must also confront the rapacious development model that has undergirded the Brazilian economy for decades.
Bolsonaro’s discursive strategy, countering international ire with wounded national pride, has failed to mollify the majority of Brazilians, who don’t stand to profit from Bolsonaro’s land-grab economics. On Friday, thousands marched in the streets of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Brasilia against the government. Thousands more protested around the world. Millions of Brazilians are supporting calls for a boycott of Brazilian goods until the government commits more specifically to protecting the Amazon against illegal economic predators.
Meanwhile, Bolsonaro has been reduced to begging Donald Trump to block any discussion of the Amazon at the G7 summit. The political toll of the wildfires has come into focus: Bolsonaro’s smoldering rage, a selling point in a country ravaged by anti-left hysteria in the last election, has never looked as impotent as it does now in the face of rapid environmental devastation and global censure.
The Amazon, long cast as both idyll and challenge, has emerged as a political quagmire for Bolsonaro. Beholden to a constituency that favors economic liberalization at the expense of the natural environment, his administration is both incapable and unwilling to stem the tide of destruction.
In mounting a defense of the rainforest, it bears remembering its history. “As a hinterland,” historian Seth Garfield observed, “the Amazon challenged the competence of the Brazilian state to achieve governability and national integration. As a borderland, it crystallized geopolitical concerns with territorial defense. As a resource-rich land, the Amazon became increasingly entwined with patterns of capital investment in Brazil and trends in global consumption.” The resilience of the Amazon is both its curse — for centuries attracting waves of profit-seekers who would do it harm — and its salvation. While the four years of a presidential term are nothing in the life of a tropical rainforest, the damage done before the end of Bolsonaro’s government may prove irreversible. His is already a legacy of ashes.