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Scorched Earth: On Bolsonaro’s One-Man Crusade Against Environmentalism in Brazil

Ousado, in Portuguese, means “daring.” 

When boatmen exploring the Encontro das Águas State Park crossed the São Lourenço River, a tributary of the Paraguay River in the Pantanal region of Brazil, and were approached by a surprisingly tranquil two-year-old male jaguar, they had an opportunity on their hands. Tradition maintains that the first man to catch sight of a jaguar amidst the lush greenery receives the right to its baptizing. So, the boatmen named the jaguar Ousado.

But that was before the fires. 

Since July, 77,000 of the Encontro das Águas State Park’s 108,000 reserve hectares have been scorched. The burning extends to the entire region of the Pantanal, Brazil’s tropical wetland region, where over 2.3 million hectares of land have been damaged—an area ten times the size of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro combined. The Institute SOS Pantanal estimates that this constitutes over 15 percent of Brazil’s biome.

Marina Silva—former Senator of the Brazilian state of Acre, Minister of the Environment in Lula da Silva’s administration, and three-time presidential candidate—was born in the small village of Breu Velho, Acre. Raised on a rubber tree plantation where she worked in the fields constructing straw baskets and tapping rubber, Silva and her family lived under a quasi-slavery regime. Though she did not learn to read until she was 16, Silva later went on to help the Brazilian environmentalist Chico Mendes lead Brazil’s trade union movement in the 1970s and ’80s.

“I remember my childhood in the forest and the people, families, and communities I met,” said Silva in an interview with The Politic. “People are suffering—precisely those who need nature to live, work, and support their families and the unique character of their own identities.” 

Reflecting on her upbringing in her home village, Silva recalled that “life in the forest is both fascinating and hard. It is full of beauty and enormous cultural wealth, but also difficult and marked by material poverty.”

Her grandmother was a midwife, her mother a seamstress, her father a rubber-tapper, her uncle a surveyor. Each of them relied on the forest for their profession and survival. From her family’s dependence on and respect for the landscape and its Indigenous peoples, she learned “the value of solidarity, social ties, mutual aid, and service for the benefit of the community” from a young age.

Yet the land and natural resources that surround and define the lives of countless families like Silva’s are in danger. 

***

The Paraguay River cuts through Encontro das Águas and is home to Brazil’s jaguar sanctuary, where a team of Brazilian Navy firefighters arrived to rescue Ousado on September 11, 2020. He was no longer the bold, gallant jaguar that the boatmen once knew. Unable to stand, Ousado’s paws had been burned on the scorching forest floor. He was taken to a recovery center in Corumbá de Goiás, Brazil where he underwent stem cell therapy to help repair his injured tissue. 

But Ousado had better luck than most other jaguars in Encontro das Águas—many didn’t survive the flames. Jaguars seek refuge near the river, but the scarcity of water and food imposed by the fires has reduced their chances of survival. The Pantanal, once a land marked by abundance, is now smothered with ash.

The alarming rate of deforestation and the spread of wildfires in the Amazon, the world’s largest tropical rainforest, has concerned Brazilian citizens and politicians alike  for years. During Silva’s tenure in the Lula administration, which obtained national and international recognition for its successes, deforestation in the Amazon fell by 57 percent. More than 1,500 illegal companies practicing deforestation were dismantled, and an additional 500,000 hectares were designated as conservation areas.

Despite efforts by environmentalists like Silva and scientific evidence that the current wildfires are dangerous anomalies that may evolve into long-term patterns, Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right climate skeptic, has ignored the gravity of this environmental disaster. The first anti-environmentalist president of the Federative Republic, Bolsonaro has created an environmental policy agenda marred by denialism and opposition to science. 

“I am indignant at the neglect of others who only care about power, and the greed of others, who only think about their profits,” Silva said. “It’s a tragedy that biomes so important for life on the planet are under the control of people so irresponsibly uncommitted to it.” 

***

André Trigueiro, a Brazilian environmental journalist and professor at the COPPEAD Graduate School of Business at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, believes that every government in the history of Brazil, from different political and ideological currents, has done more wrong than right on the country’s environmental agenda. 

“The environment has always been seen as the ugly duckling within the esplanade of ministries,” Trigueiro told The Politic. According to Trigueiro, only President Fernando Collor’s demarcation of the Yanomami Indigenous reserve and Silva’s administration under Lula stand out as important achievements in the environmental sector: other years have been marred by low budgets and lost fights to the agriculture industry. 

But Brazil’s tumultuous past with environmental policies pales in comparison to Bolsonaro’s negligence. Trigueiro stressed that the current government was the first to adopt a stance of anti-environmentalism. It isn’t possible to analyze this administration in relation to others; Bolsonaro’s failures go farther than ever before, Trigueiro said. 

Before his election in 2018, Bolsonaro defended the elimination of the Ministry of the Environment. The Ministry survived this attack, but Bolsonaro announced that he would, among a multitude of other detrimental actions, alter the rules of the Brazilian Forest Code to benefit rural farmers. This action dissolved the requirement to recompose woods and forests that, combined, “would be the equivalent to twice the size of the state of Sergipe,” Trigueiro wrote in O Globo. Ultimately, these anti-environmental changes benefited only four percent of rural landowners. 

Further, Bolsonaro’s current Minister of the Environment Ricardo Salles has been charged with administrative impropriety during his tenure as Secretary of the Environment for São Paulo. Salles illegally changed the rules of an environmental protection area on the Tietê River, east of the city of São Paulo, for the benefit of the Federation of Industries of the State of São Paulo and mining companies. 

Salles even suggested that the government take advantage of the media’s focus on COVID-19 to “change [environmental] rules and regulations” during a ministerial meeting in April of 2020.

In the face of severe drought and a record increase of wildfires in the Pantanal and the Amazon, the president said Brazil “should be congratulated” for its environmental preservation efforts. He made the statement during the celebratory event for the inauguration of a photovoltaic plant in Paraíba—one day after leaders from eight countries wrote to Bolsonaro warning him that deforestation could harm the purchase of Brazilian products. 

Trigueiro added that Salles always takes the side of “those who attempt against the environment.” He described the Salles administration as “surreal. It is the result of managerial incompetence coupled with bad faith.” 

***

Robert O. Mendelsohn, an American economist and the Edwin Weyerhaeuser Professor at the Yale School of the Environment, sought to illuminate the economic motivations underlying Brazilian environmental politics in an interview with The Politic.

“Most man-made fires have been set in the Amazon region,” Mendelsohn explained. “Brazil has laws against these fires but the new president has made it clear to farmers that he was not going to enforce them.” 

He clarified that the Amazon, with its hot climates and poor soils, is not well-suited for many sustenance crops. As a result, most farmers in the region raise cattle, resulting in higher methane levels.

“This is a tradeoff between revenues for Brazilian farmers versus conservation of carbon and biodiversity,” Mendelsohn explained.

But the world is not yet willing to pay for the high costs of conservation, Mendelsohn said, so the president has encouraged farmers to convert forests into agricultural land. The move aligns with Bolsonaro’s broader nationalist platform, best expressed by his “Brazil Before All” campaign slogan. 

Another threat of deforestation lies in the region’s high real estate value. To Silva, the conversion of the Amazon forests into agricultural and real estate opportunities comes at the cost of thousands of families’ survival—families who rely on the land’s mangroves and restingas, which are likewise essential for maintaining environmental balance. 

Silva characterized the country’s environmental policies as “simply a crime: a scorched earth policy.” 

“It aims to make predatory occupation irreversible, to destroy the possibilities of forest recovery, and to make the land unavailable to communities that depend on the forest environment: Indians, riverside dwellers, quilombolas [descendants of Afro-Brazilian slaves], family farmers, extractivists, and fishermen,” Silva said. 

It is difficult to imagine the consequences of the destruction. In just one month, Silva said, almost 20 percent of the Pantanal was burned. In addition to being one of South America’s most important biomes, the Pantanal is also a vital tourist destination, so its destruction will devastate the region’s economy for years to come. 

It is hard to know how we can make economic sense of the loss of life caused by the fires. While it is easy to conceptualize the losses of market goods because of their set prices, the cost of biodiversity and forest life is invaluable.

***

“We have a succession of wreckages of Brazilian [environmental] state policy,” Trigueiro said—referring to environmental crime impunity, improper allocation of funding toward environmental programs, and crumbling federal environmental agencies. The Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources—the administrative arm of the Ministry of the Environment—is just one of the departments bearing the brunt of the government’s environmental rollbacks. 

The “solidarity” that Silva described among those who rely on the forest is in stark contrast to the Bolsonaro administration’s neglect towards protecting biodiversity and Indigenous populations.

According to Silva, Brazil’s political, administrative, economic, and even health and education systems have, for centuries, been guided by a notion of separation—rather than integration—of humans and nature. Even political entities that consider themselves progressive are limited to the notion that the environment is an “externality” of economic growth, to be treated as a secondary issue, rather than an integral component of the economy.

As Minister of the Environment, Silva managed to reify sustainable practices and combat environmental crimes, as demonstrated by the creation of over 24 million hectares of protected areas. Yet she had insufficient support from other governmental sectors to move forward with her sustainable development agenda. She proposed that the Ministry of Agriculture become the central ministry for an integrated policy to support sustainable development.

“To understand the logic under which [resource management] works, [one can] look at the difference between the large resources that are destined to finance agribusiness and the much smaller resources that go to family farming, extractivists, and Brazil’s Low Carbon Agriculture program,” Silva said. 

***

Trigueiro believes that the Bolsonaro administration will eventually be held accountable by the international community for its climate change denialism. 

“The obstinacy of this government to persist on this destructive path will cost us dearly in foreign investments, boycott scenarios, and the weakening of the European Union trade agreement with the Mercosur,” Trigueiro explained. 

From tracking deforestation via satellite imagery to its deforestation reduction goals, Brazil was once a global model for promoting environmentalism, Trigueiro acknowledged. The tragedy, Trigueiro explained, is that the current government is “destroying” Brazil’s global contribution to sustainable development. 

Silva agrees with this sentiment. She told The Politic that the Bolsonaro administration “will not leave behind any legacy or inheritance. All it will create are debts and losses.”

“Even if there was a change and the government reversed its anti-environmental[ist] orientation, it would be difficult to recover what we’ve lost,” Silva confessed.

“[We’ve had] two consecutive years of increased deforestation, fires, land grabbing, invasion of Indigenous lands and protected areas—all kinds of environmental crimes,” Silva said. “If we have two more years like this, we’ll be at a risk of overcoming the point where entropy becomes dominant and recovery is impossible.”

But notwithstanding the incomprehensible environmental destruction Brazil has faced, Silva, the youngest Senator in the history of Brazil, is still dreaming big about Brazil’s future. 

“My dream is that sustainability will be understood and felt by everyone—not as a concept or an ideology, but as a new way of living and an urgent need for the continuity of human life,” Silva mused. “I dream that this will be a shared understanding, superior to political differences. I dream that it will be the basic consensus, a new social pact that will expand to become a natural pact that will include all living beings and ecosystems.”

Trigueiro agreed, emphasizing that “environmental destruction should not be treated as an externality, a negligible variable—it should be at the center of our public policies.” 

In a recent tweet, Silva lamented that while Brazil is a country with “gigantic” natural potential, it is “governed by a president who makes small, irresponsible, and mediocre decisions regarding its protection.”

Ousado, who is now resting far away from Encontro das Águas, is slowly healing. “A devastated ecosystem, however,” said Silva, “takes hundreds of years to recover.”