Donald J. Trump is the global poster-boy for trashing the climate and demolishing human rights. But focus too hard on Trump’s frenzied, shiny circus and you may miss a bigger threat: the ferociously far-right and anti-environmental president a few thousand miles further South.
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has been dubbed “Tropical Trump,” but this tag does not do him justice. A captain under Brazil’s brutal military dictatorship, Bolsonaro entered politics when the regime fell in 1985 – but didn’t leave his authoritarian roots behind.
Bolsonaro surged to power at the end of 2018, when the left was embroiled in corruption scandals. He has restarted celebrations of the 1964 coup that began the dictatorship, is consistently pro-torture, and said the former dictatorship’s mistake was not killing enough people. Far more articulate and less gaffe-prone than his northern counterpart, Bolsonaro is arguably the most dangerous man on Earth.
Torching the ‘Lungs of Earth’
This sets the scene for potentially one of the biggest catastrophes of our troubled times. Not only is Bolsonaro a threat to many of his own people; he endangers our global climate. Almost two-thirds of the Amazon rainforest now lies in Bolsonaro’s hands, and he wants to raze it to the ground.
If the Amazon rainforest is destroyed, the resulting emissions could make it difficult to limit global warming to less than two degrees. The impacts of just one degree of heating are already being felt in India’s heatwaves, Mozambique’s floods, and Greenland’s melting ice sheets. Two degrees of warming would cause far more damage.
Bolsonaro doesn’t care. He wants to enrich his friends in the powerful agribusiness lobby. He is busy tearing up the environmental policies that he says “suffocate” the country, and opening up the Amazon (along with savannahs, wetlands, and other wild places) to agribusiness. This land is not for small farmers to grow food for Brazilians, but for multi-million dollar companies to export even more beef, soy, and grains to China, Europe, and the United States.
Brazil’s Environmental Agency
As a start, he has hamstrung Brazil’s environmental agency so it can’t deal with illegal logging. Bolsonaro often says that “a good criminal is a dead criminal,” but this doesn’t extend to those who savage the nation’s forests.
The state environmental agency is being forced to announce in advance when and where it will conduct raids on illegal loggers, a policy clearly designed to allow these criminals to get away. As a result, 2019 has so far seen the fewest fines imposed in over a decade, and seizures of illegal wood have been pitiful.
Illegal logging is a major threat to the Amazon rainforest and its #indigenous inhabitants – many of whom have been hurt or even killed whilst trying to defend their land | Read the full story here: https://t.co/aGl1Vmt4xf #AmazonRainforest #logging #propertyrights pic.twitter.com/t787feR2LV
— place (@thisisplace) May 13, 2019
As the dry season begins and the forests become more accessible, deforestation has risen to record levels. This could be one of the worst years ever for forest destruction in the country, and the president is spurring it on.
In the long run, these policies will destroy even large-scale agribusiness in the region. We are coming closer to the point where there is not enough rainforest left to produce the rain that sustains those forests. The vast Amazon basin will tip into a drought state, which would be devastating for wildlife, the global climate, and agriculture in the region; but current investors are likely to make a killing before that happens.
Appetite for Destruction
Much of the remaining forest is already owned, including by Brazil’s Indigenous people. They hold 13 percent of Brazil’s land area, and most don’t want to hand this over to the mega-corporations. But as the appetite for destruction increases, they are increasingly on the frontlines of brutality. This is both a human rights issue and an environmental one, as Indigenous areas are some of Brazil’s best conserved wild places.
Bolsonaro is rabidly anti-Indigenous, saying they should all have been exterminated and comparing them to animals in a zoo. He is trying hard to ensure that they gain no more land. His latest approach is to woo some of their leaders to try and split the unity of the tribes in the hope that some of them will take the cash and sell their forests.
The situation in Brazil is extremely dangerous. Bolsonaro has stopped researchers from commenting on political matters and publicly named academics he deems too left wing. His regime is teargassing Indigenous protestors at the same time that Bolsonaro’s fans are being urged to take to the streets. But both inside and outside the country, people are pushing back against Bolsonaro’s devastating environmental assault.
As a trade deal between the E.U. and Brazil draws closer, hundreds of scientists in the E.U. along with Brazilian Indigenous groups urged the E.U. to demand tough environmental and human rights standards for Brazilian imports. Brazilian Environment Minister Ricardo Salles appeared rattled by the initiative, referring to the scientists as “supposed specialists” with “no credibility.” His cancellation of a planned trip to Europe was attributed to the criticism.
In May, previous Brazilian environment ministers from across the political spectrum launched a scathing criticism of Bolsonaro and Salles’ plans for deforestation. Calling Bolsonaro an “exterminator of the future,” they argued that by dismantling environmental bodies his regime was unconstitutional.
Indigenous Defenders on Frontlines
The strongest defense of the wilds has come from the Indigenous people, who have been defending their lands against greedy invaders for centuries. Some are taking to the streets, others to the forests. The Sateré-Mawé people have recently begun an occupation to protect a part of their ancestral lands threatened by loggers and miners. Fearing that their long-running claim to get a legal title will not be won under this regime, the Sateré-Mawé are sending in families to occupy the land, despite threats against them.
It remains to be seen how well the Sateré-Mawé fare, but victories can be won. After Indigenous protests in the capital Brasilia, Brazil’s National Congress overturned Bolsonaro’
Brazil’s Congress is taking measures to strengthen itself, much to Bolsonaro’s disgust, and he is also being blocked by the Supreme Court. As the president’s popularity plummets and his regime looks more chaotic, there may be an opportunity to claw back some ground.
Our global fate now rests partly on the shoulders of some of the most marginalized people on Earth. But they are used to fighting. “We are not afraid of death,” proclaims one Indigenous. “We resisted 518 years ago [when the Europeans first arrived], we fight in victory and defeat,” declares another.
Supporting them, along with stopping Bolsonaro from having a platform in our countries, may be one of the best things we can do.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.