The Amazon in Flames
By Ana Luiza Bussolotti & Danny Diskin
“If I take over,” promised Jair Bolsonaro in the run-up to the Brazilian presidential election last year, “Indians will not get one centimetre more land.” Along with praising “the US cavalry, which decimated its Indians”, this former military officer supports both torture and the military dictatorship that seized power in 1964, and announced that change will only come in Brazil with the killing of 30,000 people. Despite, or perhaps because of this, he is popular among conservative Brazilians. Cattle ranchers have found in him a politician who is happy to destroy the Amazon rainforest to allow them to graze their cattle for export.
PICTURE: Tom Fisk
The territory of the uncontacted Awá tribe is burning, and it is not known if they have survived, meaning that these fires may be a deliberate act of genocide. Untold numbers of indigenous Amazonians have been murdered since the founding of Brazil, and the campaign to demarcate their territories made slow progress even under the left-wing government of President Lula da Silva. Things worsened considerably under Bolsonaro, however; over 12,000 square kilometres have been lost this year alone. Fires always increase during the dry season, but this year there was an increase of over 80%, making this August the worst ever for Amazonian deforestation. The smoke cloud produced by 9,500 fires started in four days blanketed the sky of Sao Paulo thousands of miles away, and respiratory problems have spiked in various parts of the country. Bolsonaro has claimed that environmental NGOs are likely guilty of starting the fires, but critics note that he gave ranchers tacit approval to burn the forest. After claiming that there was no money to fight the fires, he then refused the $20 million offered by the G7 for that purpose.
Environmental agency cut
Back in 2012, the far-right congressman was issued a fine by the Brazilian Environmental Agency IBAMA for illegally fishing in a nature reserve. Since he took power, IBAMA’s budget has been cut by 25%, including departments responsible for fighting fires. New restrictions forbidding agents from destroying illegal mining and logging equipment have also made it more difficult for them to combat deforestation.
IBAMA was suffering well before Bolsonaro, with the left-wing government under President Dilma Rousseff closing down 91 of 168 IBAMA offices between 2011 and 2012, and restricting environmental protections in the name of economic development. The current government goes further, with plans to develop the Amazon and integrate it into the rest of Brazil as outlined in slides recently leaked to OpenDemocracy.net. Bridges and roads are scheduled to be built, as well as hydroelectric power plants that will wreck rivers and displace the communities that depend on them. On August 6 of this year, Bolsonaro responded to criticism regarding his policy of deforestation by quipping that he was “Captain Chainsaw”.
Murder and persecution
In the 1970s, rubber tapper and environmental activist Chico Mendes led people to make human chains around trees to prevent deforestation. He received death threats but the police refused to give him protection, and he was brutally murdered by farmers. Murder and persecution of people who try to protect the environment remain common today, and many of those killed are indigenous.
Behind all this evil is much ignorance. The increased carbon dioxide and disruption to the water cycles that result make the destruction of the Amazon an international concern, and with the dangers facing Brazilian activists and environmentalists, the onus is on those around the world to come together to stop the fires. But what can be done?
The economic logic of the fires is simple: to a great extent, the fires are burning so farmers can pasture cows and cultivate soya for animal feed. Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of beef and poultry, and exports of both are rising. Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrisons and Lidl all sell JBS beef raised in the Amazon, and HSBC, Barclays and Santander finance the trade.
It is easy to point an outraged finger at Bolsonaro, or at Trump who met him in March to discuss the beef trade, but the genocides taking place in Brazil are a function of global markets and the lifestyles that we choose to lead, today as they were in the 16th century. People live in these places, along with all kinds of incredible creatures that are facing extinction. Their habitats, and the very lungs of our planet, are being torched for beef-burgers and chicken nuggets.
• Danny Diskin is Director of RAIN Reforestation, www.rainumbrella.org
• For more information on the state of Brazilian politics, watch ‘The Edge of Democracy’ and follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter.
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