Opinion | Bolsonaro under fire: A lesson in misplaced priorities

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured these images of several fires burning in the states of Rondônia, Amazonas, Pará, and Mato Grosso on August 11 and August 13, 2019. (NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview and VIIRS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview, and the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership)

Perhaps one of the most reported stories in recent weeks leaves much to be desired. In the space of just 48 hours, 2,500 fires had been started in the Amazon rainforest, not only placing at risk the trees that absorb 5% of annual emissions, but also the more than 10 million species of animals who claim the rainforest as their home. And, as usual, Twitter is abuzz with haunting images of burning trees, most of which come from last decade, but hey, it’s the thought that counts! #PrayforAmazonas.

Which begs the question, considering just how deadly these fires are, Brazil must be scrambling to stamp them out, right? If this was what you thought, you’d be surprised.

Because, a little known fact, the only thing that catches faster than forest fires is a viral phenomenon known as the Trump effect. It’s crossed the Atlantic, reaching so far as England’s prime-ministry, and now, it could be spreading into South America. The latest victim is Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a long-time opponent of environmental advocacy in Brazil, so much so that his people have dubbed him Captain Chainsaw, which isn’t a becoming title for someone in charge of 60% percent of the world’s largest carbon sink.

With this context in mind, it should come as no surprise that when the Amazon fires started, he told reporters, “The Ministry of Justice can send 40 men to combat the fightbut do you understand that? Forty men. There are not enough resources. We are in chaos.” 

His failure to meet fire with fire (or in this case, water) was just one act in a whole program of negligence.

Bolsonaro reportedly spent the evening of Aug. 23 watching standup from a prominent Christian right-wing comic. And to add to the irony, he did this while his pre-recorded speech was broadcasting, the one apologizing for his inaction and declaring the Amazon fires a national emergency after 48 hours of noxious destruction.

With a national emergency formally declared, Bolsonaro finally had grounds to call in the Brazilian army to lend a hand (and pail) to the fire. But a bad taste still lingers in the mouths of many international spectators. 

As early as Aug. 28, when these fires first started making international news, Bolsonaro was calling out environmental NGOs in his country, professing that “there is a strong suspicion that people from the NGO’s lost the teat.” He suggested somehow that since environmental protection agencies had lost government funding under his administration, they were now intentionally destroying swaths of that which they’ve historically sought to protect to “bring about problems for Brazil.” 

When reporters asked Bolsonaro for the basis of his so-called suspicions, he shot back, “For God’s sake, there’s no proof of that, nobody writes, ‘I will set fire to that.’” Because of course, no one would possibly be careless enough to leave a paper trail of environmental neglect. Well, except if you’re…Bolsonaro?

Because in the wake of this Amazon disaster, Open Democracy uncovered incriminating PowerPoint presentations used at a February meeting between Bolsonaro’s government officials and leaders in the Para state of Brazil, home to the Amazonia National Park. One slide read, “Development projects must be implemented on the Amazon basin to integrate it into the rest of the national territory in order to fight off international pressure for the implementation of the so-called ‘Triple A’ project.” Triple A here refers to a group of multilateral conservation projects in the Amazon Rainforest, Andes Mountains and Atlantic Ocean that Bolsonaro has doggedly opposed.

What’s more? The PowerPoint continues, “To do this, it is necessary to build the Trombetas river hydroelectric plant, the Óbidos bridge over the Amazon river, and the implementation of the BR-163 highway to the border.”Bolsonaro made it easy for us; there is no prevarication here, nor misdirection. The objective stands loud and clear: stymie conservation efforts by damaging Brazil’s natural resources. And, if you’ll kindly recall Bolsonaro’s unfounded accusations of NGOs working in his country, it seems he was guilty of the very behavior he decried.

In spite of all this inculpatory evidence, I think the mainstream media gives Bolsonaro a lot of undeserved credit. How much of his change of attitude toward the fires can actually be attributed to his altruistic and justified concern for Brazil, and how much is just, uh…sem bolas?

Shortly after his whole ‘"40 firefighter" statement, France’s golden boy, President Emmanuel Macron, came out to threaten Bolsonaro with an obstruction of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement, a groundbreaking trade deal between the two blocs that eliminates all tariffs on agricultural goods from the Mercosur bloc. Macron, and virtually any other UN member state, would have known that this was an incontrovertible pressure point, not just for Brazil, but also for Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay, the other members of the bloc. 

The timeline of this threat and Bolsonaro’s reinstated commitment to the Amazon fires just seems too quick, too reactionary, too…apprehensive. And, as usual, Bolsonaro made his intentions clear as day when, in his Aug. 23, evening speech he said, “Forest fires exist in the whole world and this cannot serve as a pretext for possible international sanctions.” I don’t know, what could he possibly be frightened of? 

Thankfully for him, a few leaders have stepped in to offer a reassuring squeeze. OK, more like one. In a recent tweet, President Trump said, “Our future Trade prospects are very exciting and our relationship is strong, perhaps stronger than ever before.” Sounds like Trump really empathizes with Bolsonaro’s plight. Or, maybe, their priorities just align really well. After all, both are right-wing capitalists, climate change deniers, and have structured their entire campaigns around building stronger, more self-sufficient economies (fine print: through an unadulterated bashing of all foreign competition). 

But the similarities don’t end there. Bolsonaro’s rhetoric also displays uniquely Trumpian tones, occasionally producing bewildering gems like “Brazil is like a virgin that every pervert from the outside lusts for.” In all seriousness, that comment by Bolsonaro does deserve a second look because it offers us an incisive, behind-the-scenes peek into the primary motive behind his vehement anti-environmentalism: political control. 

Bolsonaro has given the logging, mining, and farming industries in Brazil clearance to annex land owned by native communities on the sole basis that they control what he considers unreasonably vast amounts of wealth. Similarly, he cannot distinguish between foreign aid and sovereignty infringement. Look, for example, at how his administration views the donations that Norway and Germany have made to the Amazon Fund. His chief of staff, Onyx Lorenzoni told reporters, “We’re not naïve. There’s a view out in the world, sponsored by nongovernmental organizations, that relativizes Brazil’s sovereignty over the Amazon. “Here’s a little message: ‘Don’t play around with us.’” 

The point is, Bolsonaro is digging himself a precipitous hole, especially when he lets his own ego stand in the way of him and a $20 million donation from the G7. 

Meu deus. The good people of Twitter may need to change their tune. #PrayforBolsonaro.

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