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A Populist Fire in the Heart of the Amazon

A Populist Fire in the Heart of the Amazon

The Amazon is on fire, the great rainforest and ‘lungs of the world’ shrinking at irreversible speeds before our very eyes. This summer saw the popularization of the crisis as it caught the heads of media channels, world institutions and the public, images of billowing smoke and blackened trees soaring across the internet. However, largely overlooked is the political history and geopolitical relations behind these ecological disasters.

The rise of Jair Messias Bolsonaro, former Army captain and Brazil’s President since January 2019, has shown to ignite the growing far right national identity and populist movement within Brazilian borders. His administration has brought along an onslaught of legislative U-turns, notably the drastic descalement of logging, mining and ranching restrictions. Running on a campaign which pledged to open the great forest for commercial exploitation, Bolsonaro has since pursued considerable damage to IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental protection agency. The organization has bore the brunt of both severe budget cuts and, this year alone, a whopping 29.4 percent decrease in fines for environmental violations. In the face of the 2014 recession which rocketed the South American economy, Brazil’s agricultural industry has emerged with a Herculean force as it’s predicted to surpass even the US as the global exporter of products like soybeans. And with this added pressure from agricultural lobbyists, the Amazon forest has become a site of Hobbesian anarchy as farmers continue burning forest space for cheap, pasturable grounds. The most recent example of this being the organized efforts by farmers and ranchers in August for a “day of fire” in the southern region of the Amazonian state of Pará. Their manifesto lay in claiming space for pasture and farming whilst actively demonstrating an allegiance to the anti-conservationist language of their president. 

In terms of the environmental impact, the number of fires located by Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research agency, hitting the 40,000 mark, appears to have spiked about 35 percent in comparison to levels identified in 2010. The biggest rainforest in the world, the Amazon is a fundamental site for absorbing and reprocessing carbon dioxide as it releases oxygen back into the air we breathe. The dramatic deforestation currently characterising the rainforest will only show to heighten the greenhouse effect and industrial pollution, all while accelerating the rate of climate change traumatizing every pocket of the world.

This not only holds significant implications for the ecosystem, but it has also strained a sense of stability amongst many indigenous communities native to the rainforest. Secluded, unprotected and squatting on acres of conserved land, indigenous groups have become a target of this right wing populism. From illegal loggers and deliberate fires to physical incursions and death threats, bands like the Awá on the Araribóia indigenous reserve in the eastern edges of the Amazon graze the line of near extinction. Tribes like the Awá people are being systematically marginalized one by one; Up to 127 of the indigenous lands once recognized by FUNAI, the national agency accountable for indigenous protection, have entered the process of demarcation under the Bolsonaro administration. Moreover, the threat to indigenous people is heavily intertwined with the environmental threat, a UN report reconfirming this claim as it found native lands to provide a substantial bulwark against global warming and climate change.

The crisis of the Amazon is symptomatic of an international rise of right-wing populism. Jair Bolsonaro’s election campaign clearly echoes the language of US President Donald Trump, in this case very obviously borrowing Trump’s ‘America First’ and contextualising it as ‘Brasil Primeiro’. At the heart of the Amazon rainforest is an energy of insurgent chaos, ranchers and farmers burning land in the name of Bolsonaro’s ‘modernity’ and ‘progress’. By tapping into the frustration of the working class populace, these demagogues promise retribution and justice in the sacrifice of indigenous rights, environmental protection, and essentially any area deemed second to expansion and money. And from Trump’s departure of theParis Peace Climate to China’s escalation of carbon emissions, the world is moving at a scary pace towards irreversible climate and ecological catastrophes. 

The Amazon remains a land of green engulfed in flames of commercial exploitation and political greed, but it does not have to be. On the international spectrum, Bolsonaro has come under increased scrutiny from world powers like Germany and France, their pressure for Brazil to align with multilateral agreements on environmental protection leveraged with economic sanctions.The call for several boycotts on Brazilian goods has also been pledged, fashion brands like Kipling promising to blacklist Brazilian leather. From below, the Brazilian left, in favour of LGBTQ, women’s, indigenous and environmental rights, has mobilized the power of social media to crusade against the environmentally hazardous right-wing populism. Even more radical is the grassroots advancement by lawyers and activists, like law professor Eloísa Machado, to use the tragedy of the Amazon rainforest as the gateway for new legislation. Their agenda aims to make the environmental harm caused Bolsonaro and others illegal, furthermore amounting it to a strand of genocide and a ecological crime worthy of the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) fullest persecution. While this may not be feasible in the short term, the increased use of ecocide in legislative language could ultimately mould the judgment of big corporations and global leaders who until now have dismissed environmental catastrophes as another PR mosquito bite. It could prove to change the very discourse of environmental security, and only then will we see the clouds part over the Amazon forest again.

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