The Burning Quest to Revive a Nationalist Vision in Brazil’s Amazon

Record fires in Brazil’s Amazon this year marked a political protest led by ranchers who, already empowered under Bolsonaro’s government, are keen to push the government to fully embrace a dictatorship-era extractive doctrine. 

December 5, 2019

A line of fire advancing toward the lower part of the photo leaves charred earth behind in Brazil's Amazon region in August 2019. (Photo by Vinícius Mendonça/Ibama/Flickr)

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This August, the Brazilian Amazon rainforest went up in flames—again. The devastation was more severe than in previous years, with smoke darkening skies as far south as São Paulo. Some observers warn that the fires and forest losses raise our global risk of reaching the tipping point for catastrophic climate change. These concerns are legitimate, as are the historical factors that brought us to this point.

We have known about forest losses in Amazonia since at least the late 1970s, when the Brazilian government first began cutting roads through the region in the name of “progress.” Despite more than 40 years of promises to sustainably develop the Amazon, the region continues to burn. The pace is getting faster: Deforestation rates increased precipitously in this year’s dry season, up 278 percent in July compared to the same month last year. August and September 2019 also witnessed record-breaking deforestation. Meanwhile, President Jair Bolsonaro accused the institute that produced the deforestation data—based on satellite observations—of having cooked the numbers; he then ousted its director.

Amazonian fires are a different phenomenon than most forest fires. People intentionally set them to clear land for timber extraction and subsequent cattle ranching. But they sometimes turn into uncontrolled wildfires. This year has been especially dry, and the fires got more out of control than usual. The Amazonian landscape is simultaneously victim and perpetrator when it comes to the devastating impacts of climate change.

But what’s overlooked is that many of the August 2019 fires involved more than just land-clearing blazes. Some of the most severe fires amounted to a political protest, wherein ranchers agitated for governmental action to further undermine environmental conservation.

In his first five months as president, Bolsonaro had already eviscerated the federal environmental agency’s funding and staffing and stripped the Ministry of the Environment of its oversight authority in water and forestry services. Greenpeace is currently suing environmental minister Ricardo Salles for defamation over calling environmental activists “ecoterrorists,” among other comments. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro’s foreign minister has downplayed the severity of climate change, claiming it is a Marxist plot.

But rural landholders in the south of the Amazonian state of Pará, along the BR-163 highway, are still not satisfied. Amazon fires were particularly rampant in this area on August 10, 2019, spiking to 124 fires in the vicinity of Novo Progresso, compared to only six fires on the same date last year. The far northern states of Roraima, Amazonas, and Rondônia also experienced out of control fires later that that month.

What has happened along the BR-163 is indicative of broader deforestation trends amid a political climate of impunity for land-related crimes and resentment against environmental protections. A key piece of evidence indicating the “Day of Fire” was a coordinated action appeared in an article in the local newspaper Folha do Progresso anonymously quoting rural producers at a meeting:

“The producers want August 10 to call the attention of authorities. The advancement of production in the region is happening without the support of the government. We need to show the president that we want to work and the only form of doing so is deforestation.”

This reveals that there were greater forces in effect this year than the mere advent of the Amazon’s burning season. The local journalist who reported the ranchers’ calls has experienced death threats for his coverage of the story. Other reports revealed that at local meetings, ranchers demanded action to “undo” the region’s conservation areas and grant legal land titles to people currently living inside those conservation areas. Re-drawing conservation area boundaries and wiping away the parks altogether, however, is a political near-impossibility: The conservation areas, once decreed, are protected by the Brazilian Constitution.

Formalizing the land holdings of these farmers, moreover, would grant them significant financial benefits. Land values can increase between 100-200 percent when standing forest is cleared. One they register their holdings, they can legally sell the 300,000 cattle that currently graze inside federal conservation areas. Approval of the land registrations falls under the purview of the state environmental secretariat, not the federal government. If the state acquiesces to ranchers’ demands, it would amount to breaking federal laws.

Deforestation Politics

The history of settlement along the BR-163 highway helps explain deforestation as a political and economic project. The current wildfire crisis was stoked by earlier governmental efforts to make the corridor an axis for commodity-driven development and settlement. The 1964-1985 military dictatorship promoted agricultural expansion into the rainforest in the name of Brazilian economic development. People from the south of Brazil who were initially enticed to become “pioneers” in the Amazon largely settled the southern Pará stretch of the BR-163. Having internalized the military government’s propaganda that the Amazon held the resources to turbocharge Brazilian growth, they saw themselves as the hard-working front line of Brazilian economic success.

This self-righteousness is bolstered by the notion that settling the Amazon served to protect it from desirous foreigners that might encroach on Brazilian sovereign territory. The attitude is both historical and current: The dictatorship-era logic that Amazonia should be “occupied so as not to be surrendered” persists to this day. Bolsonaro and many of his supporters argue that foreign-funded NGOs use a veil of environmentalism to cover their intended infringement on Brazilian sovereignty. This justifies developing the region through logging, ranching, and soybean-growing as the only way to make the “productive.”

Proponents of this idea will stop at little to achieve this objective—ranchers in this region have set environmental agency tucks on fire and kidnapped public officials. Stories abound of gunfights and assassinations over land conflicts, including inside lands already designated as Brazilian conservation areas. Brazil is also among the most deadly countries for environmental defenders; in 2017, at least 12 killings of land and environmental activists were linked to agribusiness, according to the international human rights organization Global Witness. Senator Zequinha Marinho of the Social Christian Party (PSC) and member of congress Éder Mauro of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) publicly make incendiary assertions, aligning themselves with local farmers in closed-door meetings. For example, they claimed that the federal environmental agencies responsible for enforcement and management of conservation areas are akin to the Islamic State.

Given this context, it is easy to see why settlers along the BR-163 highway might proactively set the Amazon ablaze. They have long articulated that things were smoother under the military regime, and that the region might be better off with the law and order that military dictatorship offered. The Bolsonaro administration’s conspiratorial rhetoric about conniving NGOs setting the Amazonian fires and environment minister Ricardo Salles’s insinuation that Greenpeace may be responsible for the recent oil spill off of Brazil’s northeast coast play to a base that is eager to blame anyone other than Brazilians themselves for these predicaments.

A paved section of the BR-163 highway in Brazil. (Photo by Jeso Carneiro/Flickr)

Conservation vs. Development

The debate of whether environmental conservation should trump infrastructure developments is vociferous in the south of Pará. The agribusiness boom in the state of Mato Grosso was initially intended to bring infrastructure and a paved BR-163 into Pará to facilitate the export of Brazilian soybeans to Europe and China from Cargill’s port at the road’s northern terminus in Santarém. In anticipation of the environmental risks and international consternation that highway construction could entail, in 2003 the administration of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva launched an ecological-economic zoning initiative. The federal government began demarcating national forests and parks along the highway to buffer the still-intact forests from deforestation and illegal incursions. The rationale at the time was that first protecting forests, then paving the highway might be a way to achieve sustainable development. The paving of the BR-163 followed the neoliberal template of sustainable development: Industrial agriculture and infrastructure modernization would take place concurrently with environmental conservation, and consultative and participatory practices would seek to establish social protections.

Despite active attempts to get locals to participate in zoning meetings, many in the region still felt unheard. Some ultimately abandoned their land claims, but many remained, conducting cattle ranching on the very lands that the government ultimately demarcated as the Jamanxim National Forest. Amid subsequent budget crunches and fiscal crises, money for the highway paving never materialized, and the region’s residents experienced a sense of abandonment. It was as if the Left’s “participatory” planning had ignored their ideas and on-the-ground realities. All the while, their anger at the federal government’s audacious creation of environmentally protected areas—on the lands they felt entitled to develop—grew stronger.

The logging sector, which for a long time tried to adapt to an ever-changing panoply of environmental laws, experienced more than a decade of being hamstrung by changing governmental timber policies along the BR-163. Laws regulating logging and timber transport constantly shifted—including most notably in the 2012 Forest Code revisions—and gaining legal approvals for extracting wood and running sawmills was perennially onerous. While legalizing timber extraction from the Amazon forest is permissble, the changing policies surrounding how to go about doing so make those in the logging sector continuously feel like villians and exacerbates illegality in the sector, even when sawmills or loggers try to abide by federal laws. Interim measures shrank the Jamanxim National Forest in 2017, and certain re-organizations of its boundaries amounted to a capitulation of the rural producer association’s demands.

The people responsible for this year’s fires aimed to push the envelope even further. As a result, the Jamanxim National Forest exists only on paper, while ranching expansion in the area continues at a faster pace than ever. Those laying claim to the land hope to attract additional governmental support in the form of agricultural credits and similar financial assistance. At present, the Amazonian political panorama is poised to usher in a land-use paradigm that looks nothing like the "sustainable development" approach of conservation plus development that was previously at the heart of regional planning. Instead, the Amazon is being remade in the form of economic productivity visions, achieved via the nationalist narrative that cattle ranching, mining, and logging will deliver Brazilian growth. (Never mind the inconvenient fact that many of the mining interests are foreign-owned companies whose wealth will largely accumulate outside of Brazil.) Documents obtained by The Intercept reveal plans for a fresh military-led push to colonize the Amazonian interior with large-scale infrastructure projects.  

The extraction-centric development model that predominated Amazonian politics in the 1970s is having a resurgence. Its rebound has extra vehemence due to increased international focus on the Amazon under climate change and the power of Brazil’s ruralist lobby in government.

What Can Be Learned?

The 2019 fires suggest that many social inclusion and economic-ecological zoning initiatives from the early 2000s, led by the Workers’ Party (PT) government and many civil society groups, were an exercise in futility. Despite dozens of governmental and NGO-led attempts to foster dialogue, grassroots participation, and social inclusion, locals along the BR-163 remain very upset about the trajectory that so-called sustainable development took in their region.

Bolsonaro’s response adds a certain self-defeating tenor to the debate over the future of the Amazon. He lashed out at NGOs, accusing them of starting the fires. He was a belligerent naysayer at the G7 summit, shunning at least $20 million in emergency monies to combat the fires, and disqualifying Brazil from receiving around $70 million in Norwegian and German payments to the Amazon fund.

The governors of the states of Pará and Amazonas, however, may have the most to gain, as they have offered to take the funding and make significant state-level policies as they conduct their own green diplomacy. The discourse of sustainably developing the Amazon has dried up, at least for now, and the government continues to disassemble environmental policies daily. Alarming new forest losses inside conservation areas ultimately will make it easier for Bolsonaro and his team to ignore environmental laws and undermine protection efforts in the future.

As the rainy season sets in and we now have a little hindsight with which to view the 2019 fires, it’s important to take stock. The fires functioned to bolster the Bolsonaro administration’s desire to achieve pro-rancher policies in the Amazon, such as undermining existing conservation areas and dismantling Indigenous rights and territorial concessions in the region. The present deforestation, and governmental responses to it, leave a question hanging in the stifling, smoke-filled air: What actions should people who want to protect the rainforest take to prevent such environmental disasters in the future?

In such polarized times, NGOs will be well-served to direct their energies at on-the-ground work to bolster environmental protections. A strong domestic NGO presence in Brazil, led by Brazilians and oriented toward the Brazilian public, makes sense against the backdrop of constant accusations that NGOs are outside interventionists aiming to undermine Brazil’s well-being. International outcry and celebrity-led efforts to save the Amazon will likely fall on deaf or even resistant ears when they reverberate in Brazil’s political scene. Demonstrations of solidarity with Brazilian organizations that work year-round to protect Indigenous rights, environmental conservation efforts, and human rights defenders are more important than ever, although even rendering discreet support will yield accusations and conspiratorial suspicions from Brazil’s anti-globalist far right.

Staying engaged with micro-politics of how political power is wielded will go a long way toward explaining and ultimately combatting this latest wave of Amazonian destruction. The slew of conservation and development contests that the region will likely face in coming months will involve balancing between a multiplicity of actors, including the extreme right, which wields oversized influence in the halls of power.

It’s important to take the long view. Sustainable development visions may have receded for now. But even at the best of times, the sustainable development cause has always felt uneven and incomplete. It entails the untidy work of muddling through uneven power relations, policy reversals, and often-competing interests. Making sense of sustainable development in the Amazon today means reckoning with the reality that some goals will never likely be achieved.

But sustainable development never featured linear progress or fixed endpoints of success anyway. When the political pendulum swings back, and sustainable development re-emerges in Brazil’s social discourse, it will continue to be what it has always been: to some groups, a means of legitimating development as usual in the Amazon and to others, a discipline that, while messy and uncertain, at least offers a hope of progressive change.

Eve Bratman is Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Franklin and Marshall College. She is the author of Governing the Rainforest: Sustainable Development Politics in the Brazilian Amazon (2019, Oxford University Press).

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