- The record number of fires consuming Brazil’s Amazon rainforest has prompted demands from around the world for drastic action.
- But Brazil’s leaders have pushed back, both downplaying the seriousness of the fires, and insisting that it is an issue for Brazil alone to manage.
- Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, said world leaders have a "colonialist mentality" for trying to offer funds to help.
- Brazil has in the past worried that other countries may try to seize it and deny them use of its resources, a narrative Bolsonaro has used in the past, and is evoking once more.
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The record number of fires raging across the Amazon has sparked an international outcry, as world leaders express concern for the future of the world’s largest rainforest, which is the source of 20% of the world’s oxygen.
But in Brazil, politicians are defiant, downplaying the extent of the fires and calling international warnings "sensationalist." Their response has been to tell other countries to stop telling Brazil what to do.
60% of the Amazon is within Brazil’s borders. Using it for industry was part of the platform that propelled President Jair Bolsonaro to victory, in a campaign which repeatedly characterized the Amazon as a resource to be exploited.
He is now rebuking calls for international action over the fires, accusing leaders like the French President Emmanuel Macron of having a "colonialist mentality" by offering money to help.
CARLOS FABAL/AFP/Getty Images
Responses to Macron reveal an attitude among some Brazilians that other countries should stay out of a domestic issue.
On social media, Brazil-linked accounts told Macron: "The Amazon is ours, let us take care of it" and "The Amazon rainforest belongs to the Brazilian people and it is under our sovereignty."
These ideas explain why Bolsonaro many Brazilians are defensive amid outcry over harm to the Amazon.
Brazilians might see environmentalism as a ploy to hold Brazil back
The vast majority of fires in the Amazon have been started by humans, either accidentally or on purpose by logging and farming companies emboldened by Bolsonaro’s stance on development in the region.
During his election campaign, Bolsonaro pledged to build a highway through the forest and power plants within it.
He has sought to reduce environmental protections, and reallocate land and resources pledged to indigenous tribes. He also threatened to pull Brazil out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. During his campaign, he said the legislation was "suffocating" the economy.
Professor Anthony Pereira, the director of the Brazil Institute at King’s College London, told Business Insider that some people view a decision not to develop parts of the Amazon as one that holds Brazil back.
He said "there are people, especially among the 20 million people who live in the Amazon, who think: ‘Environmentalism has gone too far, we need to make a living, these regulations are too onerous, there’s too much land set aside for the indigenous, and we want to go in and deforest, whether it’s for land speculation, for agriculture, for pasture, or logging.’"
Bolsonaro, he said, might be of this mindset, and could view attempts at influence from other governments or from NGOs as attempts to hold Brazil back economically or interfere with its sovereignty.
"He’s a product of the 1970s and the military regime, when that view was very prevalent, and he could have that kind view that people are out to get Brazil, to stifle its agriculture."
Dr Par Engstrom, a human rights lecturer at University College London’s Institute of the Americas, told Business Insider that there is "ongoing concern among Brazilian elites that the world is unfriendly, and does not have Brazil’s interests at heart."
Bolsonaro’s rhetoric is "actually not that extreme in Brazil’s history," Engstrom said, and represents "quite a strong strand of Brazil’s thinking, and Brazil’s thoughts about its place in the world."
Bolsonaro’s approach to foreign policy so far has centered around the idea that "there is a globalist conspiracy against countries like Brazil," Engstrom said.
However, opinion in Brazil is not united on the issue. Pereira, the academic at King’s College, said Bolsonaro’s view is likely not the majority position.
He said: "We have to keep in mind, most Brazilians live a long way from the Amazon rainforest and they are as appalled as everyone else."
Pushback against Bolsonaro in Brazil has been clear: former environment ministers wrote an open letter denouncing Bolsonaro’s Amazon policies in May, and thousands of Brazilians marched over the weekend urging government action about the fires.
Pereira pointed to a survey this month which said 96% of respondents agree with the statement "President Jair Bolsonaro and the Federal Government should increase enforcement measures to prevent illegal deforestation in the Amazon."
The survey got the same results among Bolsonaro voters and opposition voters.
"So we can say that Bolsonaro got a majority in his election in October, but I think it’s not right to say that well, a majority approved of his positions on the environment, because the environment wasn’t the main thing that he was running on," Pereira said.
He also said that the idea that Brazil "can only be a big agricultural superpower if it destroys the Amazon is completely false."
He pointed to Brazil’s dramatic reduction in deforestation between 2004 and 2012, the same time as the country’s "agribusiness exports were booming."
EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images
"Also, a lot of the agriculture that gets done in the Amazon is very unproductive. It’s pasture that lasts for a few years, and then is exhausted."
A statement from Brazil’s embassy in the UK to Business Insider said that protecting the Amazon "is a priority both for the Brazilian people and for the Brazilian Government."
"It is our view that there is no necessary opposition between economic development and preservation of the environment."
Brazil is also defending its policies about the Amazon as an issue of national sovereignty
While arguing that the fires should not be a topic of discussion during the G7 summit, Bolsonaro accused other countries of "interfering with our sovereignty."
His officials continued to emphasise the country’s independence over the weekend and as they rejected the offer of $20 million from G7 countries — a figure environmental campaigners called "chump change."
Michael Kappeler/picture alliance via Getty Images
Engstrom said that it was "not surprising" that Brazil rejected the money — especially given that it was a decision made in Europe, without Brazil’s input, and a pretty small sum.
"Why on earth would a major economy like Brazil accept that?"
If anything, he said, the G7’s response "played into Bolsonaro’s hands," ignoring the pressure many Latin American countries face to develop their forests, and acting in a way that many Brazilians could see as "hypocritical."
Onyx Lorenzoni, Bolsonaro’s chief of staff, also accused France of having a colonial attitude over the offer.
"Brazil is a democratic, free nation that never had colonialist and imperialist practices, as perhaps is the objective of the Frenchman Macron," he said.
He also pointed to the fire that devastated Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral this year, saying "Macron cannot even avoid a foreseeable fire in a church that is a world heritage site."
The rhetoric forced Macron to acknowledge Brazil’s independence, while still emphasizing the importance of the Amazon, the majority of which is in Brazil, to the planet.
Victor Moriyama/Getty Images
Eduardo Villas Boas, the former head of Brazil’s army, also called out what he called "direct attacks on Brazilian sovereignty."
Dr Andreza De Souza Santos, the director of Oxford University’s Brazilian Studies Programme, told Business Insider that Brazil’s former status as a Portuguese colony frames how it sees autonomy today.
Speaking via phone from the Amazon, she said: "Brazil has framed its national identity by emphasising its status as a former colony, sort of creating a Brazilian-ness" that managed to include indigenous tribes with different languages, ethnic backgrounds, and traditions.
This idea has been leveraged, she said, to suggest that international concern for the Amazon "hurts Brazil’s autonomy," an argument also used in Brazil to argue against international aid.
Engstrom, the human rights lecturer, said "there has been a long-running concern in Brazil, and in the military in particular, over international efforts to exert control over the Amazon."
A 2011 government survey found that 50% of Brazilians believed another country would invade Brazil and try to take the rainforest’s resources.
Brazil has also rankled at taking advice from western countries which have, over centuries, depleted large amounts of their own forests.
When speaking about the $20 million offer from the G7, Lorenzoni said that "maybe those resources are more relevant to reforest Europe."
According to Pereira: "There’s some truth, when they say things like two-thirds of Brazil’s original forest cover still exists, and most European countries have deforested more than that over the years.
ERGIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images
"They have preserved a lot of the rainforest, and there’s a lot of pride in Brazil about the fact that the Brazilian Amazon is the largest rainforest in the world."
Brazil’s embassy in the UK said that Brazil is "proud to have 66% of our large territory – a territory that is 35 times the size of the UK – covered with native vegetation."
"We have managed to both preserve our native vegetation and at the same time become an agricultural powerhouse. In sum, we do believe economic activities can be developed, including in the Amazon, in a manner that does not harm the environment."
- Brazil’s climate change skeptic government says warnings about the fires consuming the Amazon are ‘sensationalist,’ ‘hysterical,’ and ‘misleading’
- Fires in the Amazon could be part of a doomsday scenario that sees the rainforest spewing carbon into the atmosphere and speeding up climate change even more
- Brazil’s president baselessly claimed that NGOs set the Amazon on fire on purpose to make him look bad