Bolsonaro’s Amazon

Under the incumbent president, indigenous Amazonians are falling victim to assimilation and deforestation

Photo by Victor Moriyama for The New York Times.

5 minute read — By Daisy Olyett

As the UK slowly reopened its doors to some form of normality this August and September, over 32,000 fire hotspots in the Amazon rainforest appeared. Industries scrambled back to production and therefore, the environmentally damaging practices that come with it re-emerged. It is of little surprise that this figure wasn’t splashed across global news networks, as major industries like tourism, oil, and electricity were eager to boost production rather than incorporate environmentally ethical practices. Over this two month period, there was a 61 percent rise in forest fires compared to August of last year, with more sustained periods of drought across this summer.

To some extent, the climate crisis which has engulfed the Amazon has been relatively easy for South American authorities to ignore due to the vast nature of the area. However, as the plight of the Amazon’s native tribes become intertwined with the fate of the rainforest itself, from a human rights perspective, the crisis is becoming too large to simply “put a pin in” anymore. The “Isolados” people, who remain separate from Brazilian society, are fighting a war on two fronts. On one side, their ancestral homes are consumed by fire and their ecosystem is depleted, and on the other side Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro offers a not so tempting counter offer – assimilation into Brazilian society.

The Amazon spans over eight countries in South America and is home to Brazil’s 900,000-strong indigenous population, 6,000 of whom live in the Javari Valley – an area similar in size to Portugal. Due to the territory’s close proximity to the Peruvian boarder, their tribespeople have encountered a large number of disruptions by intruders looking to exploit the area – whether that be mining, over-fishing, or hunting. Remaining in isolation but in harmony with the modern world is a key priority among indigenous councils like the Indigenous Work Centre, but Bolsonaro’s attempts to deregulate mining and deforestation in the Amazon have enraged and upset the indigenous people. Ewerton Marubo, a tribal leader in the Javari Valley stated that “he [Bolsonaro] wants to destroy us”.

Bolsonaro’s persistent denial of the fatal effects of COVID-19 have also disproportionately affected the indigenous population. Workmen from Brazilian settlements venture onto tribal land unmonitored, and fumes from forest fires cause respiratory problems among natives. This has made the virus even harder to fight off, especially with the absence of proper medical care. The blatant disregard for the indigenous way of life by the Brazilian government cannot be denied, and their culture cannot be sustained if there is no Amazon left to sustain it.

Wildlife within the Amazon rainforest have also suffered tremendously at the hands of the Brazilian government, with 2,633 species in the area being declared endangered. It’s estimated that less than 10,000 wild jaguars inhabit the Amazon, and a third of them have been in close proximity to hotspots and large wildfires. As their habitat continues to shrink, land becomes barren, and their prey dies out, animals like the jaguar are being forced to venture into human settlements – both Brazilian and indigenous. Deforestation in the Amazon affects all forms of life in Brazil, with over 150 acres of rainforest lost everyday. It will continue to spread on a more global scale as animals migrate across borders and whole communities of people disappear.

Whilst aid from across the world has offered financial support for environmental activists in Brazil, Bolsonaro has fought hard to deter it. The Brazilian president has received multiple threats of “economic consequences” from US presidential candidate Joe Biden if he cannot make significant changes to his environmental polices. In response, Bolsonaro declared this comment as a “cowardly threat”, and continued to lift laws abolishing mass acts of deforestation. These acts would not only open up land for construction, but also for cattle ranchers to march large amounts of cattle through the Amazon, disrupting native territory and endangered habitats. Moreover, this will contribute to the rising levels of methane that advance the effects of global warming.

Despite the efforts of many other South American countries to save the Amazon from destruction, Bolsonaro is more concerned about making Brazil an economic superpower. This predominantly involves mass production of timber, oil, electricity and energy – all of which are products of environmental annihilation.

The plight of the indigenous people of the Amazon has been hidden by a metaphorical and physical cloud of smoke for too long. As Bolsonaro continues to destroy their homeland and force them to join Brazilian society, the native people have taken a stand against their president. We are reminded by native activists like Jaime Siqueira, Olinda Muniz and Sônia Guajajara, that although Brazilian natives are ready to defend their way of life, many aspects of it have already been destroyed by the racist policies that have been implemented or reinforced by the incumbent government. Bolsonaro’s attempts to deplete the rainforest of its natural resources destroy all forms of life that depend on it, including the native people who still face systemic racism in wider Latin American society, despite being encouraged to assimilate. If the Amazon and its inhabitants are not permitted to flourish in Latin America’s largest country, it cannot be sustained at all.