by Thomas O’Dwyer
Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro fired the head of the agency which monitors Amazon deforestation. “Fired” is an unfortunate word here – flames sweep across the country and down into Bolivia. Scientists and environmentalists have been alarmed by how quickly their predictions, that Bolsonaro’s aggressive anti-conservation agenda would boost deforestation, have come to pass. Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (Inpe), publishes monthly deforestation alerts and has reported around 80,000 wildfires in Brazil since January, 40,000 of them in the Amazon rain-forest.
Bolsonaro was incensed as first the local, and then international media started picking up what are publicly-available statistics. “Most of the foreign press has a completely distorted image of who I am and what I intend to do here with our policies and for the future of our Brazil,” he said. “I perfectly understand the level of the poisoning that is done to Brazil by the foreign press.” He declared that the data from the Inpe space research institute was a pack of lies and set off down the well-trodden right-wing Conspiracy Road.
“On the issue of Inpe, I am convinced that the data are lies. I even sent to see who is the guy in front of Inpe. He will have to come here to Brasilia to explain this data that he passed to the press worldwide, which I feel does not match the truth. It seems he is at the service of some NGO, which is very common.” Very, very common, many people say, a lying refrain that Americans could by now sing in their sleep. One of Inpe’s alerts showed that Amazon logging in June 2019 was 90 percent higher than in June last year before Bosonaro won the presidency.
“The Inpe guy” in the imaginary treasonous plot with “some NGO” was Ricardo Galvão, a prominent and internationally honoured Brazilian physicist. He was having none of Bolsonaro’s Trumpian nonsense and penned a scathing response in a São Paulo newspaper:
“Mr Jair Bolsonaro needs to understand that a president of the republic cannot speak, especially at a press conference, as if he were in a [grocery store] chat. He made inappropriate and unsubstantiated comments and made unacceptable attacks not only on me but on people working for the science of this country … He has taken a pusillanimous, cowardly attitude to make a public statement, perhaps hoping I will resign, but I will not. I hope he does call me to Brasilia to explain the data and has the courage to repeat what he said, face to face, in my eyes. I am a 71-year-old gentleman, a member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, and I will not accept such offence.”
Galvão went to Brasilia but he didn’t see the president. Instead, Bolsonaro’s science minister, Marcos Pontes, told him he would not be required to do any further work for the government. Galvão received an avalanche of support from scientists and academics inside and outside Brazil, but on August 7, his dismissal was published. Pontes announced that Brazil “would improve satellite systems, data analysis, and how this data is presented.” Future environmental statistics will be run past the president before being made public, no doubt to demonstrate that he knows more about the environment than scientists and satellites.
Bolsonaro surrounded himself with powerful rural lobbyists during his election campaign last year, and he hasn’t forgotten his wealthy friends. He recently reminded members of the Agricultural Parliamentary Front that he had voted for rural lobbyists throughout his 30-year term as state deputy in Rio de Janeiro. He compared his continued support for the ruralists to “a rhino giving birth,” in the face of criticisms from the media, NGOs, and foreign governments. Balsonaro constantly complains about the amount of territory reserved for Brazil’s indigenous peoples, who he says should integrate into mainstream society. Foreign entities want to create new countries within Brazil, he says.
Following the now familiar playbook for narcissistic authoritarians, Bolsonaro tore into the “fake news” reporters at a press conference. Irritated by questions about the appointment of his son Eduardo as ambassador to the United States, he repeated again and again that he had won the presidential election last year. “The press needs to understand that I, Johnny Bravo, Jair Bolsonaro, won,” he snarled. Who? Bemused reporters reached for their Google search apps to track down this Johnny Bravo, who apparently was now their president.
Johnny Bravo is an American cartoon character, associated mostly with the 1990s but enjoying a new life as a Twitter meme in Brazil, thanks to Bolsonaro. He could scarcely be called a superhero, which made the president’s appropriation of the persona somewhat odd. Johnny is a muscular, boorish young man who endlessly fails to persuade women to date him. Wikipedia describes the character as “extremely vain and narcissistic, over-protected by his mother … not very smart, with the attitude of a child under the age of 10.” He was known mostly for generating catchphrases which may or may not be original – “Enough about you; let’s talk about me;” “I’m Johnny Bravo, the one-man army,” “Oh, you will pay for this!” or, more ominously for his alter ego Bolsonaro, “This won’t end well.”
On the third Tuesday in August smoke plunged the 12 million citizens of São Paulo into total darkness in the middle of the day, even though the Amazon fires are hundreds of kilometres from the east-coast city. So-called “ruralistas”, an alliance of agribusiness and landowners within the Senate and Chamber of Deputies, strongly back Bolsonaro’s environmental policies. The ruralista faction previously supported the outgoing president Michel Temer and is notorious for its contempt for environmental issues. Ruralistas wants to strip the Amazon of forests to make way for cattle farms, soy plantations and mining.
On his return from the G7 meeting of industrial nations in Biarritz, France, Bolsonaro scoffed at attempts by President Emmanuel Macron to dissuade him from pursuing further mineral extraction in the Amazon region. But the fires, plus Bolsonaro’s aggressive blustering, at least pushed environmental topics to the top of the agenda and news coverage of the otherwise dull G7 gathering. The countries offered Brazil $20 million to fight the fires, a small sum, but it did make headlines. It also reminded Bolsonaro that, despite his nationalist rhetoric about the Amazon belonging to Brazil, the rest of the planet has a valid interest in the destruction there. Surly Johnny Bravo picked a fight with Macron and refused the money but later relented and announced a 60-day ban on farmers using fire to clear Amazon land.
To no one’s surprise, President Donald Trump refused to attend the climate change meeting at the summit. He then declined to back the Brazil aid package because “the G7 initiative failed to include consultations with President Bolsonaro”, according to a U.S. National Security Council statement. There is some satisfying irony in the possibility that Trump’s erratic foreign policies may help the world community to pressure environmental vandals like Bolsonaro. Emulating Trump’s world-trade tactics, the European Union threatened to block a trade deal and ban imports of Brazilian beef until Bolsonaro halted the fiery forest clearances. Several days later, Bolsonaro blinked. As well as accepting the G7 aid, he decreed the fire-setting ban and sent 40,000 troops to help fight the flames.
Back in Washington, however, Trump stoked his own petulant hatred of all things green and clean. His Environmental Protection – Destruction? – Agency announced that it was abandoning federal regulation of methane. The EPA’s own data shows that methane makes up more than 10 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Oil and gas companies generate half of that.
Down south, Bolsonaro too remains on the environmental warpath. He said he is looking for first-world partners to explore the Amazon region, a tempting nod and wink to American oil, gas and mineral explorers. Bolsonaro has made two official visits to the U.S. since he took office in January, and the appointment of his son as ambassador to Washington is another tightening of the bond. Eduardo Bolsonaro, guided by Trump’s former election strategist Steve Bannon, masterminded his father’s electoral campaign in 2018. Eduardo tweeted a photo of himself posing with Bannon and wrote that the two share “the same worldview”. (In February, Bannon named Eduardo as a South American leader of The Movement, a group that promotes and aids right-wing and populist movements in Europe).
Bolsonaro told reporters that appointing his son ambassador was part of him “fulfilling a mission from God.” One of Johnny Bravo’s catchphrases was, “I do my best work when I’m being worshipped as a god.” Early in his election campaign, Bolsonaro was baptised into the evangelical Assemblies of God, by being ceremonially dunked in the Jordan River. This organisation has been pouring money into far-right politics in Brazil and around the world and in influential sectors of the U.S. evangelical movement.
Brazilian society is split between those who support Bolsonaro’s promise “to clear society of all its ills”, and those who are alarmed by the political regression in seven months of erratic government. Bolsonaro also drops veiled hints that the military might be waiting in the wings to help enforce his agenda. Some critics have suggested that he should read his country’s constitution before issuing presidential decrees that are later quashed. There is the very clear Article 225, for example:
“Everyone has the right to an ecologically balanced environment, as well as to common use of the people and usage essential to a healthy quality of life, imposing on the public and collective power the duty to defend it and preserve it for present and future generations.”
More specifically it lists areas, including “the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest, the Atlantic Forest, and the Coastal Zone” as national heritage sites. “Their usage shall, under the law, be within conditions guaranteeing the preservation of the environment, with regard for the use of natural resources.”
Climate-science deniers usually concede that global conditions are changing but they argue, against all scientific evidence, that it is a process unrelated to human activity. In Brazil and the U.S., some activity changing the planet does now have human names and faces – Bolsonaro and Trump. Helped by an extremist environment minister, Ricardo Salles, Bolsonaro has not merely permitted the devastating fires, but has encouraged and fueled them. It takes a noxious brew of radical ideology, political corruption and banal greed, plus vast contributions from energy and mining industries, to wreak such havoc. Destruction in the Amazon follows from policy choices being made by those who rule Brazil.
This differs, for example, from abnormal fires which have been raging across Siberia this year, with more than 13 million hectares affected and smoke haze hanging over many cities. Russian authorities are aware of the phenomenon and are trying to handle it responsibly. Unlike Brazil, they do not exacerbate the threat with dangerous environmental policies. (In Siberia most of the forest and peat doesn’t usually burn after lightning strikes, because it is cold and wet. This year, maximum temperatures have soared, making the surface warm, dry and flammable).
“You have to understand the Amazon is Brazil’s, not yours,” Bolsonaro says on many occasions when reporters challenge him. This increasingly is falling on deaf ears. While national sovereignty is a valid and enshrined concept in geopolitics, it is not absolute. For centuries, the world viewed sovereignty as outlawing intervention in any state’s domestic affairs. A nation’s treatment of its people was not a matter of international legal concern. Sovereignty seemed to authorise a country to use, or abuse, its people as it chose. The Nuremberg trials punctured that conceit. World War II allies recognised that Nazi Germany’s systematic destruction of its own people was of world concern and a crime under international law. Human rights activists today are more likely to urge not a right but an obligation to intervene against human rights abuses or outbreaks of dangerous diseases. World powers invaded an Iraq wrongly accused of developing non-existent weapons. Why should they ignore Brazil for setting real fires of mass destruction? Maliciously damaging the planet is no longer a local matter.
The Amazon is a part of a complex environmental, social, cultural and historical world. The Earth’s many ecosystems of life are influential in maintaining the planet’s equilibrium. Natural and earth sciences have enabled the Amazon and other rapidly changing regions – Siberia and the Arctic – to be seen as decisive in the maintenance of our atmosphere and oceans. Climate stability is not something anyone can take for granted, nor can it be trusted to ideological ignoramuses to manage.
There once was a neat trio of planets that began existence with comparable sizes, compositions and temperatures – Venus, Earth, Mars. Then one day, they were very different; one too hot, one too cold and one a lonely Goldilocks that is just right, for now. Venus and Mars were once probably covered in water and were nice enough places. Now Mars is a waterless, airless desert. Venus is Earth’s evil twin after a runaway greenhouse effect left it with a molten surface, an afternoon temperature of 500 degrees Celcius, and an atmosphere of 97 per cent carbon dioxide. No, greenhouse atmospheres are neither theoretical nor liberal inventions.
The global anger directed at Bolsonaro over the Amazon fires may signal rapidly shifting attitudes to climate change, especially among the young. It is less than a year since one hundred academics signed a call to action and founded the climate protest movement Extinction Rebellion in London. It aims to use civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance to protest against governments failing to address climate breakdown, biodiversity loss, and ecological collapse. The campaign wants to create a mass social change of the kind needed to tackle the climate crisis, and we are likely to hear more of it in the coming years.
Bolsonaro may think he’s on a mission from heaven, but only a mission for Earth can save it from such messianic destroyers. So, not so fast, Johnny Bravo, you’re no one-man army. To quote another master of the American cliche – “It ain’t over till it’s over.”