At 3pm on Monday in São Paulo, night fell. And yet, for the local paulistas there was nothing restful about it. Artificial and pungent, it was the result of rampant wildfires that are eating away at eight Amazonian states. In many ways, the thick smoke was a case of the chickens coming home to roost. In a city that glistens with greed, the black blood of the Amazon is everywhere.
Call it irony, pathetic fallacy —the terminology doesn’t matter. Brazil is losing the war on climate, and there is no going back. Not without radical, international pressure. Any local campaign to save the planet will not be polite like the ones in Europe. The environmental activists, the Greta’s of the Global South, are dead. Shot down in the heart of the Amazon by illegal loggers. You might wonder what you have to do with this? Why you should even care at all? And yet the reason they are setting it on fire is to feed the growing global appetite for meat, soy and coffee. I do not say this to scare you or to trick you into feeling guilty. I say it to remind you that it is all connected. We are all connected. And together we must put a stop to this massacre.
To understand how we got here one has to understand Brazil — it’s size, it’s people, it’s politicians. As the fifth largest country in the world, Brazil is enormous, bigger than Europe yet still considered a developing nation. The reasons for this are multiple but many of them can be traced back to colonialism in which its latent wealth was siphoned off and sent to Portugal.
Contrary to Western opinion, Brazil is not all rainforest and beaches. It is home to a staggering array of landscapes, from the crackling cerrado (Savannahs) to the undulating wetlands of the Pantanal. Two thirds of the Amazon Rainforest sit within its borders, making it one of the most biodiverse nations on Earth.
And yet, Brazil’s natural gems occupy a curious position in the public imagination. While the great rivers and forests are generally a source of pride for Brazilians, the people who live there are not. Be those indigenous communities or members of long-suffering quilombos, for Brazilians blighted by Eurocentric conditioning, they are a reminder of Brazil’s lack of development.
It’s a notion that has been courted and encouraged by the controversial new Environment Minister, Ricardo Salles. The poster boy for the powerful Brazilian beef caucus, he is on a mission to privatize the Earth’s lungs. For anyone looking to survive beyond 2050, the timing couldn’t be worse.
Fresh from an appearance at the annual AgriShow in Brazil, Salles spent the month of June visiting impoverished communities that surround areas of particular commercial interest. One such visit was to the Chico Mendes Reserve, a 2.3 million acre area of pristine rainforest placed under protection in 1990.
The trip was documented via a Tweet on Ricardo Salles Twitter account in which he decried the living conditions of the reserve’s 25,000 residents.
That the minister for Environmental Protection should be seen advocating for big agribusiness is perhaps not a surprise in Bolsonaro’s Brazil. What is impressive, however, is the rhetoric being used to accomplish it.
In just 140 characters, Salles deliberately conflates two pressing social issues: rural poverty and environmental conservation. The straw man goes something like this. In supporting the protection of endangered lands, one is not just an enemy of progress but a threat to the prosperity of rural Brazilians.
It’s a slippery move but not entirely out of character. In 2016, Salles was charged with administrative impropriety for his role in the manipulation of the Environmental Management Plan of the Tietê River Basin. The Public Prosecutors Office accused him of modifying the maps developed by the University of Sao Paulo with the specific aim of benefiting national mining companies.
The recent tragedies in Mariana and Brumadinho tells you everything you need to know about the respect this industry has for human life.
Flanked by members of the Mendes community, Salles once again draws on the festering frustrations of a nation who’s wealth has always been just out of reach. Rather than atribute blame to corrupt elites or colonial powers, he instead focuses on environmental protections, without which the target of keeping global warming under 2 degrees cannot be achieved.
That the sustainable rubber tapping and nut harvesting that takes place on this reserve is not as immediately profitable as cattle raising is without question. And yet, it’s beyond the pale to suggest that industrialised farming will produce the kind of living standards these rural communities crave.
In the last 6 months alone, Brazil’s Queimada Programme has registered 74,000 forest fires, the worst of which have been centred in Roraima and Amajari. More than 2 thousand families who live off the land lost their livelihood as plantations, pastures and fish plants went up in flames.
The increase in forest fires is both an intended and unintended consequence of monocultural farming practices. On the one hand, there are the illegal loggers and clearers, who use fires to clear rainforest so it can quickly sold as sparse grazing pastures for cattle. Then there are the farmers themselves, who’s poor management of land often sends them in search of greener pastures.
The deliberate loosening of environmental protection under Bolsonaro has served as carte-blanche for loggers to set fires with impunity. As a result, the number of forest fires in Amazonian states has sky-rocketed by an average of 85% in the last eight months alone.
These wave of ecological tragedies offer just a tiny insight into the critical condition of environmental protection in Brazil, a situation that was publicly laid bare on the front of this month’s Economist magazine. In a harrowing report, the author revealed what scientists have long feared. That unprecedented deforestation is threatening to transform the world’s largest carbon sink into a barren, inhospitable desert.
Such a grim and dystopian future was met with disdain by President Jair Bolsonaro. The head of the Brazilian National Space Research Institute, Ricardo Galvao, was fired for his role in divulging the data, and plans put in place for a new system to assess environmental damage.
As luck would have it, nature made it impossible to bury the hatchet, sending rolling waves of black smoke over the city of Sao Paulo.
Salles, once more took to Twitter, paraphrasing a letter from the INPE (now edited) in which he attributed blame to a cold weather front and forest fires raging in neighbouring Bolivia.
Such negligence in the face of fire is indicative of what Salles clearly finds to be an unbearable contradiction: a mineral rich Amazon and a government perfectly poised to exploit it.
It’s an agenda that was on display once again in today’s Financial Times, in which he called for “capitalist solutions” to the environmental crisis. This demand belies not just a flagrant disregard for his office, but a fundamental misunderstanding of what is at stake. Climate change is not a Bolshevik plot, but rather the inevitable consequences of a system that posits forests as real estate for the highest buyer. Without them, there is no us, no future, no hope, a fact that has been clearly outlined in the IPCC’s latest climate report.
In dipping beneath the unctuous public veneer, a grim picture of Salles emerges. Neither the People’s Prince nor a defender of public health, he represents the ugly face of corporate interest, prepared to co-opt any narrative he can in the pursuit of short-sighted financial goals.
If we wish to save what is left of the Amazon rainforest, solutions must be immediate and bold. They certainly won’t be found in meeting with large car manufacturers, as Salles did on the 6th August, to discuss the lifting of taxes on polluting industries.
With the announcement of a new trade deal between MercoSul and the European Union, we find ourselves at an important crossroad. Any trade negotiations must be subject to strict scrutiny, favouring nations whose environmental policies are in line with the ambitious targets set by the European Union itself. Most importantly, we need men like Ricardo Salles to wake up and smell the scorched earth. History will judge him either way.