WATCH: The Amazon and the politics of greed

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A cut tree stands in a burned area near the Krimej indigenous village of the Kayapo indigenous group in Altamira, Para state, Brazil, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. Much of the deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is done illegally -- land grabbers burn areas to clear land for agriculture and loggers encroach on national forests and indigenous reserves. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

There is only one thing that drives Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and that is profits. He is the worst kind of capitalist, reminiscent of the cowboys of a long gone era who thought it was  justifiable to destroy indigenous communities by killing or assimilating their inhabitants, who had no conscience whatsoever when it came to destroying critical natural vegetation to make way for slash and burn development. This is nothing but a colonial mentality borne from greed and self-interest. 

When Bolsonaro was a lawmaker in the 1990s he had articulated how he had admired the ruthlessness with which the American cavalry had fought Native Americans during the expansion of the US. “The North American Cavalry were the competent ones because they decimated indigenous people in the past and today they don’t have a problem in their country.” 

Bolsonaro made it no secret in the weeks before he was elected President that he planned to give people guns in order to move the indigeous people off their land, and advocated the destruction of the indigenous reservations. The reservation of land for the indigeous population is seen by the inhabitants as the only way to safeguard their way of living, language and culture.

But to Bolsonaro indigenous reservations are “anachronistic,” a sentiment ridden with racism and superiority. “Indigenous people don’t lobby, speak our language, and yet today they manage to have 14% of our national territory…one of their intentions is to hold us back,” Bolsonaro is quoted as having said. Bolsonaro’s other infamous statements include calling indigenous people parasites, and advocating discriminatory eugenically devised forms of birth control. 

This squares with his other outrageously racist statements about Afro-Brazilians being obese and lazy and living off the rest of society, saying “I don’t think they’re even good for procreation anymore.” Bolsonaro has also depicted people from Haiti, Africa and the Middle East as the “scum of humanity,” saying the army should take care of them.

Sadly the Brazilian people were well aware of Bolsonaro’s extreme racism when they elected him, just as much as they were aware of his intention to destroy large parts of the Amazon rainforest to make way for capitalist development – whether in the form of mining, logging or agri-business. 

The new Brazilian Congress under Bolsonaro’s leadership wasted no time in approving reforms that would allow industrial agriculture on indigenous reserves. Bolsonaro’s promises to open up the Amazon to capitalist development was also fast tracked, and in his first six months in office deforestation peaked. Indigenous tribes turned to the courts to protect them, and after they won cases to stop oil exploration, weeks later the protagonists started fires to burn the natural environment, leaving devastation in their wake.

The reason why the Amazon has been engulfed in flames recently is largely due to the sense of impunity created by Bolsonaro that there will be no consequences when big business takes matters into their own hands. It is now common knowledge that the record number of fires in the Amazon has coincided with a significant drop in fines for environmental violations, with the lowest number of fines having been issued in a decade. The number of fines over the past seven months have dropped by a third, and the number of fires burning has increased by 84%. Bolsonaro infamously said, “fines for environmental crimes is an industry that needs to be abolished.”

Bolsonaro had always warned that he would weaken the influence of Brazil’s Environmental Protection Agency Ibama, and true to his word, the actions of Ibama have decreased by 20% during the first six months of the year, compared to the same period last year. Hundreds of government workers who are supposed to enforce Brazil’s environmental laws have now signed an open letter saying that Brazil’s environmental protection system could collapse if nothing changes. Ibama has been suffering budget cuts, staff reductions in remote areas, political interference, and a weakening of environmental regulations.

In June and July Ibama was unable to carry out its operations in the state of Para where deforestation has been soaring, primarily because the police have refused to provide back up. According to the law, Ibama agents are legally allowed to destroy equipment found in protected areas that would be used for deforestation. But now the agents are afraid to burn such equipment as Bolsonaro has come out saying that nobody should be burning machines.

In the midst of the raging fires over a week ago, Bolsonaro made a speech in which he reinforced his plans to “bring economic dynamism to the Amazon.” In a situation where a belligerent leader is determined to pursue policies detrimental to one of the most bio-diverse regions of the globe, there does need to be a robust reaction on the part of the international community, and there certainly should be repercussions. At least Finland has been vocal and called for the EU to ban Brazilian beef imports in protest against the decimation that Bolsonaro is leaving in his wake. France and Ireland have also said that they will not ratify the trade deal with South America that took years to negotiate.

VF Corporation, a major buyer of Brazilian leather, has warned that it might cancel leather purchases over concerns about the relationship between agribusiness and the fires that have devastated the Amazon rainforest. VF Corporation supplies Brazilian leather to Timberland, North Face, Eagle Creek, Dickies, Vans and Kipling. Brazil’s leather goods organisation wrote to the Brazilian Minister of Environment to inform them about the warning, adding to growing concern among business leaders in Brazil that the government needs to contain the damage done to the country’s image. This is the type of pushback that we need to see emanating from the private sector as global outrage soars.

But there also needs to be more cognizance in the international community of the other factors that have driven the desire on the part of Brazil’s right wing government to surge ahead with the clearing of land in the Amazon for profit. The ongoing trade war between the US and China has played a significant role in that China has stopped buying US soybeans as a retaliatory measure to the US hiking tariffs on Chinese goods. 

China has turned to Brazil as a source of soybeans, which has seen exports surge, and fuelled Brazil’s ecological disaster. Brazil went from exporting soybeans to China for half a year, to selling them year round, providing an additional 30-40 million tons of the crop. From May last year to April this year China imported 71 million tons of soybeans from Brazil, which is equal to the amount of all Chinese soybean exports five years ago. The result has been farmers setting fire to more and more land to make way for crops due to China’s hunger for soybeans, while American farmers have put their crops in storage. 

For Bolsonaro “environmental issues matter only to vegans who eat vegetables,” and thus ecological reserves hinder the forward march of capitalism. To Brazil’s leader there needs to be fewer national parks, less rainforest, and more development. Just as our northern brothers in Europe have spoken out against such madness, it is time for South Africa to do the same. It may even have more weight coming from a BRICS partner.

Shannon Ebrahim is the Foreign Editor for the Independent Media Group.