Bolsonaro Fiddles While the Amazon Burns

Photograph Source: Isac Nóbrega/PR – Flickr do Palácio do Planalto – CC BY 2.0

Of course, my title conjures up images of the Emperor Nero (37-68 A.D.) fiddling while ancient Rome burned, and for many reasons, this mythwas a historical falsehood. Fiddles did not exist in 64 A.D. when a great fire ravaged ancient Rome, but stringed instruments did nonetheless, like the citharaand lyre. Moreover, Nero himself was not responsible for the conflagration. He was away at his villa but quickly returned to Rome to deal with the crisis. Even so, the myth supports the notion that Nero was an idle and an incompetent governor. Regardless of whether or not he was responsible for Rome’s burning, to many, Emperor Nero, was incapable of leading the empire. Nero was overly self-indulgent and had more thespian ambitions than political ones.

This historical analogy I think is therefore an apt one in association with present day Brazil. Not only has Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro mishandled the forest fire crisis in the Brazilian Amazon, where hundreds of thousands of hectares of rainforest lands are currently smoldering, but Bolsonaro’s policies on the environment and with respect to indigenous peoples have considerably worsened the disaster. Furthermore, Bolsonaro could be doing much more but is not and will not. Bolsonaro’s policies in relation to the environment, his policies for wishing to develop the Brazilian Amazon, along with his negative views about the fate of Brazilian indigenous peoples—all point to a level of incompetence, indifference, and neglect toward the Amazon Basin on an unprecedented scale in Brazil, not seen since the military-dictatorship era(1964-1985).

The Amazon rainforest is not only a national treasure for Brazil but is also a natural patrimony site for the world. It would seem that President Jair Bolsonaro would rather blame non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for instigating the fires throughout the Amazon region and the country’s interior, by all accounts baseless claims, than accuse Brazilian ranchers and farmers (rancheiros e fazendeiros) as the likely culprits. These Brazilian ranchers and farmers are likewise some of his biggest financial supporters of his presidency. To make matters even worse, President Bolsonarois also claiming his government does not have the resources to fight the blazes across the Amazon and the country’s interior with firefighters and fire prevention assets.

The Amazon rainforestis the biggest in the world with by far the largest riverine system with over 1,000 tributaries of which 17 are more than one-thousand miles long and in total the Amazon Basin is 6.9 million square kilometres in size—absolutely colossal and enormous—covering 40% of the entire South American continent. It is estimated the Amazon region has as many as 390 billion individual trees from some 16,000 tree-species. Most of the Amazon, two-thirds of it, exists within Brazilian borders. Additionally, it is thought there are as many as 2.5 million species of insects living within its rainforests. In terms of other biodiversity within the Amazon basin, scientists widely agree it contains roughly 40,000 plant species, 5,600 fish species, 1,300 bird species, and more than 430 mammalian species, some 1,000 amphibian species, and over 400 reptilian species. Environmental experts believe that cattle ranching is responsible for 80% of current Amazonian deforestation.

According to the Brazilian census (IBGE) in 2010, there are about 896,917 Brazilian Amerindians of which there are approximately 255 distinct ethnic groups and corresponding to about 0.47% of the total Brazilian population. Among these peoples, 150 indigenous languages are spoken. Of the nearly 1 million Brazilian Indians, about half of them still live in the interior of the Amazon Basin, and elsewhere in Brazil’s interior and apart from urban populations on over 600 indigenous reserves (cited in Linstroth 2015). More so, there are still about 100 uncontacted Amerindian groups, living in remote borderland areas of Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia, and number in the thousands.

Therefore, protecting “the most” biodiverse ecosystems on our planet, the Amazon Basin, is absolutely urgent. The blazing fires across the Brazilian Amazon and across central Brazil are destroying forest lands in alarming rates. And because President Bolsonaro states the Brazilian government does not have adequate resources in which to stem the raging infernos in Brazil’s Amazon, elicits the necessity of other nations to lend vital aid and technology for firefighting.

According to the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research, (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais, INPE), these devastating conflagrations have increased by 84% since the beginning of this year for a total of some 75,336 registered bushfires detected through satellite monitoring. Likewise, present widespread fires across the Brazilian Amazon Basin account for an 85% increase in fire outbreaks since 2017. Currently, the estimated rate of deforestation of the Amazon is at a football field per minute. In the Brazilian Amazon Basin, according to the Brazilian Environmental Agency, IBAMA(Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renovávais), yesterday, August 21st, there were 568 new recorded fire outbreaks for a current total of 1,181 forest fires across the Brazilian nation.

These apocalyptic and blazing infernos are the direct result of President Bolsonaro’s greenlight deregulation policies in allowing loggers, miners, and ranchers to exploit the Amazon Basin with impunity, not only putting in danger the most biodiverse region on the planet, but likewise endangering those able to act as its guardians—Brazil’s indigenous peoples. The scale of carbon release is unimaginable if we think one large Amazonian-tree may store at least 3 to 4 tonnes of CO2 according to Erika Beringuerof Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute (ECI) and whereas the Amazon forests as a whole may process as much as 18 billion tonnes of carbon per year.

On Monday, August 19th, São Paulo’s skies ominously blackened with dark clouds, causing the Brazilian capital city to be in night-time conditions, when day became night during the afternoon. As one of my Brazilian friends living in São Paulo explained to me: “We thought it was going to be a really, really bad storm and we were waiting for a huge rainfall when it turns out to be billows of smoke from fires in the Amazon…” The Amazon region is some 2,700 kilometers away from the capital, São Paulo, and because of this, some Brazilian meteorologists suggested the excessive smoke-cloudscame from fires in nearby Paraguay. Whereas the Brazilian Environmental Minister, Ricardo Salles, declared the “pollution clouds”(nuvem de poluição) over São Paulo’s skies on August 19thwere none other than “fake news” and “environmental sensationalism” from the media.

Such deflections and scapegoating seem to be right out of President Donald Trump and his administration’s political playbook. Whether we examine President Bolsonaro blaming non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for starting fires in the Amazon because of withholding federal funding for them, especially environmental groups which Bolsonaro views as his enemies, or the Brazilian Environmental Minister impugning the media for “fake news” because of smoke pollution in São Paulo—are both Trumpian politico-playbook tactics. Now, it therefore seems foreign governments, such as the one in Brazil, look to the United States government, not so much as a harbor of democratic ideals, but rather as political-directive signalling for redirecting blame from internal problems.

What is more tragic are the real implications beyond politics. The Amazon Basin burns while President Bolsonaro fiddles around, even stating there are no resources in which to combat the smoldering infernos across the country. While President Bolsonaro denies Amazonian deforestation as exaggerated and fake, and even as “lies”, the numbers collected by scientists attest to a different picture. According to renowned environmental scientist, Philip Fearnside: “Brazil’s Amazonian deforestation in June 2019 was 88 percent greater than for the same month in 2018, and deforestation in the first half of July was 68 percent above that for the entire month of July in 2018.”

As distinguished scientists, Frances Seymour and Nancy Harris, of the World Resources Institute (WRI) summarized what needs to done to prevent deforestation, they asserted in the prestigious journal, Science(2017): “For tropical forest protection to become a viable political proposition for elected officials, financial and market incentives must be augmented by increased public awareness of the many benefits that forests provide, locally as well as globally. Building such awareness through better communication of the science is an essential complement to our increasingly sophisticated understanding of why tropical forests are being destroyed.”

As the prominent anthropologist, Margaret Mead(1968), once remarked: “Our humanity rests upon a series of learned behaviors, woven together into patterns that are infinitely fragile and never directly inherited.” Indeed, we must all unlearn harming the environment and all learn how to protect it for the sake of our children and our children’s children. The time is now and it is a pressing emergency.

J. P. Linstroth is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil. His recent book, Epochal Reckonings (2020), is the 2019 Winner of the Proverse Prize. He has a PhD (D.Phil.) from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Marching Against Gender Practice: Political Imaginings in the Basqueland (2015) and, most recently, author of Politics and Racism Beyond Nations: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Crises (2022).