Bolsonaro's Vendetta Assault on the Rainforest Continues in the Shadow of the Pandemic

As the country suffers under the coronavirus pandemic, an unprecedented attack on the Amazon is taking place in Brazil. President Bolsonaro is actively promoting slash-and-burn agriculture that threatens to destroy the region and further harm the climate.
The slashing and burning of the rainforest in northeastern Brazil: There were 2,248 such fires in June alone.

The slashing and burning of the rainforest in northeastern Brazil: There were 2,248 such fires in June alone.

Foto: Victor Moriyama / The New York Times / REDUXPICTURES / laif

In a time when politicians are media-savvy role-players, it's not that often that you have the chance to peer behind the facades. The way they talk when they're among themselves, their hidden intentions - all that usually remains concealed. But a video recently emerged in Brazil that will take your breath away. The recording was made in April, showing a cabinet meeting. A judge released it because it documents President Jair Bolsonaro's attempt to protect his family from police investigations.

The footage, some two hours long, is shocking, and not just because of Bolsonaro's aggressive tone. More disgraceful is the ideological hysteria with which his then-education minister demanded the imprisonment of Brazil's supreme court justices, saying the "scoundrels" ought to be locked up. And the family minister's follow-up comment that critical governors were not to be forgotten. Or the silence of the generals who were sitting at the table.

Not to be outdone, however, was the man many Brazilians now call the "minister of environmental destruction,""Ricardo Salles. He said that the COVID-19 crisis, which has torn through Brazil more violently than almost anywhere else, presents an "opportunity." With all the media attention focused on the deadly virus, he said, the government needed to use the moment to change the state of play in the Amazon region, specifically, Salles said, by eliminating red tape and reducing obstructive environmental regulations. "Let's run the cattle herd," he shouted. Salles was referring to the law, but he might as well have said the rainforest. It ultimately boils down to the same thing.

With news websites so full of COVID-19 coverage, it does, in fact, take quite a bit of scrolling before reaching the conclusion that actually, the cattle drive has long since begun.

Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE) reported in June that 10,000 square kilometers of forest disappeared last year, the largest total since 2008. Meanwhile, research by the NGO Human Rights Watch revealed that the Environment Agency, which is part of Salles' portfolio, has virtually stopped imposing fines on illegal loggers, and two inspectors were recently fired for obeying the law and destroying the equipment of gold miners who had been caught illegally mining. In April, Salles allowed some indigenous reserves to be opened for commercial use. Not long later, he legalized the commercial use of thousands of former forest plots that had been appropriated by their now legitimate owners through land theft.

An Unprecedented Attack

Taken together, all of these stories form a larger narrative. With the people of Brazil forced to remain indoors due to the coronavirus, an unprecedented attack on the rainforest is taking place deep inside the country. The attacks are so targeted that they do, in fact, make it look as though the window of opportunity is being used to get rid of indigenous peoples who oppose the commercialization of their territories.

It feels like the endgame. As though something is being broken that can no longer be put back together.

"I hate the term Indigenous Peoples," Bolsonaro's then-education minister said after Salles' remarks about the cattle herd. "There is only one people in this country. We need to end this business of peoples and privileges!"

The Amazon rainforest is a complex system consisting of various water cycles. The forest sweats under the tropical heat and the rising vapor creates dense clouds which then stream southward – essentially airborne rivers that are responsible for the rich green of the hills outside my window in Rio de Janeiro. Last year, when tens of thousands of fires raged in the Amazon region, they carried so many soot particles that night fell on São Paulo in the early afternoon. There was an apocalyptic air to it.

Scientists say that the problem is that around one-fifth of Brazil's tree population, an area the size of Chile, has already disappeared. If another 10 percent is destroyed, it is possible that the system, which needs a certain amount of area and density to survive, could collapse for good. The result would be a process whereby the forest - from the outside in - would inexorably transform into a savanna. The trees would no longer absorb 5 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted worldwide and would instead emit CO2 themselves as they rot. It is all inextricably linked: the global climate, the forest and the fate of its indigenous peoples.

Some 225 tribes, almost a million people, live within protected territories in Brazil. No outsiders are allowed to enter without permission and it is the inhabitants themselves who largely decide on what economic use is permitted on their lands. As such, it's not really a coincidence that deforestation has decreased continuously in recent years. It is said that if you want to save the forest, you have to protect the habitat of the people who live in it. But Bolsonaro has a different view. He sees the indigenous as being animals that need to be freed from the zoo.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 33/2020 (August 8, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.

A speech he gave in September provides a better view of what he is actually planning. It is essentially his Amazon manifesto.

A few weeks after the fires in the Amazon, Bolsonaro stepped up to the podium at the United Nations General Assembly and explained to a worried world that these fires were the product of the annual dry season. He said claims that the fires had been set by soy or cattle farmers because they felt encouraged by the Brazilian president were an invention of the sensationalist media.

"It is a fallacy to say that the Amazon is the heritage of humanity and a misconception ... to say our forest is the lungs of the world," he hissed in comments directed at Greta Thunberg, who was leading the climate protection protests in Manhattan at the time.

"The World Shall Know Our Wishes"

Then he got to the actual point he wanted to make. He explained that a handful of indigenous people occupied 14 percent of his country's land. The soils of their reservations, he said, some of which are as large as Portugal, contain gold, diamonds and minerals, like niobium and uranium. Bolsonaro believes it's not only in Brazil's interest to allow corporations to exploit these treasures. He argued that the indigenous inhabitants no longer want to live like cave people. As proof, he read out a letter that had allegedly been signed by representatives of 52 ethnic groups.

These people want to develop, said Bolsonaro, and they want their territories to be developed without ideological or bureaucratic shackles. They want quality of life and all the trappings that go along with it, like televisions and cars.

Then he peered out at a young woman sitting in a pink blazer in the gallery, with a Brazilian flag resting on her shoulders. "The world," Bolsonaro said, "shall know our wishes through the voice of Ysani Kalapalo."

Ysani was the author of the letter, and most Brazilians heard her name for the very first time that day. Ysani, it seemed, was one of those dystopian figures from Bolsonaro's universe that no one knows outside of social media. She's an anti-Greta, who refers to herself as a "a 21st century Indian" on YouTube.

Ysani has a half-million followers on her YouTube channel, where she shares video clips from her everyday life and talks about everything from fishing to body painting. But she also posts political messages, or denounces leaders of the indigenous resistance as being "manipulated by others." When she stood in front of a dozen microphones after returning from New York, she repeated the mantra.

"Why are we forced to live as we did a hundred years ago?" Ysani demanded. "Why don't we get off the drip of government welfare programs?" With her long hair falling down her face, she looked like a guerrilla fighter.

Several days before her appearance, some leaders whose tribes, like the Kalapalo, live along an Amazon tributary, had published an open letter, saying that Ysani doesn't speak for the majority of the indigenous people. They claim she's a traitor who allowed herself to be manipulated by others to try to convince the world that a colonialist project was acceptable.

Ysani lives most of the year in Embu das Artes, a suburb of São Paulo. Her parents have a small stall in the center of town where they sell handicrafts. Ysani brought her sister along to a café for our interview, in addition to a 10-year-old cousin who had just left her riverside village for the first time. The girl had a mystified look on her face as she gazed at a petit gâteau Ysani had ordered.

"Come on. It's just vanilla ice cream," Ysani said, but the little girl didn't touch it. Ysani tried to goad the cousin by holding the spoon out to her, but the girl turned away. It went on like that for a while until the girl finally caved, and there are no words to describe the expression that appeared on the child's face at that moment.

Ysani grinned, pleased with herself. Development.

The Kalapalo are one of 16 ethnic groups living within the borders of the Xingu Indigenous Park, where they live off of fishing, picking wild fruits and cultivating cassava. Ysani was 12 when she left the village. After experiencing a bout of delirium that lasted for several weeks, a shaman determined that she had been possessed by an evil spirit and advised her parents to take her as far away as possible. They traveled for a month before ending up in a homeless shelter run by a church on the outskirts of São Paulo. The doctors who examined Ysani at the time suggested that she may have epilepsy, but even today, she's not totally sure.

Nobel Savages

As her parents worked as servants for a wealthy family, Ysani learned how to look at her past through the eyes of a white woman. "It was disturbing," she says. She didn't recognize herself when her teachers spoke of noble savages who lived together in harmonious collectives. She recalled the world she came from as being macho and crude and says her father suffered because he had four daughters but only two sons. It was a place, she says, where a woman's opinion didn't carry much weight. She says she saw a handicapped child be buried alive and reports that one girl bled to death after being gang raped.

Ysani reinvented herself as an indigenous feminist who wrote about all these things on Facebook. Left-wing activists invited her to podium discussions, but little by little, her priorities shifted. Ysani says that studying economics provided her with new impetus. Instead of Karl Marx, she read biographies of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. Suddenly, she saw "opportunities for development everywhere."

Ysani lobbied for her village of Tehuhungu to be connected to the electricity grid and applied for the village be provided satellite internet. She also managed a website that enabled tourists to book visits and stay with her relatives, but that wasn't enough for Ysani.

"Why do we have to beg forever until the government finally lays an overland cable?" she asks. "Why do we have to swap tons of pequi fruit to get the neighboring big landowner to build a dirt road through the fields for us?"

The reality is complicated. The territories where ethnic groups like the Kalapalo live belong to the government, and because they are under special protection, there are limits to their use. If the indigenous people want to engage in more than just mere subsistence farming and exploit their land commercially, they first must prove that their project is in line with environmental regulations. In theory, that would mean they could grow soy on a large scale. In practice, though, they aren't granted licenses because they would have to clear-cut larger areas and the pesticides used would seep into the soil or rivers.

"Talk, Talk, Talk"

With every application Ysani files, she must rely on the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) as an intermediary. The agency is supposed to be there to represent her, but she mostly views it as a bureaucratic hurdle. "We talk, talk and talk," she says, "but nothing happens."

If it were up to her, FUNAI would commit itself to building roads. After that, she would like to see it provide seeds, fertilizer and gasoline. And there should be a plan to compensate the locational disadvantages faced by the Indigenous Peoples. Ysani says they also need seed financing and laws that make partnerships with companies possible. That was her hope when she rang Bolsonaro's doorbell shortly before the 2018 election to interview him for one of her video clips.

Since then, she's been a member of the establishment.

Almost half the villages on the Xingu are now connected to the internet, and the people there listen to what she's saying, especially the younger ones. By speaking directly to them, Ysani has sown doubts about the authority of tribal leaders, whom she depicts as being stuck in the 20th century. And that's what Bolsonaro is all about: By presenting his concerns as those of the indigenous peoples, Ysani is driving a wedge through the resistance.

The conflict, though, isn't merely an ideological one. Developments inside the rainforest are very real. In March, Jeferson Alves, a member of the Brazilian National Congress, shouted "never again!" as he severed a legal barrier on the border of the Waimiri-Atroari Reservation with a chainsaw. Meanwhile, the Yanomami people, whose territory is home to 25,000 illegal gold miners, reported its first COVID-19 victims in April. And despite the crisis, the meat industry posted record revenues this summer.

Of course, it`'s nonsense when Ysani says she speaks for the Indigenous People. There are more than 200 peoples who speak more than a hundred different languages and believe in completely different creation myths. Some, like the Kalapalo, seek to connect with the world of the white man. Others have retreated so deep into the forest that we only know of their existence through word of mouth. Still others have only recently been contacted and continue to live in voluntary isolation.

Undermining Cohesion

The result is an extremely wide divide, with some Brazilians currently waiting for high-tech ventilators from China to treat their COVID-19 symptoms, while others have placed their hopes on the herbs of a miracle healer.

Along with social inequality, this temporal asymmetry is the second significant challenge to social cohesion in the country. How to address that divide is a key issue when it comes to the national identity.

Development is a concept that doesn't exist in indigenous cultures. It's based on a linear worldview that first arrived in Brazil with the Portuguese, who compared the development of human societies to climbing a ladder. The topmost rung corresponded with the ideal of scientific reason. On the very bottom rung, they placed the people in the forests, who first needed to be exorcised of their belief in spirits.

Missionary zeal was one aspect. The other was the elites' desire to overcome the backwardness of their colony by tapping the resource-rich hinterlands. They combined the two in a single belief structure: That you needed to force the indigenous peoples into the production processes in order to civilize them.

The first time the Kalapalo came into contact with the whites was in the early 18th century, when mercenaries came up the Xingu to recruit slave laborers for the gold mines of Cuiabá. The same thing happened in other parts of the Amazon. Troops of whites dragged natives into mines, sugar cane plantations and coffee and rubber fields. Even the abolition of slavery in the late 19th century did little to change the reality of a growing demand for cheap labor.

What changed was the narrative surrounding the indigenous peoples. The "savages" came to be seen as children in need of a guardian.

Leaders of the Kalapalo people: The "savages" were seen as children who needed a guardian.

Leaders of the Kalapalo people: The "savages" were seen as children who needed a guardian.

Foto: Ricardo Moraes / REUTERS

Still in the 1960s, when the military dictatorship made the development of the Amazon one of their regime's priorities, many justified the violent integration of the indigenous peoples with the vague hope that they would be inspired by the "spirit of progress." The construction of the Trans-Amazonian Highway brought hundreds of thousands of settlers to the region. All the massacres, the measles and flu epidemics that wiped out entire tribes, the wounds that forced contact inflicted on peoples' souls - none of that entered the Brazilian consciousness until an indigenous resistance formed, demanding ever more emphatically the recognition of historical rights, respect, and the freedom to decide for themselves whether they wanted to develop or not.

Ailton Krenak, a member of the Krenak tribe, summed up what they were all about when he became the first indigenous person to speak in the National Congress shortly after the end of the dictatorship. "In light of the aggressiveness of economic forces, their greed and ignorance, you can no longer remain silent," said Krenak. "How can people who sleep on mats in palm huts be called enemies who stand in the way of Brazil's development?"

Bolsonaro's Vendetta

Many of the indigenous demands were incorporated into the new constitution in 1988. Brazil, it seemed, was on its way to making peace with its past, with the asynchronism of its cultures and their apparent incompatibility. For a man like Bolsonaro, who was trained as a paratrooper under the dictatorship, those advances must have come across as a perpetual affront. The borders that were drawn around the indigenous territories, the FUNAI guards who protected them from invaders, the fines that were paid by the loggers and gold miners - he considers all that to be a glitch of history.

As such, his attack on the forest is essentially a vendetta aimed at restoring a colonial order that he considers to be natural.

Ysani is no longer quite a close to such developments as she once was. She drew widespread criticism when she mentioned in a tweet this spring that a foundation belonging to businessman Jorge Paulo Lemann had paid for her studies. Lemann is one of the richest people in Brazil and many Bolsonaro supporters consider him to be a "globalist" because of his social commitment. Ysani says the president hasn't responded to her WhatsApp messages since then. "Maybe I was wrong about him," she says. "Maybe we don't share the same goals." Or perhaps he just doesn't need her anymore.

"I know Ysani. I know she comes from a difficult family. Her father is an aggressive, bad-tempered person who has been accused of violence and witchcraft. When one of her sisters committed suicide, the family moved away and founded a new village, Tehuhungu. Ysani sometimes goes there to shoot her videos. She's an outcast on the Xingu – she's all about money and fame."

The woman who says this is named Kaiulu Yawalapiti Kamaiurá and she runs a small NGO working for the rights of indigenous women. She grew up 50 kilometers from Ysani on a side arm of the Xingu. The stories of their peoples are similar and Kaiulu was also in New York in September. She was attending a protest rally when Ysani made her appearance at the UN. "It's unbelievable," Kaiulu says, "that one of us is serving this perpetrator of genocide."

Kaiulu is a shy woman in her early forties who has given birth to six children. She offers courses in which she explains to women how they can apply for support without the mediation of a guardian. She is also encouraging Kaziks to develop a stronger voice.

Kaiulu is fighting her fight with the methods of the 20th century. Whereas Ysani speaks to people through her smartphone, Kaiulu's most important tool is a boat that she uses to navigate from village to village along the Xingu. Her biggest problem right now is that she is no longer able to afford the diesel fuel. FUNAI, which provides most of her funding, has almost completely halted its remittances and she says the funding applications have become so complex that they are almost certain to get caught up in bureaucracy. Kaiulu believes this is deliberate.

Ideological Zealots

The FUNAI regional office responsible for the Xingu Indigenous Park is now run by the military, as are the majority of the 39 regional offices. The Isolated Peoples Department at FUNAI is under the control of an evangelical missionary who wants to force contact with these tribes. To reiterate: FUNAI is actually intended to protect the integrity of the territories, as is the Environment Ministry. Instead, though, Minister Salles is working to legalize the export of freshly logged trees, which has so far been prohibited.

Budgets are being cut while departments and jobs are being eliminated. Key positions have been filled with ideological zealots. This is how Bolsonaro is getting the results he wants. And then there are the speeches like the one he gave in New York, essentially a coded message to criminals that nobody is going to penalize them if they head into the rainforest.

Now that more than 130 ethnic groups are reporting coronavirus infections, with hundreds of people sailing to Manaus on crowded boats because health posts near their villages are empty, it looks almost as though Bolsonaro has figured out a way to get the virus to work for him. There seems to be no other explanation for why he is blocking significant elements of a law that would require him to provide doctors, drinking water and food to the reservations.

Concern Is Growing in Europe

In June, 2,248 fires raged in the Amazon region, the highest number in 13 years. The journal Science recently wrote that 20 percent of the soy exported to Europe comes from areas that have been illegally cleared.

In July, some of Brazil's largest companies declared in an open letter that Bolsonaro's reputation-damaging environmental policy could have serious consequences for the economy. They have one main reason for their concern: In June 2019, the European Union and the South American economic community Mercosur reached a deal on a trade agreement that many companies had been hoping for. The treaty is currently awaiting approval from national parliaments, but members of the Dutch legislature ultimately decided not to ratify it in its current form.

In Europe, it appears, concerns are growing that large quantities of cheaply produced agricultural goods are harming our own farmers, who aren't particularly competitive. Fear is also mounting that more forests are being cleared to create new arable or pasture land. Even though Bolsonaro has committed himself to curbing deforestation, there are no mechanisms to sanction Brazil if it violates the rules.

Ultimately, the issue seems pretty simple. In order to survive, we need intact forests. If we want to die, the savanna will do. We don't have much time to decide.

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