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Populist governance

Lying about Brazil’s forests

by Jorge Soares

In depth

Brazilian forest fire in August 2019.

Brazilian forest fire in August 2019.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro tells his supporters that deforestation is not a problem, but rather leads to prosperity. To spread this message, he must deny science.

In October last year, devastating fires turned several parts of Brazil’s Amazonian forests into ashes. Indigenous people and other marginalised communities suffered in particular, and the entire river basin’s ecology is increasingly at risk (see Carmen Josse in Tribune section of D+C/E+Z e-paper 2019/10). Nonetheless, Bolsonaro addressed an audience of investors in Saudi Arabia and told them that the fires did not worry him. He declared them to be a “typical practice of local and indigenous people in an attempt to transform extractivism into agriculture”.

Experts were shocked, and so was the general public. French President Emmanuel Macron even spoke of a disaster and pointed out that Brazil had to take urgent action. Unless environmental standards are observed, European environmentalists do not want a trade deal between the EU and Mercosur to be ratified. Brazil belongs to the regional organisation Mercosur.

Bolsonaro dismisses any criticism. In autumn, he said: “A few weeks ago, Brazil was severely attacked by a European head of state on the Amazon issue.” He insisted that indigenous people burn down the forest for survival and claimed that this was one of the reasons why he “did not identify with previous policies regarding the Amazon”. Under his predecessors, land was reserved for conservation managed by indigenous communities. Rules of that kind limited how far agribusiness companies could expand operations. They want more land and benefit from the fires that, under Bolsonaro, are clearing forests.

In late 2019, international observers wondered why a head of state would deny science, use false pre3mises and lie about policies that were actually quite successful. Brazilians watching him closely had no doubt. It was an attempt to confuse the public and make the fires seem like something natural.


Systematic obfuscation

Governments run by right-wing populists like Bolsonaro have a strong tendency to obfuscate and mislead (see box). The reason is that empirical facts clash with populist propaganda. Bolsonaro does not want the public to believe what the providers of unbiased, scientific information say, so he does what he can to undermine their credibility.

Accordingly, Bolsonaro turned against the National Institute for Space Research (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais – INPE) in August last year. INPE is a government agency that uses satellite images to monitor Brazil. Among other things, it documents the state of Brazilian forests. Its Deter system documents logging in real time. INPE’s methodology is endorsed by NASA, the US space agency. Ricardo Salles, the environment minister supported Bolsonaro’s attack on INPE. Both politicians stated they needed better and more accurate data. They fired Ricardo Galvão, the physicist who was leading the institute.

International observers were shocked. “Jair Bolsonaro and his anti-environment minister, Ricardo Salles, made a bold attempt to lower the iron curtain on Amazon deforestation data – live and before the eyes of the entire world,” stated a comment in El País, the leading Spanish newspaper. “The government’s undisguised intention is to censor INPE and create a monitoring system in tune with the fictional world of Bolsonarism.”

The government has recently been sued for failing to protect the Amazon forest. Cases have been filed by an organisation of environment-ministry staff members, opposition parties and the NGOs Greenpeace and Instituto Socioambiental. Deutsche Welle reported that they argue Bolsonaro’s government acted wrongly by weakening inspections related to timber exports and by cutting climate-protecting funding.

The science is clear: the global climate is changing, and forests are dwindling in many countries. The two trends are mutually reinforcing. In order to protect humankind from ever worsening disasters, they must be stopped. Brazil’s forests are probably the world’s most important – because of their sheer size and their great biodiversity. Making matters more worrisome, deforestation in Brazil may be close to a tipping point after which the forests may be unable to regrow as they did in the past.


Faster deforestation

Bolsonaro won the presidential elections in 2018 and took office on 1 January 2019. His campaign promised to:

  • discontinue environmental assessments,
  • end the protection of specific forest areas and
  • erase demarcations that define indigenous land.

That agenda obviously adds up to faster deforestation. According to Imazon, an independent think tank, 1,722 square kilometres were cleared in the months January to May 2020. That was 39 % more forest area than in the same period a year earlier when Bolsonaro had just taken office.

Brazil’s federal government is taking an anti-science approach not only in regard to forest issues. Its response to the global Covid-19 pandemic has been equally problematic right from the start (see Gilberto Scofield Jr. in Covid-19 diary in D+C/E+Z e-paper 2020/06). Even though the deadly disease is now spreading fast in Brazil (see Thuany Rodrigues in Covid-19 diary in D+C/E+Z e-paper 2020/06), Bolsonaro has not changed his stance. On 7 June, his government stopped publishing total numbers of infections and deaths. According to the website worldometers.info, however, the country had counted almost 690,000 infections by 8 June, more than any other country apart from the USA, and the disease had killed more than 37,000 Brazilians. Many of them, however, belong to black and indigenous communities who, in the right-wing populists’ eyes, do not count as real citizens. In view of all the untruths, many people hope that the truth will soon catch up with Bolsonaro. He is suspected of corruption and obstruction of justice. The Supreme Court authorised investigations in late April. Democracy depends on checks and balances, and Bolsonaro has done his best to blunt them since taking power. The good news is that he has not managed to subvert all state institutions. A leaked video that showed him and his cabinet denigrating the judiciary, moreover, has hurt his own credibility.

His supporters, however, still hope that he will somehow manage to make his make-belief promises come true. That will never happen. Brazil cannot be a homogenous nation that excludes anyone who is somehow different and thrives on destroying the environment. Brazil is a diverse nation – and no society will last if it destroys the foundations on which it depends.

Jorge Soares is the pseudonym of a Brazilian Journalist who wrote this story before being told by his employer that, in these politically troubled times, he may no longer publish opinion pieces.
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