How Jair Bolsonaro Emboldened Brazilian Agribusiness to Torch the Amazon & Attack Indigenous People

Web ExclusiveAugust 23, 2019
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World leaders are calling for the protection of the Amazon as massive fires continue to scorch the world’s largest rainforest, which produces about 20% of the oxygen on the planet. Andrew Miller, advocacy director for the conservation organization Amazon Watch, says the fires are worse now than in previous years as a direct result of far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s policies, which encourage exploitation of the Amazon for mining, logging and agricultural activity. “The people who feel the impacts directly are local indigenous communities,” Miller says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to look at the fires raging through the Amazon, killing wildlife, destroying indigenous communities. Images of the wildfires spread across social media and made international headlines this week. But the fires have been blazing for about three weeks. So far this year, there have been nearly 73,000 fires in Brazil, with over half of them in the Amazon region, an 83% increase from the same period last year.

Still with us for this Part 2 is Andrew Miller, advocacy director at Amazon Watch.

Explain the science of what’s happening, Andrew, this issue of the massive increase in fires this year. Is it science? Is it politics?

ANDREW MILLER: Well, right now, Brazil is in what’s called the burning season. So, every year, you do see these kinds of fires, which are related to agricultural activities. But the massive increase this year is directly related to the politics that are going on right now. It’s directly related to the signals that Jair Bolsonaro is sending to the agribusiness industry. You know, there was in — August 10th was declared the “Day of Fire” by farmers in the state of Pará. And this was reported in the Brazilian press. They said August 10th is going to be the Day of Fire, and those — in those same press accounts, the local farmers talked about how they were very much emboldened by Jair Bolsonaro and what he’s been saying and the policies that he’s been putting forth. So, there’s a direct correlation between what’s happening at the national level and what’s also happening at a local level.

And it’s important to say, the fires are just the latest manifestation. They’re very visual. People can see the fires of the Amazon. You don’t even need words to understand what a tremendous tragedy that is, what a tremendous threat that is, essentially, to the rainforests, to climate. But there are other things that we’ve been seeing in recent months. We’ve been seeing a spike in deforestation. Deforestation happens, and it’s very hard to get information about it. The deforestation doesn’t end up, you know, trending on social media. The deforestation doesn’t create clouds that are shrouding Brazilian cities in the middle of the day. So it hasn’t gotten the same coverage necessarily, but we’re seeing these other kinds of manifestations of these policies.

And the people who feel the impacts directly are local indigenous communities. They’re the ones who are essentially trying to defend themselves, defend their territories. In a number of cases, we’ve seen different peoples — the Kaapor people, the Munduruku people, among others — that are organizing forest guards. They’re organizing patrols to go out within their territory and to confront the loggers, to confront the miners, to decommission their equipment, to send people packing from their territory. You know, this is a direct manifestation of how indigenous peoples are protecting their territories, how they’re protecting the Amazon.

It’s also incredibly dangerous for them, the possibility of violent confrontation with loggers and with miners. And, of course, indigenous leaders are being targeted. They’re being threatened and, in some cases, are being assassinated. And this is a tendency that we’ve seen for years. Brazil is, and has been in the last 10 years, essentially, the most dangerous country for people who are defending the environment, in terms of assassinations, as documented by groups like Global Witness. So it’s incredibly dangerous when people go out and do this, but it’s really their last resort. They can’t depend on the Brazilian government, and certainly not the current government, to help protect their territories against what are entirely illegal activities. So, they’re the ones who are on the frontlines.

And the importance of us finding ways to support them on the frontlines, to support the work they’re doing in their territories, to support the mobilizations that indigenous peoples are organizing in Brazil. Two weeks ago, 2,000 indigenous women from around the country came together in Brasília to — with this message, to defend their territory, and also to support efforts that are going on in the Brazilian Congress, which are being led by the first indigenous woman member of Congress, Joênia Wapichana. Literally this week, Joênia and other progressive forces in the Brazilian Congress are trying to fight off proposals that are being pushed by the agribusiness lobby to open up indigenous territories, to weaken the protections and to allow mining activities, to allow logging activities directly in their territories. So the fight is being carried out on these different levels, and it’s important for us to support them.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Joênia Wapichana, Andrew, the first indigenous woman elected to the Brazilian Congress.

JOÊNIA WAPICHANA: [translated] Protest is an important act to defend the rights of indigenous peoples. We are under a series of systematic, violent attacks. There’s the lack of demarcation of indigenous lands, the issue of health, education. This is all in danger. We are fighting against privatizing, for a fairer and quality education.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Joênia Wapichana. Again, her significance as the first indigenous woman in the Brazilian Congress and what this means and how she is taking on the far-right President Bolsonaro, who has viciously attacked indigenous groups, praised the United States for exterminating Indians, saw it as a model for what he would do in Brazil?

ANDREW MILLER: Well, Joênia is one of many extraordinary indigenous women coming from the Brazilian Amazon. In addition to being the first indigenous woman member of Congress, she is also Brazil’s first indigenous woman lawyer. And she fought a very important land rights case before the Brazilian Supreme Court 10 years ago and won. So she’s been a trailblazer for many years. She won the U.N.’s human rights award this last December, which they only give out every five years. So, Joênia herself is an extraordinary figure.

And the fact that she’s in Congress now gives her a tremendous platform. She’s been doing amazing alliance-building work with other progressive actors within the Brazilian Congress, to serve to push back against many of the different initiatives that the Bolsonaro administration is putting out. Now, the Bolsonaro administration has a strategy that’s very similar to Trump, which is sort of a chaos strategy. It’s a strategy of every day there’s some sort of new outrageous proposal that comes forward. So they’re doing their best to fight them off at a legislature level. And, of course, human rights groups and indigenous rights groups are trying to fight off many of these proposals at a legal level, too. But some of them are getting through, you know, so it’s a constant battle that’s going on there.

But Joênia has definitely been at the forefront of that. And Joênia has been working to build a relationship, you know, across borders with other women who are in similar positions. She’s been building relationships with other indigenous women legislators, including Representative Deb Haaland here in the United States. And so, the day before Bolsonaro and Trump —

AMY GOODMAN: One of two first Native American women elected to the U.S. Congress, the congresswoman from New Mexico.

ANDREW MILLER: Exactly. So, both Joênia and Representative Deb Haaland are really trailblazers. The day before Trump and Bolsonaro met here in Washington, D.C., on March 19th, Representative Haaland and Representative Wapichana from Brazil, they published a joint op-ed piece in The Washington Post. And essentially these women are — you know, if Trump and Bolsonaro are the physical manifestations of authoritarianism, of toxic masculinity, of homophobia, of the direct assault on the environment, Representative Haaland and Representative Wapichana essentially represent the diametrical opposition to that. And so, at the same time that Trump and Bolsonaro are looking to build different kinds of alliances, we’re seeing other alliances that are starting to build in resistance, between groups in the United States and in Brazil and other parts of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Indigenous people have been social — using social media to document how illegal loggers are setting fire to their territories. This is a woman named Célia, a member of the Pataxó indigenous community, speaking in a video that went viral across Brazil this week.

CÉLIA: [translated] Look what they’ve done to our reservation. For two years we’ve been fighting to preserve this land, and now those troublemakers come here and set fire to our village. As if it were not enough, the Vale mining company kills our river, our people, our source of life, and now they’ve come and set fire to our reservation. We won’t stay quiet! Tomorrow we will close the road, and we want the media to defend us!

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is Célia describing the fire behind her. And who’s setting that fire, Andrew Miller?

ANDREW MILLER: Well, by and large, the fires are being set by people who want to use the land for agricultural purposes. So, we might say farmers or ranchers. And again, this is something that has gone on in the Amazon for a long time, but the scale of what’s happening in this case is unprecedented. And we’re seeing cases, as shown in that video, where it’s not just about, you know, creating land that’s apt for grazing cattle; it’s also about opening up areas where it’s illegal to do this and pushing out indigenous peoples at the same time. So, the pressures on indigenous peoples in the Brazilian Amazon right now are extraordinary.

It’s happening all across the Amazon. You know, we’re trying to track different cases and bring to light what’s happening, you know, with the Kaapor people, with the Munduruku people, with many different indigenous peoples around the Amazon. But it’s a real challenge because the specific cases that we’re seeing are generalized. They’re happening across the Brazilian Amazon. It’s a huge area. It’s dozens, if not hundreds, of different indigenous peoples and communities where it’s happening. So, Amazon Watch and Amnesty International and many other organizations that work in solidarity with these indigenous folks are working to raise the profile of these cases and to generate different kinds of international pressure.

People are mobilizing across Brazil this weekend, in protest of the fires and the government policy and the fact that the Brazilian minister of environment slashed fire protection, prevention funds by one-and-a-half million dollars earlier this year, and to protest the broader policies. We’re also seeing protests happening internationally. There’s one going on in New York City tomorrow. Extinction Rebellion, which — a phenomenal social movement that’s kind of exploding across the world, has called for protests in front of embassies in the coming days. And we’re likely to see further days of solidarity with the Amazon coming up in the coming weeks. Of course, September, there’s going to be tremendous mobilizations around the world, the youth climate strike on September 20th, Earth Strike, etc. So, there are also opportunities for people to come out to show their solidarity with indigenous peoples in the Brazilian Amazon, to show their solidarity with indigenous peoples around the world who are climate leaders and who are putting their bodies on the line, not just in Brazil, of course, in the United States, in Canada and all around the world. So that solidarity is absolutely crucial.

And it’s crucial that people are sending a message to our leaders that we need radical policy change, in Brazil, in the United States, around the world. Of course, it’s our economies in the United States and Canada and Europe, elsewhere, that are generating the economic impetus for many of these activities, for the beef, for example, for the soy, for other commodities that are coming out of the Amazon.

So, we need to fundamentally reexamine, essentially, our lifestyle. And that’s something that, you know, people have been saying for years, but, increasingly, the United Nations is saying that. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, you know, the scientific, essential, final word on climate issues, are starting to say we need to reexamine our entire agricultural system, essentially, the way we’re feeding the world, given the climate crisis that we are facing today.

So, I would very much encourage people, of course, to stand in solidarity with indigenous peoples, you know, to mobilize in the coming days, as people are able, to support organizations, to provide financial support directly to the indigenous organizations, too, on the ground. Of course, you know, they’re the ones who are confronting these issues on a day-to-day basis, and they need your help.

AMY GOODMAN: These fires know no borders. I mean, you have the Bolivian President Evo Morales announcing a new Environmental Emergency Cabinet has been created to tackle the blazes in Brazil, which borders — in Bolivia which borders Brazil and Paraguay. These fires are happening now, spreading through Latin America.

ANDREW MILLER: Yeah, I mean, of course, the issues that the Amazon is facing in Brazil can be similar to how it is — how it manifests itself in other Amazonian countries. You mentioned Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia. The political contexts in each case are different, so the responses are different, and how indigenous peoples are mobilizing to confront them are also different. But, of course, we would say the same thing, that the the indigenous leadership in those different places is crucial for — to be supported.

You know, unfortunately, Evo Morales, as an indigenous president himself, has really butted heads, in many cases, with Amazonian indigenous peoples. He’s sort of had a very kind of top-down mentality about imposing development projects on the Amazon. So, at the same time that Evo Morales has had some progressive policies, he’s also had tensions with indigenous peoples. And, in fact, I recently saw that some indigenous peoples are essentially calling for his impeachment because of his policies in the Amazon.

So, these are obviously complex situations. But the importance of supporting grassroots indigenous movements and grassroots indigenous leadership is crucial, whether it’s in Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, around the Amazon and around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much for being with us, Andrew. Andrew Miller, advocacy director at Amazon Watch. To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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