February 19, 2019 Climate

Brazil Elects A Fascist

By Holden Jurisich

Putin in Russia. Duterte in the Philippines. Trump in the US. And now, Bolsonaro in Brazil.

The 21st century and the increasingly precarious economic conditions that define it have opened the door for a new wave of authoritarian leaders. The harshly individualistic and unsustainable neoliberal world order that the working class has been subjected to, minus the protection of a robust labor movement, has paved the way for right-wing populists and autocrats. These leaders have successfully convinced everyday people that groups of “others” are to blame for their economic woes, rather than the economic system itself.

Riding this wave is Brazil’s new President, Jair Bolsonaro. His country has been particularly let down by a Workers’ Party plagued both with corruption and with reforms that, while popular at first, ultimately proved insufficient, as they failed to address the inherent instability of the system.

“Like Trumpism or Brexit, Bolsonaro seems a symptom of a broken system. Brazilian voters, tired of being ignored for so long, are ready to risk it all, convinced it cannot get any worse,” writes Felipe Araujo in The New Republic.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

Being elected President in this context means Bolsonaro has been given a mandate by his voters to strong-arm his way to changing Brazil. Having bought into Bolsonaro’s proposal to make Brazil great again, voters are either unaware, or aware but unconcerned, with the additional, more severe damage he is poised to do both to their country and the world.

Like all authoritarians, Bolsonaro presents “simple answers to complex problems.” One such “answer” of central importance to his agenda is the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest in the interest of agricultural development—a path that will lead to both the intensification of climate change and the displacement, or outright genocide, of Indigenous peoples.

Bolsonaro has focused his dangerous rhetoric on the country’s Indigenous population of 900,000 people since before he was even elected president. He has compared demarcated land for Indigenous peoples to reserves for “zoo animals” —an argument he advanced under the guise of helping them to assimilate into Brazilian society.

But the preservation of Indigenous land is critical to their survival and well-being, a cause that has been threatened since long before the rise of Bolsonaro. Twenty percent of the Amazon forest, much of which is in Brazil, has been lost to deforestation since the 1970s. This already alarming pace ramped up by an additional 50 percent from Aug. to Oct. 2018, as Bolsonaro rose in popularity in the presidential election.

“Under Bolsonaro, human life will have no value."

– Human rights attorney Diogo Cabral.

The destruction of Indigenous land is tragically correlated with the theft of Indigenous life and culture. As many as 80 members of the Guajajara tribe of the Maranhão state, for instance, have been killed since 2000 by illegal logging groups. Another tribe, the Guarani, has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, as its members fall into a spiral of despair. They and other members of Brazil’s Indigenous communities ask for no more than the basic human right of peaceful existence within their ancestral homelands. But they are denied this right by those who see them as less than human, as no more than an obstacle to development and profit.

The logging groups, while violent and destructive, represent only the relatively small-scale actions of individuals. Bolsonaro’s election, though, means their actions have been legitimized on a national scale.

The destruction of Indigenous land means the destruction of the Amazon, and the health of the Amazon has a significant correlation with the severity of climate change.

“When trees are cut down, the carbon stored inside them is released into the atmosphere. The remaining forest also absorbs less carbon dioxide. That means the health of the Amazon has a direct effect on global warming,” writes Mark Tutton for CNN.

An indigenous delegation at the 2012 Kari-Oca event, which ran parallel to the Rio+20 Conference. © Wilfred Paulse
An indigenous delegation at the 2012 Kari-Oca event, which ran parallel to the Rio+20 Conference. © Wilfred Paulse

On day one of his presidency, Bolsonaro gave to the ministry of agriculture the power of certifying Indigenous territories as protected lands. The interests of the ministry of agriculture are in line with those of the individual loggers, as it too has an agenda of deforestation. This means you can expect no such certifications to be made under the new president’s administration. Bolsonaro “represents an institutionalisation of genocide in Brazil,” said Dinamã Tuxá, coordinator of Brazil’s Association of Indigenous Peoples.

On day two, he stripped the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) of its power. The group had been responsible with protecting Indigenous peoples in the country since 1967.

One of Bolsonaro’s opponents in the first round of the presidential elections, Ciro Gomes, efficiently captured the threat he poses by referring to him as a “little tropical wannabe Hitler.”

Bolsonaro will not go unchecked in his anti-Indigenous crusade, however: such communities are protected under the Brazilian constitution, and international pressure will be on their side. Given these countering forces, Bolsonaro may not be able to inflict as much damage to Indigenous rights as he wants. Still, the fact that he harbors such inclinations and is taking his administration in this direction is cause enough for concern. Gomes says that Brazil must beware the “egg of the serpent of Nazism, of fascism, that we must treat as a serious threat.”

We don’t know yet just how severely Indigenous Brazilians will be impacted by Bolsonaro, but there is ample reason for these folks and for anyone who cares about them to be worried. But you’re not off the hook even if you don’t care about Indigenous peoples, because when they get hurt, we all get hurt.

“Under Bolsonaro, human life will have no value,” said human rights attorney Diogo Cabral.

Bolsonaro’s agenda of deforestation highlights the intersectional nature of social justice causes: the destruction of the Amazon will have both an immediate effect on Brazil’s Indigenous communities and a slower—but even farther reaching effect—on the environment. Also at the heart of these issues is the violation of certain universal rights: Indigenous rights are human rights, and Brazilian climate destruction is global climate destruction. You have good cause to be worried by what Brazil’s new president is doing, even if you think you aren’t directly affected.