Global media, leaders and celebrities have expressed concern on the burning of the Amazon these days. Brazilian President Bolsonaro has responded to these concerns with his characteristic casual and crude reaction. He has shocked the world with his typically vulgar comments on French President Macron’s wife.
Brazilian ranchers have always tried to illegally gain more land for agriculture and cattle and resort to burning of forests during dry season. The previous governments had kept this under check to some extent. But Bolsonaro reduced the powers of the authorities for environment, forests and indigenous people and loosened the regulations. This has given the green signal to the ranchers to act with more impunity.
Bolsonaro is a climate denier and blind follower of his role model Trump on this and many other issues. His mindset is too petty to understand or care about the larger interests of Brazil and those of the world. His foreign minister Ernesto Araujo, a pseudo intellectual, has called climate change a “ cultural Marxist plot”. He claims that climate science is merely a dogma, which has been used to justify increasing the regulatory power of states over the economy and the power of international institutions on the nation states and their populations.
The only thing Bolsonaro understands is what the illegal ranchers tell him in his own crude language. Amazon is ours and we can do what we like. Bolsonaro is against the reservation of land for indigenous communities and protection given to them. In a meeting he held with the governors of Amazonian provinces this week, he did not talk about any strategy to put out the fire. He asked why is 14 per cent of Brazil’s land reserved for the indigenous communities? He probably feels that it was a historical mistake not to have completely eliminated the indigenous tribes. But he was forthright on the issue of killing of leftists by the military dictatorship. He said, “We should have killed more of them”.
Recently, when the president of the Bar Council of Brazil criticised some policies of the government, Bolsonaro said, "Do you want to know how your father was killed. Ask me. I know.” The father of the Bar Council president was kidnapped, tortured and killed by the dictatorship.
Bolsonaro is incapable of understanding the larger implications of his irresponsible policies and statements for the country. The Brazilian agricultural product exporters are worried by the negative image and potential adverse consequences being created by Bolsonaro’s foolishness. The Agriculture Minister is trying her best to put out the fires caused by Bolsonaro and is going around Europe giving assurances.
Brazil, one of the top agri exporters in the world, is dependent on exports for revenue. China is the largest market for Brazilian agri exports. But Bolsonaro visited Taiwan during his election campaign to show off his anti-Chinese bravery. He did not care about the fact that China is the largest market accounting for $63 billion of Brazilian global exports. This is more than double of its exports worth $29 billion to the USA. Later, the vice president of the country had to go to Beijing to put out the fire damage caused by Bolsonaro.
It may be noted here that Brazil already has enough agricultural land to feed not only the 210 million Brazilians, but another five hundred million outsiders. So there is no need to produce more food or seek more land for agriculture.
Brazil is the largest soy producer in the world with 123 million tonne harvested last year. But the Brazilians do not eat the soybeans, despite the fact that it is the lowest cost (per acre) protein. They export it exclusively to China, the only country which benefits from more Brazilian soy production. In 2018, Brazil exported $33 billion worth of soybean and $13 billion worth of meat.
Bolsonaro is now setting fire to Mercosur, the regional group. He has already started viciously attacking Cristina Fernandez and her Peronist candidate who are expected to come back to power beating the centre-right Macri in the October 2019 elections. This will likely kill Mercosur, which was established by the visionary leaders of South America in the nineties.
Sensible Brazilians consider Bolsonaro as an aberration and curse put in the presidential palace after the judicial and legislative coups in which President Dilma was impeached and Lula was put in jail to prevent his contesting the elections. He is perceived as an insult to Brazilian intelligence, decency and culture. In his inaugural speech, he vowed to liberate Brazil from socialism and political correctness. His anti-affirmative action and racist views are a setback for the large poor and marginalised black population of over 80 million out of the total of 210 million. He told a fellow Congresswoman that he would not rape her since she was too ugly.
Bolsonaro’s foreign minister is even more obscurantist and anachronistic. Araújo states that his goal is to “help Brazil and the world liberate themselves from globalist ideology”, which he sees as “anti-Christian and anti-human beings”. He claims that the ultimate aim of globalisation is to break the link between God and man. He quotes Biblical texts extensively to support his divine views, including about Brazil’s place in the Western world in international affairs. Araujo believes that theophobia is a bigger problem than xenophobia.
Bolsonaro’s reaction to the European concerns on Amazon has put in jeopardy the Mercosur-European Union Free Trade Agreement concluded recently after twenty years of negotiations. President Macron has threatened to block its ratification unless Brazil accepts responsibility for climate change.
The Amazon fire is limited only to the jungle area. But the Bolsonaro fire is destroying the fabric of the country and its essence.
The forest fire can be put out in a few weeks. But the damage being caused by Bolsonaro to Brazil is going to hurt the country more profoundly.
Given his destructive attitude, capacity and track record in harming the internal strength and external relations and image of Brazil, one should expect only more fires in the coming years from Bolsonaro.
Brazil and the world should be more worried by Bolsonaro, the arsonist, than the physical fire raging in Amazon.
The author is the former Indian ambassador to Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of THE WEEK