Bolsonaro Says Environmental NGOs Are Burning the Amazon. That Conspiracy Theory Has a Strange Past.

How a book published in 2001 fueled a dangerous right-wing narrative in Brazil.

Michael Fox September 11, 2019

Jair Bolsonaro walks in front of the Brazilian flag as he prepares to cast his vote during the general elections, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on October 7, 2018. (MAURO PIMENTEL/AFP/Getty Images)

Brazil­ian pres­i­dent Jair Bol­sonaro blames inter­na­tion­al non-gov­ern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions (NGOs) for the for­est fires rav­aging the Ama­zon. He has repeat­ed­ly accused them of start­ing the fires in a con­spir­a­cy to attack his gov­ern­ment, because of NGO fund­ing cuts under his admin­is­tra­tion. There may be crim­i­nal actions on the part of NGOs against the Brazil­ian gov­ern­ment, to try and focus atten­tion on me,” he said on August 21. The biggest sus­pects are the NGOs,” he repeat­ed the next day. 

Bolsonaro’s push to hand over the Amazon to corporate interests comes amid a whole-sale sell-off of state industries under neoliberal Finance Minister Paulo Guedes.

His state­ments are an out­landish attempt to blame the very groups try­ing to pro­tect the envi­ron­ment — and to divert atten­tion from the real cul­prits behind the fires.

Accord­ing to reports, a group of rough­ly 80 landown­ers, busi­ness peo­ple and land grab­bers coor­di­nat­ed the start to the fires on August 10 to show their sup­port for Pres­i­dent Bol­sonaro and for gov­ern­ment cuts to the Brazil­ian Insti­tute of the Envi­ron­ment and Renew­able Nat­ur­al Resources, IBA­MA, which is charged with mon­i­tor­ing and inspect­ing com­pli­ance to envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions. (Bolsonaro’s admin­is­tra­tion slashed IBAMA’s bud­get by 24% in April , knock­ing the total bud­get to less than the cost of the organization’s fixed expenses.)

The group of land grab­bers set the shoul­ders of a major high­way in Para state ablaze, and paid motor­cy­clists to slash and burn their way into an envi­ron­men­tal­ly pro­tect­ed area. From August 9 to 11, 1,457 fires ripped across 15 munic­i­pal­i­ties in Para alone — the largest num­ber of blazes at a sin­gle moment in the state. 

But Bol­sonaro blamed the NGOs, and this idea has gained trac­tion among parts of Bolsanaro’s base.

I don’t real­ly think that these fires make that much of a dif­fer­ence for the cli­mate. I do think it’s a ques­tion of NGOs, and I sup­port pres­i­dent Bol­sonaro,” Eze­quiel da Cos­ta, a street ven­dor in Flo­ri­a­nop­o­lis, told In These Times three days after smoke from the fires drift­ed across the coun­try, turn­ing Sao Paulo’s after­noon skies dark.

For many of Bolsonaro’s sup­port­ers, his com­ments fit per­fect­ly into a world­view they already hold. That idea is that there is an inter­na­tion­al con­spir­a­cy to hold Brazil back, by forc­ing con­straints on the coun­try in the form of indige­nous ter­ri­to­ries, human rights, envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions and NGOs. The lat­ter, they believe, have been liv­ing large with fund­ing from the Brazil­ian gov­ern­ment, while doing the dirty work for for­eign governments.

This idea has been pushed online by a pow­er­ful net­work of right-wing YouTu­bers and social media influ­encers. My sense is that the mon­ey dried up, and so did the good times,” said the promi­nent right-wing YouTu­ber Bár­bara, behind the chan­nel Te atu­al­izei, refer­ring to the impact of Bolsonaro’s cuts to NGO fund­ing. The video, titled The Truth about the Ama­zon,” now has more than 330,000 views. In my opin­ion [the NGOs] decid­ed to make things a lit­tle worse: Retal­i­a­tion. What hap­pened was retal­i­a­tion,” said Bárbara.

Bol­sonaro sup­port­ers have tak­en to social media on numer­ous occa­sions in recent weeks in sup­port of the pres­i­dent, trend­ing the hash­tag #Ama­zo­ni­aSe­mONGs (#Ama­zon­With­out­N­GOs).

Bol­sonaro sug­gest­ed in a radio inter­view ear­li­er this year that the Unit­ed Nations was look­ing to par­ti­tion off Brazil’s indige­nous reserves into for­eign countries.

Sim­i­lar false claims have been cham­pi­oned by top mem­bers of Bolsonaro’s gov­ern­ment. Retired Gen­er­al Augus­to Heleno, who was mil­i­tary com­man­der of the Ama­zon, and who now serves as Bolsonaro’s Sec­re­tary of Insti­tu­tion­al Secu­ri­ty, said in June that he nev­er had a doubt that there was a strat­e­gy to pre­serve Brazil’s envi­ron­ment so it could lat­er be exploit­ed by for­eign­ers” with the help of NGOs, know­ing­ly in the ser­vice of for­eign governments.”

We have to lim­it the action that these NGOs have,” he said.

Green Mafia”

It’s hard to deci­pher exact­ly where the NGO the­o­ry orig­i­nat­ed. Some of the ear­li­est ref­er­ences come from the book, Green Mafia: Envi­ron­men­tal­ism at the Ser­vice of the World Gov­ern­ment, which was pub­lished in 2001. The book’s premise is that the world’s NGOs are essen­tial­ly shock troops of a new world order, fund­ed by pow­er­ful gov­ern­ments and wealthy foun­da­tions, to stop so-called third-world” coun­tries from devel­op­ing, by block­ing them from using their nat­ur­al resources, like the Amazon. 

This book was elab­o­rat­ed to show that the inter­na­tion­al envi­ron­men­tal move­ment, sup­port­ed by a vast net­work of NGOs, has noth­ing to do with pro­tect­ing the envi­ron­ment,” reads the sum­ma­ry on the back cov­er. On the con­trary, it serves a clever strat­e­gy of the Anglo-Amer­i­can oli­garchy to obstruct the forces of socio-eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment on a glob­al scale.”

The book was writ­ten by Loren­zo Car­ras­co, a Mex­i­can immi­grant to Brazil, and pub­lished in 2001 by the Wash­ing­ton-based Exec­u­tive Intel­li­gence Review, which was found­ed by the con­tro­ver­sial U.S. con­spir­a­cy the­o­rist and cli­mate denier Lyn­don H. LaRouche Jr.

While Green Mafia might seem incon­se­quen­tial — reserved to the chat groups of con­spir­a­cy the­o­rists — it may have left its mark on Brazil­ian far-right and con­ser­v­a­tive the­o­ries of envi­ron­men­tal­ism at the time.

The book appeared at a con­ve­nient moment for those look­ing to stem the tide of grow­ing glob­al envi­ron­men­tal­ism, less than a decade after the land­mark 1992 Rio sum­mit, and just a year before Luiz Ina­cio Lula da Silva’s first pres­i­den­tial vic­to­ry, which car­ried the Work­ers Par­ty to pow­er in Brazil. At the time, Ama­zon defor­esta­tion was spi­ral­ing out of con­trol. The world was call­ing for its protection.

Green Mafia sold 17,000 copies. Car­ras­co was invit­ed to tes­ti­fy before a Con­gres­sion­al inquiry on the activ­i­ties of NGOs in the Amazon.

The retired colonel and mil­i­tary his­to­ri­an Manoel Sori­ano Neto called Green Mafia an excel­lent work.” He wrote in a review post­ed on the right-wing web­site Em Dire­i­ta Brasil, This book should be wide­ly dis­sem­i­nat­ed so that a grow­ing num­ber of opin­ion mak­ers are aware of the latent threat to nation­al interests.” 

Bolsonaro’s now far-right philo­soph­i­cal guru Ola­vo de Car­val­ho pub­lished a note defend­ing it, after the World Wildlife Fund moved to have it sanc­tioned for base­less claims against the group. 

There are, of course, legit­i­mate cri­tiques of NGOs. Indus­tries have found­ed NGOs to influ­ence pub­lic opin­ion on their behalf. Con­ser­va­tion has also been known to some­times come into con­flict with the rights of indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties on their territories.

But in Brazil, gen­er­al­ly, the sit­u­a­tion has been quite different.

The NGOs have been a very impor­tant sup­port for com­mu­ni­ties where state poli­cies don’t reach. And they have con­tributed enor­mous­ly to enhance gov­er­nance,” says Uni­camp ecol­o­gy pro­fes­sor Bernar­do M. Flo­res. That is why Bol­sonaro is try­ing to under­mine the NGOs and main­tain this dis­tort­ed view of the NGOs among his sup­port­ers. He basi­cal­ly wants to weak­en every­thing hav­ing to do with indige­nous rights and indige­nous lands, so that he can increase his access to those areas.”

Brazil’s biggest threat

In oth­er words, Brazil’s biggest threat is not from NGOs or oth­er coun­tries, but Bol­sonaro him­self, who is the one most look­ing to hand over the Ama­zon to for­eign, cor­po­rate or pri­vate interests. 

In March, Brazil’s Min­is­ter of Mines and Ener­gy Ben­to Albu­querque trav­eled to Toron­to, where he told rep­re­sen­ta­tives at the world’s fore­most min­ing con­fer­ence that Brazil was look­ing to open up new lands to pri­vate min­ing com­pa­nies. Albu­querque told those present that the way for­ward was to open indige­nous lands to busi­ness­es that could bring ben­e­fits to these com­mu­ni­ties and to the country.”

Bolsonaro’s gov­ern­ment is now work­ing on a bill that would reg­u­late the explo­ration and extrac­tion of water and min­er­al deposits on indige­nous lands by pri­vate com­pa­nies. It hopes to have it brought to a vote next month.

The destruc­tion and defor­esta­tion is already being fueled by a host of inter­na­tion­al cor­po­rate con­glom­er­ates. Glob­al cat­tle com­pa­nies, such as Brazil’s JBS, multi­na­tion­al min­ing cor­po­ra­tions, and soy agribusi­ness giants ADM, Bunge, and Cargill, are all play­ing a role. Many have backed Bol­sonaro and his promise to devel­op the region. All are hun­gry for the com­modi­ties being reaped from the soil of the once pris­tine jungle.

Black­Rock, the world’s largest asset man­ag­er, and a key financier of the agribusi­ness jug­ger­nauts most impli­cat­ed in defor­est­ing the Brazil­ian Ama­zon, applaud­ed Bolsonaro’s 2018 victory.

In April, Bol­sonaro pro­posed to U.S. pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump that the two coun­tries joint­ly exploit the Ama­zon.

Yet, despite all of this — or per­haps because of it — Bol­sonaro defends his poli­cies by say­ing that he is pro­tect­ing the region against colo­nial­ism and for­eign powers.

It’s a strat­e­gy. You cre­ate a com­mon ene­my. And you say the ene­my is com­ing from out­side,” Jose Palatiel Rodrigues Pires, an ecol­o­gy pro­fes­sor at the San­ta Cata­ri­na Fed­er­al Uni­ver­si­ty, told In These Times. You say they are the ene­my, at the same time you hand them the coun­try, while you are destroy­ing the forest.”

This rhetoric fits per­fect­ly with­in Brazil’s long-held the­o­ry of the Inter­na­tion­al­iza­tion of the Ama­zon.” This idea holds that the world’s devel­oped nations will stop at noth­ing to access or steal the Ama­zon and its riches.The myth is root­ed in history.

Con­quis­ta­dors and Euro­pean and Amer­i­can adven­tur­ers long had their eyes set on the vast jun­gle and the rich­es of the myth­ic El Dora­do that may lay with­in. In 1876, British busi­ness­man adven­tur­er Hen­ry Wick­ham­be­came the world’s first biopi­rate when he made off with 70,000 seeds of the Hevea brasilien­sis, or rub­ber tree. The plants would be sent to British plan­ta­tions in Malaysia and Dutch plan­ta­tions in Indone­sia, which with­in a few decades would out­pace Brazil­ian rub­ber pro­duc­tion, destroy­ing Brazil’s trade, and dec­i­mat­ing the region and economy. 

There’s also Hen­ry Ford’s 1920s and 30s mis­ad­ven­tures in the Ama­zon, where he acquired a ter­ri­to­ry the size of Con­necti­cut, on which he estab­lished a mid-West­ern mod­eled city, Fordlân­dia, and attempt­ed to devel­op a plan­ta­tion to pro­duce rub­ber for his cars.

Count­less oth­er plans were devel­oped by pow­er­ful inter­ests over the years, to reap the ben­e­fits of the Amazon’s bounty.

Reviv­ing an old myth

Brazil’s mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship (19641985) pounced on the idea of the for­eign threat and used it to push devel­op­ment in the Ama­zon, as a mat­ter of nation­al secu­ri­ty. This devel­op­ment would cost the lives of 8,300 indige­nous peo­ples in the region. 

In the 1970s, the mil­i­tary decid­ed to build a TransAma­zon high­way to occu­py the Ama­zon, and they car­ried out a series of projects. And they always said that if they didn’t occu­py the Ama­zon it would be invad­ed by for­eign­ers,” says Palatiel. So, Bol­sonaro has revived an old myth.”

The con­cept has also been bol­stered over the years by dis­tort­ed infor­ma­tion, although it’s dif­fi­cult to deci­pher whether the doc­u­ments were faked by nation­al­ists, con­spir­a­cy the­o­rists, or just pranksters.

One such case sup­pos­ed­ly details U.S. plans to sev­er Brazil in half, and annex the Ama­zon region into a sep­a­rate coun­try. The map is labeled Most-Secret,” and was osten­si­bly drawn up by U.S. cap­tain Math­ew Fawry, and signed on April 11817.

Anoth­er case fea­tures the page of a sup­posed U.S. Geog­ra­phy text­book. On a map, the area around the Ama­zon is marked out and labeled For­mer Inter­na­tion­al Reserve of Ama­zon For­est.” It’s clear­ly a fake, with mis­spellings and exag­ger­at­ed text, but it was shared widely. 

Since the 80s the most impor­tant rain for­est of the world was passed to the respon­si­bil­i­ty (sic) of the Unit­ed States and the Unit­ed Nations. It is named as FIN­RAF (For­mer Inter­na­tion­al Reserve of Ama­zon For­est), and its foun­da­tion was due to the fact that the Ama­zon is locat­ed in South Amer­i­ca, one of the poor­est regions on earth (sic) and sur­round­ed by irre­spon­si­ble, cru­el, and author­i­tary (sic) coun­tries,” reads the text.

Bolsonaro’s push to hand over the Ama­zon to cor­po­rate inter­ests comes amid a whole-sale sell-off of state indus­tries under neolib­er­al Finance Min­is­ter Paulo Guedes. The Brazil­ian gov­ern­ment has announced the pri­va­ti­za­tion of at least 17 state firms, includ­ing the country’s postal ser­vice Cor­reios. It has already begun sell­ing off air­ports, ports and high­ways, and sub­sidiaries of the state-run Petro­bras, one of the largest oil com­pa­nies in the world. Guedes hopes to pri­va­tize it com­plete­ly by 2022.

Mean­while, Bolsonaro’s nation­al­ist rhetoric of defend­ing the coun­try against the for­eign ene­my will continue.

This myth was very strong dur­ing the dic­ta­tor­ship and it’s return­ing because of the gov­ern­ment dis­course, because it’s a way of dom­i­nat­ing the peo­ple,” ecol­o­gy pro­fes­sor Selvi­no Neck­el told In These Times. It’s a smoke­screen, though. The dic­ta­tor­ship used it to main­tain pow­er and today the gov­ern­ment, which is descend­ed from the dic­ta­tor­ship, is using it again. And it has worked with a sec­tion of the pop­u­la­tion that doesn’t have much access to information.”

Michael Fox is a free­lance reporter and video jour­nal­ist based in Brazil. He is the for­mer edi­tor of the NACLA Report on the Amer­i­c­as and the author of two books on Latin Amer­i­ca. He tweets at @mfox_us.
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