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.
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.
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 (1964−1985) 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 1, 1817.
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.”