Why Brazil believes the world wants to steal the Amazon

. Aug 27, 2019
Why Brazil believes the world wants to steal the Amazon Amazon rainforest. Photo: Shutterstock

The rumor that international actors are coveting the Amazon rainforest is hardly something new. Given its strategic, ecological and economic value, the collective imagination of the Amazon region has always been filled with accusations of sabotage, espionage, piracy, and imperialism from abroad.

It is entirely possible that the first of these tales dates back to 1689, when a German Jesuit by the name of Samuel Fritz was blocked by the Portuguese from returning to the Yurimágua tribe, in the Alto Solimões region, due to accusations of espionage. He was only able to make it back years later, accompanied by Portuguese troops.

Throughout the 18th century, the vulnerability of the Amazonian borders led Portugal to transform the local demographics, abolishing indigenous slavery in 1755, transforming religious villages into civil municipalities, and encouraging the miscegenation between whites and indigenous people in the region.

</p> <p>After Brazil became independent in 1822, the defense of the Amazon became one of the most sensitive elements of the emerging spirit of Brazilian nationalism. However, this time, the concern shifted from Europe to the U.S.&nbsp;</p> <p>At the height of the period of American expansionism, the Amazon became an object of Yankee desire. Inspired by manifest destiny, U.S. Navy officer Matthew Fontaine Maury was in favor of invading the Amazon as a way of resolving the social problems of Southern states with regard to abolitionist pressures. The rainforest would be, in his eyes, a natural extension of the Mississippi valley.</p> <p>Some of Matthew Maury&#8217;s writings were published in the <em>Correio Mercantil</em> newspaper in 1853 and sparked an immediate backlash. Teixeira de Macedo, a diplomat and minister, made severe criticisms of the Anglo-American arrogance, saying they were &#8220;convinced that they must regenerate the whole world and govern by way of their influence.&#8221;</p> <h2>Brazil&#8217;s march west</h2> <p>The desire to transform Brazil into a global power led President Getúlio Vargas to propose a march to the west. In a speech at the Manaus National Library in 1940, he spoke of the &#8220;Brazilian destiny of the Amazon,&#8221; where their task would be to pioneer, conquer and dominate that &#8220;immense depopulated space.&#8221;</p> <p>According to <a href="">Getulio Vargas</a>, &#8220;the highest task of the civilized man is to conquer and dominate the valleys of the large equatorial torrents, transforming their blind force and extraordinary fertility into disciplined energy. The Amazon will become a chapter of the history of civilization.&#8221;</p> <h2>Post-World War II in the Amazon</h2> <p>With the end of World War II and the creation of the United Nations, one of the most controversial proposals for the Amazon region came to light. Scientist Paulo Berraldo Carneiro, seeking to further his research in the country, suggested the creation of the International Institute of the Amazon Hiléia (IIHA), led by UNESCO in 1947. Hileia was a term used by German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt to refer to the Amazon rainforest. After much negotiation, the IIHA was established by the Iquitos Convention of 1948.&nbsp;</p> <p>Brazil&#8217;s President Eurico Gaspar Dutra, interested in taking advantage of the Amazon, recommended that Congress approved the IIHA project. He didn&#8217;t expect that some politicians would speak out against it. The most vocal opponent was former President Artur Bernardes, who was a representative for the state of Minas Gerais at the time. Riding the wave of the nationalist &#8220;The Oil is Ours&#8221; campaign, Mr. Bernardes attacked the proposal, considering it a veiled attempt to &#8220;internationalize the Amazon&#8221; on behalf of world powers, with the acquiescence of UNESCO.</p> <p>Artur Bernardes&#8217; nationalism won over Congress, to the point that the IIHA proposal didn&#8217;t even make it to a vote. In one speech, he spoke of the risk of dividing the Amazon up &#8220;into colonial zones for a condominium of nations,&#8221; resulting in a humiliating end for Brazilian sovereignty.</p> <p>The idea of national integration, however, would only materialize itself some years later, in 1966, when the military and business owners signaled a transition from the &#8220;Amazon of rivers&#8221; to the &#8220;Amazon of <a href="">roads</a>.&#8221;</p> <div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="aligncenter"><img src="á.png" alt="military authorities in pará" class="wp-image-23004" srcset="á.png 620w,á-300x173.png 300w,á-610x351.png 610w" sizes="(max-width: 620px) 100vw, 620px" /><figcaption>Then-President Emilio Medici inspects works in the Trans-Amazonian Road, in Pará (1972)</figcaption></figure></div> <p>Known as <a href="">Operation Amazonia</a>, the system of colonizing the region involved rural and corporate undertakings, organized by the military regime by way of agencies such as SUDAM, SUFRAMA, INCRA and the Amazon Bank (BASA). The army&#8217;s slogan was &#8220;occupy it, to not give it up.&#8221;</p> <p>At the same time, Brazil took a defensive stance in relation to the ecological discussion. In the 1972 Stockholm Conference, the direct predecessor to the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992, Brazil blamed wealthy countries for pollution and insisted that environmental preservation was incompatible with sovereign development.</p> <p>Brazil&#8217;s return to democracy in the 1980s coincided with the &#8220;second environment wave,&nbsp; which was defined by the publication of the Our Common Future report in 1987, which introduced the concept of sustainable development. The following year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was created.</p> <h2>Brazil in the crosshairs</h2> <p>While the military regime was able to avoid environmental conflict, the José Sarney government became the target of international criticism. In 1988, <em>The</em> <em>New York Times</em> claimed that <a href="">fires in the Amazon may be causing global warming</a>—and Brazil was to blame.</p> <p>Brazil&#8217;s reaction was swift. The Constitution of 1988 dedicated its Article 225 to the environment, being written by environmentalist Fabio Feldmann. In the same month, President Sarney launched the Our Nature program, which involved seven ministries, removed tax incentives for farming projects in the rainforest and created the Brazilian Environmental Protection Agency (Ibama).</p> <p>In the same year, the Foreign Affairs Ministry came up with the idea of offering Brazil as the host of the 1992 Earth Summit. The idea was to improve the country&#8217;s credibility, as its image abroad had been tarnished.</p> <p>What no-one could predict, however, was that environmentalist Chico Mendes would be brutally assassinated on Christmas Eve, 1988. He had been criticized by farmers for &#8220;getting in the way of progress.&#8221; After receiving death threats, he spoke out in an interview to newspaper <em>Jornal do Brasil</em>, which was never published.</p> <p>Chico Mendes&#8217; assassination echoed around the world, bringing international eyes to the Amazon. In 1989, Paul McCartney recorded a song in his honor, <em>How Many People</em>. The same year, Sting went on tour with environmentalist Raoni Metuktire, calling attention to indigenous issues in Brazil, which had become contentious as Brazilians were drafting a new constitution.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img src="" alt="sting cacique raoni" class="wp-image-23005" srcset=" 797w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 797px) 100vw, 797px" /><figcaption>Sting (L) and Raoni Metuktire</figcaption></figure> <p>At the beginning of 1989, a parliamentary delegation from the U.S. came to Brazil to meet with President Sarney. A young Al Gore, who would be elected vice president three years later, told the press that &#8220;contrary to what Brazilians think, the Amazon is not their property, it belongs to all of us.&#8221;</p> <p>Months later, French President François Mitterand and his prime minister, Michel Rocard, defended variations of the same idea at an environmental conference. Mr. Rocard told Brazilian diplomats that the country wasn&#8217;t fit to take care of the Amazon, while Mr. Mitterand suggested that Brazil waived its sovereignty on environmental matters in exchange for debt relief.</p> <p>What was on the table was a new concept, that of the &#8220;right of interference.&#8221; Created by French legal scholar Bernard Kouchner, this doctrine challenged the idea of sovereignty in cases of humanitarian crises, which was now extended to matters of &#8220;environmental massacres.&#8221;</p> <p>A similar theory was recently evoked by Stephen Walt (albeit as a theoretical hypothesis) in his controversial <em>Foreign Policy </em>article “Who Will Invade Brazil to Save the Amazon?” The title of the article was eventually changed to avoid mistaking it for a suggestion of actual foreign invasion.</p> <h2>The nationalist horseshoe effect</h2> <p>The risk of an international intervention to &#8220;steal&#8221; the Amazon began filling the nightmares of left and right-wing nationalists. Lawmaker and former presidential hopeful Enéas Carneiro, whose inflammatory rhetoric had made him a beacon of far-right nationalism, contributed to <a href="">spread this narrative</a>.</p> <p>In 1998, member of Congress Bernardo Cabral made an alarmist speech to the House of Representatives, referring to the work of General Rubens Bayma Denis on the Amazon to denounce potential interference from the U.S. in the region.</p> <p>He called attention to a memorandum written in 1817, titled &#8220;Demobilization of the Colony of Brazil.&#8221; This document was said to have been written by U.S. Navy captain Matthew Fawry and revealed American plans to divide Brazil and establish a &#8220;Sovereign Amazonian State.&#8221; It turned out to be the first large-scale piece of fake news on the matter, with a very dubious relation to the historical reality.</p> <div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="aligncenter"><img src="" alt="&quot;Sovereign Amazonian State&quot;" class="wp-image-23006" srcset=" 594w, 222w" sizes="(max-width: 594px) 100vw, 594px" /><figcaption>&#8220;Sovereign Amazonian State&#8221;</figcaption></figure></div> <p>In 2000, the Military Commander of the Amazon, Luis Gonzaga Lessa, foresaw that military interventions to protect the environment would become the &#8220;trend of the coming decade.&#8221; Foreign interests, by way of environmental and humanitarian NGOs, were in the riches underneath the soil of the Amazon rainforest.</p> <p>The second piece of Amazonian fake news—which had even more of an impact—originated that same year. A claim was made that American school textbooks were printing that the Amazon was international territory. Despite this being a poorly made hoax, images were spread around the country, shared by the <em>Estado de S. Paulo</em> newspaper and the Brazilian Society for Scientific Progress (SBPC).</p> <div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="aligncenter"><img src="" alt="fake textbook amazon state" class="wp-image-23007" srcset=" 500w, 264w" sizes="(max-width: 500px) 100vw, 500px" /><figcaption>Fake American textbook</figcaption></figure></div> <p>Amid these rumors, the former governor of the Federal District, Cristovam Buarque, published his thoughts on the internationalization of the Amazon, saying that, by the same token, the world&#8217;s oil, museums, and nuclear weapons should also be made international. The piece only served to amplify the narrative further.</p> <p>At a time where the internet was very limited (both for spreading and combating fake news), one of the biggest mythbusters of the internationalization of the Amazon was Paulo Roberto de Almeida, who worked in the Brazilian embassy in Washington D.C.</p> <p>Despite trying to fight the myth of internationalization and the fears of interference—made stronger by the unilateral behavior of George W. Bush after September 11—Chancellor Luiz Felipe Lampreia was summoned to provide explanations to Congress.</p> <p>What is interesting about the conspiratorial narrative is that, despite having its origins in military discourse, it quickly became popular among the anti-neoliberal left. According to anthropologist Sean Mitchell, this is connected to the combination of anti-American nationalism and the internet.</p> <p>The tale of internationalization resurfaces once every few years. In 2006, for example, the United Kingdom&#8217;s Environment Secretary, David Milliband, suggested privatizing the Amazon rainforest as a way of protecting it. That was enough to stir the anger of nationalists.</p> <p>Sometimes, the blame isn&#8217;t placed on foreigners, but on the Brazilian government itself. The dismissal of Marina Silva from the Environment Ministry in 2008, after threats from private lobbyists, caused an outrage. A story by <a href="">Alexei Barrionuevo</a>, for <em>The</em> <em>New York Times</em>, on the issue reignited the debate in Brazil and around the world.</p> <p>Regardless, the correct attitude of any government is to repeat the obvious: the Amazon belongs to Brazil and is not for sale. Any foreign interest which puts the country&#8217;s sovereignty at risk cannot be tolerated.</p> <p>However, the problem is when this is transformed into carte blanche for the government—in the name of sovereignty over the Amazon—to persecute environmentalists, the loosen environmental laws, or encourage deforestation to satisfy economic interests.</p> <p>At the end of the day, Brazil&#8217;s fear that global powers want to internationalize the Amazon, and the foreign concerns that Brazil is destroying &#8220;the lungs of the planet&#8221; are narratives that sustain each other, contributing to an increase in tensions which is to the benefit of no-one. Unlike what Tyler Bellstrom suggested in a <a href="">recent piece</a> for <em>The New Republic</em>, Brazil is not the greatest threat to the world in the long term. That said, it does have a responsibility to take care of the rainforest, its inhabitants, and its future.

Guilherme Casarões

Guilherme Casarões is a political scientist and a professor at Fundação Getulio Vargas' Public Administration school (FGV-EAESP).

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