How Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s claims contradict facts
During the month of August, it came to international attention that the Amazon Rainforest was burning. And yet, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro maintains that “Our Amazon… remains practically untouched,” in a speech to the UN General Assembly. He claims that dry weather and indigenous people are responsible for the fires consuming the so called “lungs of the earth,” — a phrase that Bolsonaro himself has denounced — and that the Brazilian government is committed to ending environmental crimes.
Yet, his actions speak louder than his words. Bolsonaro has appointed a foreign minister who believes that climate change is merely dogma “used to justify increasing the regulatory power of states over the economy,” and an environmental minister who has cut the budget for the implementation of the Climate Change National Policy by 95 percent. The Brazilian Ministry for Environmental Defense has seen 24% of their budget cut — the funds that were supposed to go to enforcement efforts and fighting Amazon fires. The number of fines for deforestation offenses imposed by IBAMA dropped by 38% over the same timeframe as the year before, hitting the lowest number of fines in at least two decades, even though there have been more than twice as many fires in Brazil this year as there were over the same period in 2013.
But in the largest threat to civil society, Bolsonaro has claimed that non-governmental organizations are responsible for the fires in the Amazon, in an attempt to “embarrass his government”. He has used these baseless claims to abolish committees made up of NGOs, who lead the effort to end deforestation in Brazil.
Criminal networks contribute largely to the fires in the Amazon. The purpose of this scorched-earth method is to allow more room for cattle farmers and other crops. As the world’s largest exporter of beef, the land in the Amazon proves valuable for raising cattle. Human Rights Watch reports that in the past 10 years, more than 300 people have been killed because they were a threat to these illegal logging activities.
Bolsonaro claims “Our policy is zero tolerance toward crime, and that includes environmental crimes.” But senior federal prosecutors in the Brazilian Attorney General’s office have said that reports of threats by these illegal logging groups have risen under Bolsonaro’s presidency. Bolsonaro also claims that “At this time of year, the dry weather and the winds favor spontaneous and criminal fires. It is worth stressing that there are also fires started by indigenous peoples and local populations as part of their respective cultures and form of subsistence.”
But reports show that moisture levels in the Amazon this year are the highest in three years, and that only 6% of fires have broken out on indigenous territory. And when offered help in the form of aid from other countries, Bolsonaro attacked world leaders for “[calling] into question… our own sovereignty.”
His abrasive and often factually incorrect rhetoric has proven to be an issue as a president. Jan-Werner Müller, in his book What is Populism?, points out that “populists in power tend to be harsh (to say the least) with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that criticize them.” In denouncing the NGOs that seek to prevent and abolish deforestation in Brazil, not only is Bolsonaro threatening the state of the environment on a global scale, but also threatening civil society. In June, the Amazon Fund, an organization worth $820 million USD committed to the preservation of the Amazon, was abolished by the Bolsonaro administration.
In dismantling the environmental protections, regulations, and committees determined to stop these wildfires from spreading throughout Brazil, Bolsonaro contradicts his zero-tolerance claims against environmental crimes.