Among the tens of thousands of Brazilians who descended on the Amazonian goldmine of Serra Pelada in the 1980s was Percy Geraldo Bolsonaro, father of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
Bolsonaro senior was among the wildcat miners who endured brutal working conditions in the quest for riches. The rainforest suffered too, with widespread environmental degradation as miners ripped apart the Amazon in their desperate hunt for gold.
It is an aspect of Brazil’s national psyche that resonates deeply with the president.
“Gold mining is a vice; it’s in the blood,” he told miners from the region in a video posted to YouTube in July last year. “We owe all we have to people with spirits like yours.”
Brazil’s president has been the subject of international opprobrium for fanning the flames of the Amazon’s destruction, with protests against his environmental policies both at home and abroad as well as interventions from celebrities like actor Leonardo DiCaprio and Brazilian model Gisele Bundchen.
However, his upbringing and early career suggest that he is not about to back down.
Indeed, Jair Bolsonaro initially rejected a pledge of 20 million euros (US$22.2 million) from G7 members to help fight the fires, sharpening a dispute with French President Emmanuel Macron, who said that G7 leaders must regard the Amazon’s plight as an “international crisis.”
All indications are that Brazil’s government is standing by Jair Bolsonaro on substance, if not on every aspect of his abrasive style.
There is consensus within the administration that Macron overstepped the mark with his criticism of Jair Bolsonaro over the Amazon, said three officials familiar with the thinking in Brasilia, asking not to be named discussing political strategy.
The fires currently burning through the Amazon are not significantly worse than those of previous dry seasons, they said.
Macron has to “take back the insults made against me” before there can be any discussion about aid to the Amazon, Jair Bolsonaro told reporters on Tuesday, adding that the money is a threat to Brazil’s sovereignty.
As well as affection for his father’s mining exploits, his formative years in the army shaped much of the president’s attitude toward the Amazon.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Portuguese army established forts in the Amazon that marked the founding of cities like Belem, Sao Luis and Manaus, while in the 19th century, Brazilian general Claudio Rondon led military missions to establish contacts with Amazonian tribes, giving his name to one of the states currently ravaged by fire: Rondonia.
Major modern development of the Amazon really took off during the period of the military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985.
That military legacy translates into Jair Bolsonaro’s conviction that the region is a Brazilian and not a global asset; that its resources should be utilized and not left in the ground; and that any foreign interest stems from a desire to control the Amazon’s mineral wealth rather than preserve its ecosystem.
Given the context, Macron’s attempts to impose solutions on Brazil from outside were bound to raise hackles.
Sure enough, Jair Bolsonaro resumed the feud this week, lamenting Macron’s “unreasonable and gratuitous attacks on the Amazon” just hours after the French president responded angrily to Jair Bolsonaro’s jibe about his wife.
Jair Bolsonaro’s politics have remained remarkably consistent over the years, but they are increasingly out of step with global opinion: As the impact of climate change becomes more tangible, the rainforest’s significance has risen dramatically up the world’s political agenda.
The risk for Brazil’s ex-army captain leader is the more he digs in and rebuffs the global blowback, the greater the threat of economic damage from his intransigence.
France and Ireland threatened to block the recent trade deal agreed between the EU and Mercosur, the South American customs union, that could boost the Brazilian economy by US$90 billion over the next 15 years.
Finland, current holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, has floated the idea of banning Brazilian beef imports, and has proposed putting the matter on the agenda for a meeting of the bloc’s finance ministers next month. Brazil exported US$13.6 billion in agricultural products to the EU last year.
“France and Ireland overstepped in coming out and saying they could break the EU-Mercosur deal,” Brazilian Minister of Agriculture Tereza Cristina Dias said. “Brazil is worried about the fires that take place every year. It’s opportunism to say that this has anything to do with Brazilian products.”
Still, there are differences of opinion within the administration over the president’s aggressive and personal attacks on Macron, according to the people familiar with the thinking. Some argue that he missed an opportunity to isolate the French president diplomatically, given Germany and the UK’s reluctance to link trade deals with environmental policy.
To be sure, Macron’s domestic opponents have long accused him of arrogance.
One Brazilian presidential aide said that diplomatic efforts to contain the fallout from the spat came undone as the two leaders continued their public feud.
Another adviser linked to the Brazilian Cabinet said that moderates in the administration had abandoned earlier attempts to school Jair Bolsonaro in diplomatic niceties, or even basic etiquette, due to his explosive reactions. Ministers now take care to avoid any statements that contradict the president.
Jair Bolsonaro risks a political as well as an economic cost. A poll published on Monday showed that the president’s approval rating had fallen from 57.5 percent in February to 41 percent this month. Respondents judged his government’s environmental policies as one of the worst-performing areas, while more than 93 percent of Brazilians said preserving the environment was “very important.”
Despite his rhetoric, there are signs that his administration might be feeling the heat.
In a break with his usual, weekly tradition of holding Facebook Live chats, Jair Bolsonaro gave a nationally televised address to set out his plans to tackle the Amazon fires, declaring a state of emergency in the region, dispatching troops and disbursing financial aid.
He is still far from isolated in his views on the Amazon. It is a stance shared by the military men who make up almost one-third of his Cabinet and by many of his civilian supporters, some of whom believe that any economic pain from international sanctions would be worth the price of defending Brazilian sovereignty.
“Brazil is an example to the world,” Brazilian Minister of Institutional Security General Augusto Heleno wrote on Twitter.
“Our people know that the Brazilian Amazon belongs to us and its riches will be utilized, in a sustainable way, for our benefit,” Heleno wrote.
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