Sao Paulo: In the dense forests of north Brazil, the tree cover is thick like a green carpet sprawled over an endless earth, rivulets snake through the creeks and drop into huge rivers, birds sing during the day and winds whistle at night, and wisdom is passed from one generation to other through ancient sayings. One of such indigenous maxims is about how to protect the forest from any harm. “One should never say bad things or do evil deeds or make offences so that the forest does not catch fire," goes the saying, which is shared among the tribes living in the Amazon rainforest for thousands of years. They have known forever that their words and action can fuel a fire in the forests.

Now, the worst fears of these ancient people have come true as harsh words and reckless deeds are pushing the rainforest to a tipping point. The Amazon is on fire, literally: leaping blazes are eating trees, sending up thick plumes of smoke, covering the rivers with soot, making animals run for cover, and pushing hundreds of tribes deep inside the forests. In just three weeks, more than 74,000 hectares of forest land has been lost to raging blazes, which are burning in seven of the nine states that share the Brazilian part of the world’s biggest rainforest. As of today, a pall of haze sits over 3.2 million square kilometres (sq. km), equal to the area of India, across South America.

But even in such a catastrophic scenario, the response of Brazilian government, led by its far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, has been largely erratic.

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A state of denial

The first fires of this year started on 10 August. Despite enough evidence that criminals were setting the fire, the Bolsonaro regime neither acknowledged nor acted on it. The government blamed it on nature, calling it an “annual occurrence". Even after the smoke from some 26,000 scattered fires darkened the sky over Sao Paulo, which is more than 3,000 km from the Amazon region, on 19 August, the government stayed in a denial mode.

But the world was becoming aware of the unfolding disaster. On 22 August, at the onset of the G7 conference, French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted: “Our house is burning. Literally…It is an international crisis… Members of the G7 Summit, let’s discuss this emergency first order in two days!" On the eve of the G7 leaders discussing the Amazon issue, Bolsonaro was watching a stand-up comedy show in Brasilia.

Since coming to power in January, Bolsonaro has treated environmental issues like a joke. He has also fuelled the fires with his words and policies. During his poll campaign, he repeatedly attacked the country’s scientists, environmental agencies and non-governmental organizations. After assuming the presidency, he packed his cabinet with a clutch of climate-change deniers. Brazil’s foreign minister Ernesto Araújo is on record saying that he does not believe in global warming. Environment minister Ricardo Salles has been dubbed by analysts as “deforestation minister". In early August, as forest fires began to dominate headlines, Bolsonaro responded by attacking the media for spreading “fake news". Then he fired the chief of the country’s satellite monitoring agency for pointing out a spike of 278% in deforestation in July.

Such actions have stunned the experts, who say the fires in the Amazon are caused by humans. Usually, according to experts, the area is deforested and then set on fire to “clear" it and, later, turn into a crop or grazing land. “The government demobilized the apparatus to combat deforestation, and the statements of the president clearly signalled that the government’s position was quite relaxed for supervision," says Joao Paulo Capobianco, an Amazon specialist who worked with the ministry of environment between 2003 and 2008. “To make it worse, the government showed support to those indulging in destructive actions. The consequence of this approach was the increase in deforestation," says the expert who once coordinated the Deforestation Prevention and Control Plan.

With the fires raging and a haze moving towards Argentina and Uruguay in the south, in a matter of days, Brazil suddenly became a green villain.


A battered image

Barring its football rivalry with Argentina, this country has no enemies. Brazil does not have a border dispute with any of the 10 countries it shares a frontier with. In the eyes of the world, Brazil has been a land of magical football and mesmerizing samba. In recent decades, Brazil has emerged on the world stage as an economic powerhouse with important role in global affairs, including climate issues.

But the blaze in the Amazon, which absorbs 25% of the 2.4 billion tonnes of carbon removed from the atmosphere every year, has tarnished Brazil’s positive image as millions around the world see the destruction of the rainforest as a crime against humanity. With Bolsonaro doing nothing but spitting provocative words, millions came out on the streets of Brazil and in world capitals to protests against his mining, lumbering and land-grabbing policies. The eco-warriors Extinction Rebellion (XR) organized protests in front of Brazilian embassies in various countries. In front of the Brazilian Embassy in London, protesters chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, Bolsonaro’s got to go!"

Foreign policy experts see this as the worst image crisis faced by the country in 50 years. “Brazil’s image as a responsible actor on international relations was already cast into doubt by Bolsonaro’s erratic behaviour and it has suffered immensely just in one week because of the fires in the Amazon and the government’s delayed response to the crisis as well as because of the president’s irresponsible rhetoric," says Adriana Abdenur, a leading Brazilain social scientist based in Rio de Janeiro.

Aggression as defence

Those who know the Brazilian President say that he is not the one to ever shy away from a nasty fight. At the G7 meeting, as Macron called Bolsonaro a “liar" for failing to meet the environmental commitments he had promised to at the G20 summit in June. In his Donald Trump-like style, the Brazilian responded on social media by mocking the French first lady. Soon, the personal insults morphed into the issue of national sovereignty as Macron suggested an international agency to take control of the Amazon. That touched a raw nerve.

Going back decades, the Brazilians, especially its military circles, have feared a foreign intervention in its rainforest for its riches. In the 1990s, Bolsonaro, a former army captain who became a Congressman, often accused the US of planning a military invasion of the Brazilian rainforest. As Macron resurrected an old ghost last week, Bolsonaro rejected the proposed aid of $20 million from the G7 leaders unless the French apologized for “challenging" Brazilian sovereignty.

Bolsonaro might have rallied some support among the Brazilians on the question of sovereignty but his rejection of Macron’s aid offer has largely been criticized. His government has also declined assistance which pose no threat to Brazil’s sovereignty. The Amazon Fund, a programme for preserving the rainforest, which has so far received $1.3 billion in grants, mainly from Norway and Germany, was shut down recently by the Bolsonaro government. “It is an absolutely mistaken reaction. Brazil is going through a fiscal crisis. In fact, the president said last week that the government had no money for anything," says Capobianco.

For greed’s sake

When he was running for president in last year’s election, Jair Bolsonaro was an unknown quantity for the majority of Brazilians. Despite being a member of parliament for almost 30 years, he cleverly positioned himself as an “outsider" who would “bust" corruption, provide a “clean" government and make “business friendly" policies. Then in the middle of his campaign, run aggressively on WhatsApp, Bolsonaro got knifed by a mentally-unstable person, landed in hospital and emerged victorious.

As the new president of Brazil, one of his first international engagements was at the World Economic Forum in January at Davos, where Bolsonaro was revealed as the great new hope for Brazil. Making a presentation on “We Are Building a New Brazil", Bolsonaro told the global elite that he was going to open Brazil for business, including agriculture and mining in the world’s largest rainforest.

Since then Bolsonaro has constantly attacked the laws which protect the land reserved for indigenous communities and called for mineral exploration in these areas. Recently, he openly said he has nominated his third son Eduardo to be Brazil’s ambassador in Washington because that “will help Brazil do business" with the US mining firms. “I am looking for the “first world" to explore these areas in partnership. That’s why I want a trusted person of mine at the embassy in the US," Bolsonaro said, adding that it was “absurd" that huge areas with minerals were reserved for the Amazon tribes.

Though it is not a secret that US mining companies are taking huge interests in the Brazilian rainforest, the investigative site The Intercept released some documents this week revealing that such “interests are being pushed in the US by Republican lobbyists, friendly with President Trump’s administration, who entered into talks with the Brazilian government to promote corporate investment in the Amazon". No wonder that during the past one week, as world leaders and millennial crowds were up in the arms against Bolsonaro’s policies, Trump kept mum. The US President spoke only on 27 August, when he posted a tweet stating that Bolsonaro and Brazil have “complete support from the United States".

Despite the backing of Trump, the Brazilian President has failed to kick-start the country’s stalled economy. With his popularity falling sharply in just eight months, Bolsonaro is now desperately looking for ways to turbocharge growth, even if it comes at the cost of the planet’s climate. But that won’t be easy. Brazil is already facing a backlash, especially from Europe where the summer is getting unbearably hotter every year. On Wednesday, 18 major international fashion brands suspended the purchase of Brazilian leather because of the Amazon fires. France and Ireland have threatened to boycott the European Union’s (EU’s) long-pending trade agreement with Brazil if the rainforest continues to burn.

The tough stand taken by the Europeans has now triggered panic among the agricultural producers who fear a boycott of Brazilian products by consumers around the world. The EU is the second-largest buyer of Brazilian agribusiness, having been the destination of 17.6% of the sector’s exports this year, which generated $9.9 billion until July. Finland, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU, even considered the idea that the bloc would ban imports of Brazilian beef.

Such boycotts can break the back of Brazilian economy. Aware of this danger, Ricardo Santin, chief executive of Brazilian Association of Animal Protein, strongly defends Brazilian agrobusiness. “The Brazilian agrobusiness is a highly sustainable and very respected because of the high level of standards. Brazil is a sustainable country where 66.3% of the native forest is preserved. We are against deforestation. Those who destroy the forests are criminals," says Santin.

In conclusion

After days of trading insults with world leaders and haggling over the proposed aid, the government finally dispatched its aircraft and troops on Saturday to control the fires in the country’s northern region. On Monday, the government was already claiming success, with defence minister saying the “situation is under control and already cooling down nicely".

But experts are highly sceptical of such claims. Capobianco, the Amazon specialist, feels the worst is not over yet. Actually, it is yet to come. According to Capobianco, as the fires are still burning, the real horror will be revealed in the final data that will come out in October and November. “The Bolsonaro government will most likely try to delay the release of official data. The Brazilian official data are always completed by the beginning of November to be analyzed at the Climate Conference in November. Probably the government will seek to prevent such official data from being disclosed," says Capobianco.

The Bolsonaro government has already denied the ongoing destruction of the Amazon. Now, it may try to delay the proof of these crimes.

Shobhan Saxena and Florencia Costa are journalists based in Brazil.

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