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Brazil’s Amazon: A Burning Battleground

Written by: Tanya Paul & Paula Arrus Maggi/ Edited by: Ewa Bialoglowska

The Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s election in 2018 revived a fading Brazilian identity; one built on hypermasculine ideals and an intense focus on religion and the military. Shifting away from the progressive, liberal identity promoted by his predecessors, his presidency constructed an essentialist and nationalist identity. Mimicking Trump’s “America First” policy, Bolsonaro’s slogan of “Brazil above everything, God above everyone” vocalises not only his extreme nationalisation of Brazil’s internal identity, but also its external relationship with the rest of the global community.

Nothing has been more demonstrative of this new identity than Bolsonaro’s transformation of the Amazon into an extension of Brazil’s nationalism. By articulating nationalistic rhetoric in the Amazon, from nationalising land away from indigenous communities to severing global links to the world’s most important rainforest, Bolsonaro has turned the Amazon into a battleground.

“Brazil above everything, God above everyone”

The prominence of Brazil’s conservative identity has been the defining factor of Brazilian nationalism for the past two years. Emerging in the wake of Bolsonaro’s campaign, this identity has been in many ways influenced by the image he pushes of himself. Crafting himself as a strongman, a military man, and called ‘Messiah’ or saviour by his followers, his divisive mantra of “Brazil above everything, God above everyone” constructs a narrative of Brazilian identity rooted in masculinity, aggression and an Evangelical faith.

Under Bolsonaro, Brazil has also recentred religion into a nationalist discourse with Evangelical Churches playing a significant role in building his support base and shaping his national policies. His doctrine of “God above everyone” has fixed religion as a core aspect of Brazilian national identity. By invoking religion, Bolsonaro is not only able to appropriate the truth, but also to co-opt Evangelical institutions as expressions of his own power and legitimacy. By centering Evangelism within the Brazilian governmental structure, Bolsonaro has vocalised this new Brazilian identity to external actors as well. In a speech he made to the UN in 2019, he claimed religion and family values are “part and parcel of Brazilian tradition” (C-SPAN 2019), despite these ideas emerging in conflict with Brazil’s progressive liberal identity for the last 10 years.

Crucially, Bolsonaro’s new national identity has charged tensions between Amazonian indigenous communities and non-indigenous peoples—primarily, the cattle farmers and loggers. His construction of a singular, valid Brazilian identity requires the erasure of sub-Brazilian identities and, thereby, delegitimises Amazonian identities and their resistance. This has led and justified the perception of the Amazon as a property of the Brazilian nation rather than a land of the Amazonian communities, who hold about 14% of Brazilian territory. By invalidating the land rights of Amazonian communities, Bolsonaro has rendered indigenous resistance as anti-nationalist behaviour.

More problematically, the creation of a singular national identity has legitimised violence as a necessary and justifiable measure to preserve Brazilian unity. With efforts to legalise the nationalisation of the Amazon languishing in Congress, Bolsonaro’s rhetoric has informally securitised the conflict between cattle farmers and indigenous communities. His tacit encouragement of “farmers, loggers and ranchers to speed efforts to strip away forest” has become a significant aspect of Bolsonaro’s economic policies of promoting the Amazon as a common national good (Withnall 2019). In addition, by characterising deforestation as “cultural,” Bolsonaro has further nationalised the Amazon, and justified the violence used to enforce its nationalisation.

Bolsonaro’s aggressive policy towards the Amazon can be codified within hegemonic hypermasculine structures. Within gender and environmental securitisation scholarship, “hegemonic masculinity has an alienating relationship with nature” (Zimmermann and Simon 2020, 12). These hypermasculine attitudes are entrenched in relations of “power and domination” and ownership claims over nature. Similarly, Bolsonaro’s rhetoric has been contingent on “devaluing” nature (Ibid, 13). His domestic policy towards the Amazon has seen the deployment of the military, equipped with weapons, to combat forest fires. Bolsonaro has also used the Amazon as the focal point of Brazil’s external struggle against globalization, feeding into his masculine, strongman image, by claiming territorial ownership over the rainforest. By marking the Amazon as “Brazil’s, not yours”, Bolsonaro also pushes an aggressive stance towards foreign and external actors (Ibid, 5).

Furthermore, Bolsonaro’s internal nationalisation of the Amazon rainforest has also manifested itself in his foreign policy. Bolsonaro’s foreign policy has so far been hostile to globalisation and seems to have actively aggravated Brazil’s relationship with international institutions, such as the United Nations. This has been done to such a degree that it may negatively impact Brazil’s long-term interests, such as their bid to become a member of the UN Security Council and move their status beyond a BRIC nation. More specifically, Bolsonaro’s rejection of the UN Agenda has been characterised by an anti-globalisation stance, turning the Amazon into a symbol of resistance. His opening line in a speech made to the UN in September 2019 was the following:

I am thankful for the opportunity to restore truth to Brazil

– Jair Bolsonaro, 2019

Unsurprisingly, Bolsonaro has repeatedly used this discursive technique to reject ‘interfering’ international institutions, and thereby seize sole authority and power over the truth. By framing ‘alternate’ facts as ‘fake’ news, Bolsonaro can not only create and articulate a specific identity but also engrain it into Brazilian society. His international treatment of the Amazon has been constructed along similar lines. In a pre-recorded speech to the UN Assembly, he decried efforts of international institutions as ‘disinformation’ campaigns and condemned internal resistance as the work of “unpatriotic Brazilian associations… [working] with the purpose of undermining the Government and  Brazil itself” (UN News 2020). He has further externalised and neutralised indigenous resistance by claiming that “foreign governments have ‘manipulated’ indigenous leaders to advance their own interests in the Amazon” (UN News 2019). Through his discourse, he directly argues that recognising the Amazon as a global resource is an attack on Brazilian identity itself, and those who do can no longer be considered Brazilian.

Bolsonaro’s imagined WhatsApp Chat with the G7 – Sources for ‘text messages’: (C-SPAN 2019) & (Aguilera 2019)

This tension lies at the core of the global discussion surrounding the Amazon. Bolsonaro’s nationalisation of the Amazon has made him perceive global concerns for its safety as infringements on Brazilian sovereignty. The President has called Western and G7 interference as expressions of colonialism. The comments by President Macron, Bolsonaro and Trump, represented above as text messages, emerged as a series of exchanges and tweets following the G7’s conversations over the Amazon. The Amazon is regarded, by countries such as France and Germany, as a global resource whose eradication would produce irreversible negative repercussions worldwide. However, Bolsonaro has taken this view as an infringement on Brazilian sovereignty and its economic growth, demonstrating his territorial and hypermasculine attitude.

Despite the German Chancellor Merkel’s simplification of the Amazon as the “lungs of our entire earth”, the solution to protecting it is more complex (Wehrmann 2019). Western countries, such as the US and the UK, enjoyed booms of economic growth by decimating their own natural forests—with the UK literally running out of wood prior to the Industrial Revolution (see: Challenge 1979; Buss 2019). This is why the Amazon, and natural forests throughout the developing world, are the focus of climate change concerns. In an attempt to reach common solutions, the G7 has offered financial aid packages to both contain forest fires in 2019, and to offset any potential economic loss sustained by not deforesting the Amazon. That, however, was met with denouncement from the Bolsonaro administration, affirming that the Amazon is Brazil’s and no one else’s. This can be, in part, explained by Bolsonaro’s hypermasculine stance and aggressive approach towards the Amazon. In many ways, the creation of this “Brazilian identity” has hindered international cooperation, isolated Brazil from the rest of the global community and is likely to have negative repercussions on climate change in the future.

The election of Bolsonaro has seen a revival of a potentially damaging new identity—one focused on relations of exclusion. By grounding Brazil’s identity in hypermasculinity, religion, aggression and anti-globalisation, Bolsonaro has securitised the Amazon on an unprecedented scale and reaffirmed Brazilian territoriality. The transformation of the Amazon into a symbol of national resistance, against both the indigenous and international communities, has reified the harmful effects of Bolsonaro’s essentialist identity.

Word Count: 1496

Bibliography

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