The very first rule of understanding an autocracy is to Believe the Autocrat. When someone promises that they will destroy whole peoples and intentionally wreck the environment—believe them. When Jair Bolsonaro was running for president of Brazil, he told people to call him “Captain Chainsaw,” saying openly that he would promote the destruction of the Amazon rain forest. Now he’s destroying the Amazon rain forest. Which is why every news article that makes it seem that the man known as “Brazil’s Trump” is trying to “handle” the fires that are utterly erasing the largest, most diverse, and most essential forest on the planet is simply bullshit.
Bolsonaro made it clear that not only would he refuse to enforce laws against both clear cutting the forest and against slash and burn agriculture that permanently destroys soil productivity, he positively encouraged such action. He promised to ignore treaties with indigenous peoples. He promised to ignore the ownership of land by conservation groups. He promised that the forest would burn. All of that has happened. As his role-model would say, “Promises made, promises kept.”
Bolsonaro isn’t trying to handle those fires in any sense other than providing more gasoline. However, he is doing what Trump does about anything—he’s lying about it. Confronted by the results of his own policy, Bolsonaro is blaming “left wing NGOs” for starting the fires, saying that they’re trying to make him look bad. Because it looks horrible. There have been over 74,000 major fires in the Amazon just since January, far more than any other years. The fires have been larger, started earlier, and been more numerous; all exactly as Bolsonaro promised. In seven months, 7,192 square miles of forest have disappeared. It will not come back.
It’s not conservation groups out there transforming a thriving forest into land that’s barren, dead, and cut through by erosion that bleeds into the world’s most powerful river. Bolsonaro’s supporters are doing that. Because that’s what he promised them. Brazil’s president ran for office on exactly this platform of environmental destruction and of ignoring agreements with indigenous communities. This is a dedicated program of both environmental and cultural destruction carried out under the auspices of a national government. It is state-sponsored genocide. Multiple genocides. But it’s not only genocide. It’s a deliberate action taken against the entire world.
Bolsonaro is giving his followers what they asked for: an opportunity to freely express their hatred and greed, and the chance to lord over the ashes that result. While it lasts.
How is Bolsonaro attempting to address this global catastrophe? Well … he’s fired the man in charge of the nation’s satellite programs for accurately reporting the extent of the damage. He has stripped away funds for fighting and preventing the fires and given that money to the cattle and soybean farmers who are creating the fires. He has made both a denial of the climate crisis and a denial of the shrinking scope of the forest official policy. And he’s repeatedly used outside environmental groups as a scapegoat when beating his chest over how what he said would happen … is happening.
Before his last run for office, Bolsonaro said “It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians.” Now he has the opportunity to remedy that problem. With fire.
At the moment, the ranchers, loggers, and farmers engaged in wanton destruction are celebrating owning the environmentalists of the world. However, that seems unlikely to last as Brazil’s actions are driving a rapid wedge between its producers and world markets. Because of the actions of the other Donald Trump, Brazil’s farmers and ranchers had a unique opportunity to expand their connections to world markets and make agreements that might have reshaped the whole trade in agricultural products. Instead, the actions of “Brazil’s Trump” threatening to also burn proposed trade deals with the EU—an issue that’s certain to come up as the G7 gathers in the midst of Europe’s third major heat wave in a single year.
This week in Sao Paulo, the sky turned dark in midday as Bolsonaro’s fires blotted out the sun. One man may not be able to provide an eclipse. One election certainly can.
The Amazon fires were not set with matches. They were set with ballots.