There is no telling how grim things might get for Brazilians left largely unprotected by their President, Jair Bolsonaro. But while Bolsonaro’s pandemic management influences immediate life and death for Brazilians, the far-right populist sometimes known as “Tropical Trump” also manages protection of the Amazon. And in the middle of a man-made climate crisis, earth scientists say this gives him an undue — and scary — influence over all of Life as We Know It. For generations.
Studies found that last year alone, 3,000 square miles were destroyed, an area almost the size of Puerto Rico. Ninety-nine percent of the deforestation came from illegal logging and slash-and-burn land grabs, while illegal gold mining not only destroyed plants and animals from thousands of species but also turned the soil into toxic sludge and sand where nothing can grow for centuries.
He posts complaints about his restrictions and tweets endorsements of his favorite anti-malarial drugs, unproven by science yet produced and stockpiled by the Brazilian military.
After forcing out two qualified health ministers who dared argue against his policies with science, a loyal general with no public health experience is now running the pandemic response while refusing to talk to the media.
When Ricardo Galvao, an MIT-trained plasma physicist and the head of Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research insisted on sharing real-time satellite data of Amazon deforestation with the world, Bolsonaro accused Galvao of fudging the numbers and fired him.
“In one special area (of protected Amazon) we gave more than 15 warnings per day there was deforestation on the scale of 10 hectares or more,” Galvao told me. “There was no action by the government, no action at all. We were ignored. And when we sounded the alarm, we were fired.”
Like coronavirus, Bolsonaro put the Army in charge of stopping deforestation. And critics see another example of scientific expertise ignored in favor of military fealty and a vision of unchecked economic growth.
“Water is life,” Clareñcio Urepariwe told me. He is one of the dwindling Xavante people who had this edge of the Amazon to themselves for so long, their immune systems are weaker against invasive disease. “Water is where we come from and how we live. So the veto is a form of extermination. (Bolsonaro’s) deputy says we should drink from the rivers but the rivers are contaminated.”
“Like anywhere in the world there are good people and bad people,” Fabianno Dall Agnoll says as we walk through neat rows of black bean shoots. He farms 2,000 acres in the Mato Grosso region where Fawcett vanished, and he’s part of a local group vowing to “Produce, Conserve and Include.”
He says hundreds of local farmers are committed to monitoring satellite deforestation data in an effort to heal forests and indigenous relations with smart land management. But the idea only works with access to the national satellite data.
Thanks to Bolsonaro’s management of the environment and the pandemic, as well as corruption scandals involving him and his sons, more than 50 formal requests for impeachment of Bolsonaro have been received by Brazil’s lower house of Congress. Given the fierce politics around the pandemic, there is no sign of action.
Action is coming from outside Brazil, too. Led by Norway, a group of global investors and sovereign wealth funds worth trillions recently threatened to pull their money out of Brazil.
If that doesn’t lead to real enforcement, there are 27 more months before Bolsonaro is up for reelection. Or 27 pieces of the Amazon, the size of Dallas, Texas.