As a cultural anthropologist who has worked in Amazonia for the past twenty years, I am saddened—but not at all shocked—by the swathe of fires currently burning across northern Brazil. The smoke from these fires has famously blackened the daytime sky of Brazil’s largest city, shaking the world to notice the existential threats facing the peoples and ecosystems of Earth’s largest remaining tropical rainforest. And while reports have correctly laid the blame on the Brazilian government for its feckless response to the conflagrations, it is the Brazilian President’s public statements and policy proposals—which so clearly signal a racist contempt for Indigenous rights—that are the true fuel that drives these fires. President Jair Bolsonaro’s “develop-at-all-costs” posture regarding the Amazon encourages the type of land-grabbing, forest destruction, and violence against native peoples that I write about in Conjuring Property: Speculation and Environmental Futures in the Brazilian Amazon. Though based on research conducted through 2014, my book describes colonial land dynamics that have only intensified since Bolsonaro’s ascendancy, placing numerous societies and an entire ecosystem closer to the brink of destruction.
The explosion of fires is not natural, and this year’s record-breaking conflagration is not new. Indigenous peoples have managed fire in an ecologically sustainable fashion for millennia. But since Brazil began to encourage agricultural colonization in the region during the 1970s, the Amazon’s dry season has been eagerly awaited as the “burning season”: time for ranchers and soy-planters to clear large extensions of forest, let them dry, and strike the match. In this way, over 20 percent of the original forest’s extent has been converted to pasture and field over the last few decades. The vast majority of this agricultural expansion has proceeded through illegal land-grabs, in which elites deforest land, evict peasant and Indigenous groups at gunpoint, and manipulate the judicial system to launder their ill-gotten lands into deeded properties. Some of Brazil’s (and indeed the world’s) largest companies are involved in this cycle, in which traditional communities and their forests and rivers fall prey to an unsustainably expanding agricultural system. Though technically illegal, the machinations of this system are taken for granted among rural colonists, who have come to resent any form of legal enforcement as a brake on their right to “improve” the land by burning down the forest.
It is a system in which fire and political maneuvers are the weapons that colonists use to invade and rob Indigenous territories. And though in operation for half a century (a history documented in Conjuring Property), it is a system whose backers and beneficiaries have finally arrived at the very pinnacle of power in Brazil. Since taking office in January 2019, President Bolsonaro and the “ruralist” parliamentary block have sought to open Indigenous lands up to mining and logging operations; have slashed the budgets and oversight potential of environmental agencies; have backed an “economic liberty” suite of policies for agribusiness; have vowed that the government will not demarcate “one more centimeter” of Indigenous land in Brazil, and have taken steps to try to decertify (rob) existing Indigenous reserves. These maneuvers are especially heartbreaking because over the previous two decades Brazil had been making concerted efforts to reverse deforestation and protect culturally- and ecologically-significant territories. Bolsonaro learned from his time in congress how to enflame rural populist resentment for regulations, sentiment that has its deepest root in a skepticism among Amazonian colonists regarding whether the elites that benefit most from Brazil’s political-economic system really have their best interests in mind. The ruralists in Brasilia understand how politically useful anxiety in the provinces can be for expanding their grip on power.
The parliamentary assault on Indigenous peoples and on Amazonian ecosystems is vast, coordinated, and has been decades in the making. Though there have been signs of hope—last month Brazil’s Supreme Court unanimously rejected Bolsonaro’s attempt to assign oversight of Indigenous territories to the Ministry of Agriculture—the ruralists have a litany of schemes in the queue. The idea is to act for “Brazil above all.” This slogan was no doubt on the minds of ranchers and farmers in the Amazonian towns of Novo Progresso and Altamira, where on August 10 thousands of acres of felled forest were set ablaze. A week after this coordinated “Day of Fire” (which had been announced in a local newspaper on August 5), with the flames still raging (and smoke settling on São Paulo), local farmers chirped on social media that the fires were meant to signal support for the president’s policies, since Bolsonaro “supports those of us who produce.” The implication was clear: colonists see themselves as “producers” in contrast to Indigenous Amazonians, whom they view with scorn and contempt. The irony is that the very forest itself, with its unmatched biodiversity and ability to store carbon, is in large part the result of thousands of years of purposeful habitation and cultivation by Amazonia’s native peoples; the original producers, as it were.
It seems that all is burning in Brazil. Just a few days from now marks the one-year anniversary of the fire at the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, in which ethnographic and archaeological treasures, precious pieces of art and manuscripts—all irreplaceable testaments to the staggering cultural diversity of Brazil—were reduced to ashes. As an anthropologist who has the privilege of working with the Indigenous peoples of Amazonia, I also have the obligation to condemn the racist rhetoric and genocidal policies pursued by the current Brazilian government. Those who would pose the future of Amazonia as a question of “production” vs. idle, unutilized land are committing grievous errors: the human rights of Indigenous peoples, and the priceless value to the global ecosystem that the forest produces, must not be sacrificed as “costs of doing business.” Though I applaud the efforts of political leaders and companies that are demanding that Mr. Bolsonaro change course, I am deeply skeptical whether he would—or even could, given the power of the ruralists in congress. Certainly, international pressure must continue, and global citizens must prioritize consumer- and investment-choices that preserve the forest. But ultimately the Brazilian people will decide the fate of the leaders who have placed so much in peril for so long. Citizens near and far should continue to watch the Amazon even after the rains cool the fires this year. Because burning season comes again next year, and the year after, and so on until no trees remain lest we all remain attentive, vigilant, and supportive of the Indigenous peoples of Amazonia.
Dr. Jeremy M. Campbell is an associate professor of anthropology at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. His 2015 book, Conjuring Property: Speculation and Environmental Futures in the Brazilian Amazon, received the James M. Blaut Award for the outstanding book in political ecology from the Association of American Geographers and an Honorable Mention Book Award from the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology.
This piece was adapted from an open letter written on behalf of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America.