One of the publicised strategies of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, at a time when the world shifted its attention to climate change, was to announce his intention to industrialise the Amazon – an open invitation to the U.S. and multinational companies to ravage indigenous terrain. In February this year, Bolsonaro attempted to undermine the Constitution through Bill 191, which restricts territorial use for indigenous communities. The Brazilian President justified the exploitation by falsely attributing government policy to indigenous hopes. “They are just as Brazilian as we are,” Bolsonaro declared, “so they will welcome economic exploitation inside their territory.”
Indigenous communities in the Amazon, as well as environmental activists, have no protection from the state. A Human Rights Watch report published in 2019 states that since 2009, out of 300 killings attributed to loggers, who are protected by the state, only 14 were brought to trial. State institutions were found to have been complicit in some cases – four killings happened in police stations in urban areas.
Bolsonaro’s political alignment with the U.S. under Donald Trump might be coming to a stand-still. There have been no congratulations so far from Brazil for U.S. President-Elect Joe Biden, who has warned of economic sanctions on Brazil if deforestation is not halted. After declaring Trump as “not the most important person in the world,” Bolsonaro proceeded to threaten the incoming U.S. administration over the possible climate change policies that will affect the Brazilian government. “Just diplomacy is not enough … When saliva runs out, one has to have gunpowder, otherwise it doesn’t work.”
Only there is no defender of the Amazon in either Biden or Bolsonaro. A change in U.S. governance does not translate to abandoning the exploitation of Latin Americas resources. Bringing the U.S. back to the international fold on issues such as the Paris Agreement is still based upon a capitalist venture that does not recognise the indigenous people’s rights.
According to Reuters, indigenous leaders in Brazil have called for “concrete policy commitments” from the U.S. to curb deforestation in favour of sustainable development. But sustainable development is alien to the U.S. and its history in Latin America, where the indigenous populations are always the first victims in the power play between governments and multinational companies.
More than 3,000 applications have been received by Brazil’s mining authority to wreak havoc in the Amazon. Brazil’s constitution allows mining in indigenous territory only if it serves the national interest. With Bolosonaro and the changes he seeks to enact, the national interest will no longer be a state of exception but rather an exploitative norm.
International outcry has mostly centred upon the Amazon fires, which Bolsonaro had accused environmental activists of starting, while refusing international aid to curb the spread. Once again, there has yet to be a collective, international approach that amalgamates environmental protection with indigenous protection; the latter is the only safeguard of the land, and no government is willing to acknowledge either knowledge or role of indigenous communities.
It is likely that the Amazon’s indigenous communities will be pawns once again in a new political battle that pits international interests against those of Bolsonaro. Between Bolsonaro’s intent to industrialise indigenous terrain, and the international community’s refusal to acknowledge the indigenous role and rights as regards territory and environmental protection, there is little to consider a triumph. Turning to the UN is a hopeless endeavour, while governments are known to systematically exclude indigenous communities. Biden or Trump, the fact remains that Brazil’s Amazon, and its people, are still threatened by a system that values land according to profit, generating an imbalance that can only be restored by allowing indigenous rule over indigenous terrain.