HAVANA TIMES – In Brazil, fires continue to rage in the Amazon, and new drone footage shows the smoke and flames gathering strength. A vast plume of smoke has spread across South America and the Atlantic Ocean and is visible from space. The fires are also destroying large swaths of land in Bolivia.
The fires are unprecedented in recorded history, and environmentalists say most of the fires were deliberately set by illegal miners and cattle ranchers. So far this year, there have been nearly 73,000 fires in Brazil, with over half of them in the Amazon region — an 83% increase from the same period last year.
Far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has worked to deregulate and open up the Amazon for agribusiness, logging and mining since he came into office in January, and indigenous peoples in the country say they are on the frontlines of the destruction.
We speak with Maria Luísa Mendonça, director of the Network for Social Justice and Human Rights in Brazil.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to Brazil, where fires continue to rage in the Amazon. New drone footage shows the widespread smoke and fires gathering strength. A vast plume of smoke has spread over South America and the Atlantic Ocean, visible from space. The fires are also destroying large swaths of land in Bolivia.
As the devastation continues to spread, far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said on Tuesday he would reconsider accepting a $22 million offer from the G7 nations to help fight the fires in the Amazon, but only if French President Emmanuel Macron withdrew what he called insults made against him.
PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO: [translated] Look, first of all, Mr. Macron should withdraw the insults he made against me. First, he called me a liar. And then, from the information that I have, he said our sovereignty over the Amazon was an open question. So, in order to talk or accept anything from France, which might be with the best possible intentions, he is going to have to withdraw these words. Then we can talk.
AMY GOODMAN: Facing global pressure from environmentalists, President Bolsonaro pledged in an address to the nation to mobilize the army to help combat the blazes. But many blame his policies for the spread of the fires. Bolsonaro has worked to deregulate and open up the Amazon for agribusiness, logging and mining since he came into office in January. The fires are unprecedented in recorded history. Environmentalists say most of the fires were deliberately set by illegal miners and cattle ranchers. So far this year, there have been nearly 73,000 fires in Brazil, with over half of them in the Amazon region — an 83% increase from the same period last year.
As the world reacts to the Amazon’s destruction, indigenous Brazilians are on the frontlines of the fight to save their land. Indigenous leader Sônia Guajajara said in a statement, quote, “We’re putting our bodies and our lives on the line to try to save our territories. … We’ve been warning for decades about the violations we have suffered across Brazil. The predatory behavior of loggers, miners and ranchers … has been getting much worse under the anti-indigenous government of Jair Bolsonaro, who normalizes, incites and empowers violence against the environment and against us,” they said.
Well, for more, we’re joined by Maria Luísa Mendonça, director of the Network for Social Justice and Human Rights in Brazil, visiting scholar at the City University of New York Graduate Center.
Welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Maria.
MARIA LUÍSA MENDONÇA: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: If you can talk about what exactly — how this all happened, why the Amazon is on fire at this point, and talk about the G7 offer to help, President Trump not going to the climate meeting of the G7, that empty seat there with the other world leaders around him? He said he was meeting with India and Germany, but Prime Minister Modi and Chancellor Angela Merkel were in the two seats next to the empty seat, so he wasn’t meeting with them.
MARIA LUÍSA MENDONÇA: Yes, I think Trump and Bolsonaro, both of them, they don’t believe in climate change. And they are very close to industries that are the main cause of climate change: the oil industry, agribusiness, mining.
So, Bolsonaro gave a green light for illegal deforestation of the Amazon. The current environmental minister in Brazil used to do lobbying for mining companies and has said that Brazil should allow mining exploitation in indigenous land. Bolsonaro is very close to the agribusiness sector, and he’s said that Brazil should expand monocropping of soy in the Amazon.
So, the oil industry and agribusiness, which relies on chemical inputs based on fossil fuels, are the main cause of climate change. And in Brazil, with Bolsonaro’s policies cutting funding for agencies that monitor deforestation, he, just a few weeks ago, fired the head of the national space research agency, that was putting out information about deforestation. So, basically, you know, he gave a green light for the illegal destruction that we see now.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain the setting of the fires all in one day. I mean, the maps are incredible right now of the rainforest, because you see the indigenous areas — they are green, indigenous people protecting their areas — and then the areas outside of that on fire.
MARIA LUÍSA MENDONÇA: Yes, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: What did the loggers do?
MARIA LUÍSA MENDONÇA: Yes. Well, the Amazon is not empty land, of course, right? There are about a million indigenous people living in the Amazon, and they have been protecting their land for many, many generations. But what we have seen is that there is more pressure to expand the so-called agriculture frontier in Brazil in the Amazon. And usually what happens is that we have local land grabbers that put fire in the land. They take the timber. They do these illegal activities. And then you see either cattle ranching or monocropping of soy. So, this is the cycle of destruction. And now, this year, of course, the situation is much more dramatic. We have seen 80% — over 80% of increasing of deforestation in comparison to last year.
AMY GOODMAN: And the European Union? I mean, many people —
MARIA LUÍSA MENDONÇA: Oh, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: — said it was pathetic, what they were offering, $20 million, but that they were. And then the politics of Bolsonaro saying, “No, you couldn’t even deal with your own Notre-Dame Cathedral on fire,” and then insulting the French president and his wife?
MARIA LUÍSA MENDONÇA: Yes. Bolsonaro is really happy with the destruction of the Amazon, so he’s going to come up with any type of excuse just not to take responsibility for what’s happening. And so, I think that the international community needs to call for a boycott of the main commodities produced by agribusiness: beef, soy, sugarcane and timber. I think this is the only message that Bolsonaro is going to — that will have any type of impact, because he doesn’t believe in climate change. So, I think that — and also, giving aid to the Bolsonaro administration, I don’t think that is going to help very much. I think we need to support indigenous communities, small farmers, that are protecting their land and who produce over 70% of the food for our internal markets.
AMY GOODMAN: Several thousand indigenous women gathered in the capital Brasília this month to protest the policies of Bolsonaro. Hundreds occupied a Health Ministry building as they demanded the government respect indigenous rights in the Amazon. This is Joênia Wapichana, the first indigenous woman elected to the Brazilian Congress.
JOÊNIA WAPICHANA: [translated] Protest is an important act to defend the rights of indigenous peoples. We are under a series of systematic, violent attacks. There’s the lack of demarcation of indigenous lands, the issue of health, education. This is all in danger. We are fighting against privatizing, for a fairer and quality education.
AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can talk about what she said and the significance of the indigenous women gathering and protesting?
MARIA LUÍSA MENDONÇA: Yes, that was very important. They had a very large protest just a few days ago. And the indigenous communities in Brazil are very well organized, and they are calling the international community to pay attention, to keep monitoring the situation. And we also have seen, for example, recently, a U.N. report saying that industrial agriculture is a main cause of climate change, and one of the ways to prevent that is to protect indigenous communities, that have been protecting the land for many generations. So, you know, climate change and protecting indigenous communities are key factors to deal with the crisis that we have now.
AMY GOODMAN: You have Bolsonaro pulling Brazil out of being the host of the U.N. cllimate summit in December, and so Chile is going to take on that responsibility. The illegal logging, those that are burning the forest — talk about the day they set fire to the Amazon. It’s not as if this doesn’t happen at other times, to say the least, at a much smaller degree. But what happened on this one day?
MARIA LUÍSA MENDONÇA: Yeah. What we have seen now is that apparently there was a coordinated effort from illegal loggers and land grabbers in the Amazon. They called the “Day of the Fire.” And that happened just a couple of weeks ago. And so, now the police is investigating actually some WhatsApp groups that were coordinating those activities, those illegal activities. So, also, we have seen reports saying that there was more rain this year than last year, although this is the dry season, so we cannot explain why the level of destruction, and there are so many more fires this year in comparison to last year.
AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about Bolsonaro putting his refusal to, first, accept the money, but also to deal with the opening up the rainforest for business, putting his critique in colonialist terms, saying, “This is not your house; this is our house. You know, we get to do with it what we want”?
MARIA LUÍSA MENDONÇA: Yes. Well, the thing is, at the same time that he says that, he is implementing austerity measures and opening up key sectors of the Brazilian economy to privatization. He wants to privatize, for example, the national oil company, public banks, electricity companies. So, he’s opening up our lands for mining exploitation, for agribusiness.
You know, the agribusiness sector, the marketing of those commodities is very much controlled by large transnational corporations. So we’re not talking about development of the Brazilian economy. Agribusiness, they promote destruction. This is not about development. They produce just a few crops for export. They don’t generate jobs. You know, the jobs in plantations are horrible jobs. We have several cases of slave labor in those plantations.
So, if we really want development, we need to protect our national — our natural resources, because to have a productive agricultural system, we need to protect the soil, the water sources. We need to protect the biodiversity. And we need to transform our food system, because agribusiness is a main cause of climate change.
AMY GOODMAN: And the agribusiness is specifically?
MARIA LUÍSA MENDONÇA: Yes. Well, mainly, what they produce is beef, sugarcane, soy and timber. So, that’s why I think we need to call for a boycott of those four products from Brazil. I think this is the only message that is going to have an effect in terms of pressuring the Bolsonaro administration, because he doesn’t believe in climate change, and he is implementing policies that are giving a green light for deforestation.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Maria Luísa Mendonça, I want to thank you very much for being with us, director of the Network for Social Justice and Human Rights in Brazil, visiting scholar at City University of New York Graduate Center.