Bolsonaro Fans the Flames

Brazil’s Government Still Has One Faction That Can Douse Them

Bolsonaro in Brasilia, August 2019 Adriano Machado / Reuters

Thousands of fires have raged over the past weeks in the Amazon, devastating parts of the rainforest and badly damaging Brazil’s global reputation. Since taking office in January, the country’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has encouraged deforestation, a policy that environmentalists around the world link to the forest fires and have loudly protested. But Bolsonaro seems to revel in his role as environmental enemy number one, responding to criticism from world leaders in the same way he reacts to his opponents at home: with provocative disdain. He taunted French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, called the fires and the deforestation of parts of Brazil’s rainforest an “internal issue,” and repeated that “the Amazon belongs to Brazil.”

Bolsonaro views international concern over the fires in the Amazon as a threat to his country’s sovereignty. He and a coterie of closely allied ministers and advisers—known collectively as the “ideological faction” of the Bolsonaro government—ascribe the criticism to a globally coordinated campaign to weaken Brazil’s territorial integrity and keep it from developing economically. During the 1970s, when a military dictatorship governed Brazil, nationalists zealously promoted the notion of an international conspiracy bent on undermining the country’s sovereignty. Bolsonaro remains nostalgic for the era of the dictatorship. By striking its chords amid the environmental outcry, he assumes the role of culture warrior, fighting the “globalism” and “cultural Marxism” of international institutions and foreign-funded civil society organizations.

Bolsonaro’s ideological posture led him to dig in on the forest fires, and he was further aggravated by a personal dispute with Macron. But as the fires and the opprobrium continued to rage, worried advisers convinced the president to dispatch 43,000 soldiers to the forest. Moving troops to the forest to fight the fires—a palliative measure—is unlikely to change the international perception of Brazil. Safeguarding the Amazon will require a broad reversal of Bolsonaro’s environmental agenda. 

Two of the three factions in Bolsonaro’s government—

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