Jair Bolsonaro. Picture: REUTERS/PILAR OLIVARES
Jair Bolsonaro. Picture: REUTERS/PILAR OLIVARES

Brasília — Among the tens of thousands of Brazilians who descended on the Amazonian goldmine of Serra Pelada in the 1980s was Percy Geraldo Bolsonaro, father of the current president, Jair Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro senior was among the wildcat miners who endured brutal working conditions in the quest for riches. The rainforest suffered too, with widespread environmental degradation as miners ripped apart the Amazon in their desperate hunt for gold.

It’s an aspect of Brazil’s national psyche that resonates deeply with the president. “Gold mining is a vice; it’s in the blood,” he told miners from the region in a video posted on YouTube in July 2018. “We owe all we have to people with spirits like yours.”

Brazil’s president has been the subject of international opprobrium for fanning the flames of the Amazon’s destruction, with protests against his environmental policies both at home and abroad as well as interventions from celebrities such as actor Leonardo DiCaprio and model Gisele Bündchen. But his upbringing and early career suggest that he’s not about to back down. Indeed, Bolsonaro initially rejected a pledge of €20m from G7 members to help fight the fires, sharpening a dispute with French President Emmanuel Macron, who said G7 leaders must regard the Amazon’s plight as an “international crisis”.

Went too far

All indications are that Brazil’s government is standing by Bolsonaro on substance, if not on every aspect of his abrasive style. There is consensus within the administration that Macron overstepped the mark with his criticism of Bolsonaro over the Amazon, said three officials familiar with the thinking in Brasilia, asking not to be named discussing political strategy. The fires currently burning through the Amazon are not significantly worse than those of previous dry seasons, they said.

The risk for Brazil’s former army captain president is the more he digs in and rebuffs the global blowback, the greater the threat of economic damage from his intransigence

Macron has to “take back the insults made against me” before there can be any discussion about aid to the Amazon, Bolsonaro told reporters Tuesday, adding that the money is a threat to Brazil’s sovereignty.

As well as affection for his father’s mining exploits, Bolsonaro’s formative years in the army shaped much of the president’s attitude toward the Amazon. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Portuguese army established forts in the Amazon that marked the founding of cities such as Belém, São Luís and Manaus, while in the 19th century, General Claudio Rondon led military missions to establish contacts with Amazonian tribes, giving his name to one of the states currently ravaged by fire: Rondônia. Major modern development of the Amazon really took off during the period of the military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985.

That military legacy translates into Bolsonaro’s conviction that the region is a Brazilian and not a global asset; that its resources should be utilised and not left in the ground; and that any foreign interest stems from a desire to control the Amazon’s mineral wealth rather than preserve its ecosystem.

‘Gratuitous attacks’

Given the context, Macron’s attempts to impose solutions on Brazil from outside were bound to raise hackles. Sure enough, Bolsonaro resumed the feud this week, lamenting Macron’s “unreasonable and gratuitous attacks on the Amazon” just hours after the French president responded angrily to Bolsonaro’s jibe about his wife.

Bolsonaro’s politics have remained remarkably consistent over the years, but they are increasingly out of step with global opinion: as the impact of climate change becomes more tangible, the rainforest’s significance has risen dramatically up the world’s political agenda. The risk for Brazil’s former army captain president is the more he digs in and rebuffs the global blowback, the greater the threat of economic damage from his intransigence.

France and Ireland both threatened to block the recent trade deal agreed between the EU and Mercosur, the South American customs union, that could boost the Brazilian economy by $90bn over the next 15 years.

Finland, current holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, has floated the idea of banning Brazilian beef imports, and has proposed putting the matter on the agenda for a meeting of the bloc’s finance ministers in September. Brazil exported $13.6bn in agricultural products to the EU last year.

Moderates in the administration had abandoned earlier attempts to school Bolsonaro in diplomatic niceties, or even basic etiquette, due to his explosive reactions. Ministers now take care to avoid any statements that contradict the president

“France and Ireland overstepped in coming out and saying they could break the EU-Mercosur deal,” said Tereza Cristina Dias, Brazil’s agriculture minister. “Brazil is worried about the fires that take place every year. It’s opportunism to say that this has anything to do with Brazilian products.”

It’s personal

Still, there are differences of opinion within the administration over Bolsonaro’s aggressive and personal attacks on Macron, according to the people familiar with the thinking. Some argue that he missed an opportunity to isolate the French president diplomatically, given Germany and the UK’s reluctance to link trade deals with environmental policy.

To be sure, Macron’s domestic opponents have long accused him of arrogance. One Brazilian presidential aide said that diplomatic efforts to contain the fallout from last Friday’s spat came undone as the two leaders continued their public feud into the weekend.

Another adviser linked to the presidential cabinet said that moderates in the administration had abandoned earlier attempts to school Bolsonaro in diplomatic niceties, or even basic etiquette, due to his explosive reactions. Ministers now take care to avoid any statements that contradict the president.

Bolsonaro risks a political as well as an economic cost. A poll published on Monday showed the president’s approval rating had fallen from 57.5% in February to 41% in August. Respondents judged his government’s environmental policies as one of the worst performing areas, while more than 93% of Brazilians said preserving the environment was “very important”.

Feeling the heat

Despite Bolsonaro’s rhetoric, there are signs that his administration may be feeling the heat. In a break with his usual, weekly tradition of holding Facebook Live chats, Bolsonaro gave a nationally televised address to set out his plans to tackle the Amazon fires, declaring a state of emergency in the region, dispatching troops and disbursing financial aid.

He is still far from isolated in his views on the Amazon. It’s a stance shared by the military men who make up almost one third of his cabinet and by many of his civilian supporters, some of whom believe that any economic pain from international sanctions would be worth the price of defending Brazilian sovereignty.

“Brazil is an example to the world,” General Augusto Heleno, the institutional security minister, wrote on Twitter. “Our people know that the Brazilian Amazon belongs to us and its riches will be utilised, in a sustainable way, for our benefit.”

Bloomberg