By Sofia Teixeira

The recent forest fires in the Brazilian Amazon and the subsequent media attention reflects a wider pattern of history within the region. Deforestation and cultivation in the area began incrementally in 1958, as a result of the Belem-Brasilia highway, an incentive closely tied to the establishment of the new capital. The relocation from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia was a change in prioritization: a new focus on the undeveloped “middle” of the country as opposed to the populated coastal areas.

Development and success in Brazil have always seemed to be markers of cultivation and a signaling of what is truly important. A recent example of such is the eviction of hundreds of favela (the slums of Rio de Janeiro) residents to make way for Olympic construction. Some estimates place the total displacement near 60,000 people between 2009 and 2013, but the 2016 slogan of “a new world,” may ring as an ironic truth.

This “new world”-ness can be viewed through an environmental lens, bringing about questions of modernity as the country seeks to take steps forward on the world stage. Once leaders in many environmental policy milestones, the country’s notoriety has now taken an opposing turn. As repeated in its history, the issue lies not within a lack of policy but the absence of enforcement. Though there are regulations in place, they are rarely ever seen to fruition: about 95% of environmental fines are contested in court, placing them in a lengthy legal process lasting several years.

Amazonian deforestation has created tentative benefits for the residents of previously underdeveloped northern states. Though the first significant intervention into the Brazilian Amazon began in 1958, the practice expanded significantly in the 1970’s due to changes in tax benefits and a vision of increased opportunity in the north. Consequently, it marked an uptick in rural income that is paralleled in sentiments today: many residents, especially farmers, view themselves as entitled to the wealth of natural resources in the region. This may be a two-fold issue, closely tied to the lack of other options; many small farmers are relocated without access to aid or experience and as a result view their only method for upward movement to be deforestation and cultivation of the land. President Jair Bolsonaro expands these views on a national level, and has regularly expressed that Brazil should use the Amazon as an economic resource for mobilization.

Though he claims, “The Amazon is ours,” this constitutes a relatively narrow definition of unity and entitlement. The Amazon is overwhelmingly tied to the country’s indigenous population whose reserves make up about 13% of land cover.  President Bolsonaro views these groups as lacking integration into society and believes the forest would better serve them if opened to mining or agriculture. He has said they are living as “prehistoric men with no access to technology, science, information, and the wonders of modernity.”

This notion of progress and reconciling such advancement with consideration to environmental and social concerns is best exemplified by the building of the nation’s capital, Brasilia. Aimed with a utopian vision for advancing the nation, it was built with the standard of “modernity” of the 1950’s. Designed to accommodate cars, it consequently has difficulties in implementing systems of public transportation, which are viewed as inefficient and mismanaged. Further, the construction of highways was the catalyst for development and deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon: the majority of all deforestation happened along major roads.

Thus Brazil remains in conflict with visions for itself—to be the same nation that led the Earth Summit of 1992 and a widely pragmatic accommodation of indigenous peoples, or to capitalize upon all natural resources in part to counteract an ongoing recession.  Its history is broadly varying and has made opportunities for both: it remains to be seen which will have the lasting impact on growth and international claim it so desires. 

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