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13 June 2012updated 08 Sep 2021 3:36pm

The world has the power to make Brazil’s Bolsonaro pay for his destruction of the Amazon

By Julia Blunck

These have been horror-filled days for those who care about life on Earth. The devastating, record fires that the Amazon rainforest has suffered have pushed the forest ever closer to an irreversible tipping point. 

Even among the invariably grim news about the climate crisis, there was something more profound about the devastation we witnessed. We have despaired and panicked, deprived of breath as though the black smoke could find us in our living rooms, choking us as it would soon choke our future. We have watched as our future burned, and we knew the name of the arsonist: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

Brazil has never seen itself as a villain on the world stage. On the contrary, there was a general bonhomie around the Brazilian image abroad. This hid a certain permanent darkness in country’s soul. Despite consistently paying lip service to collective action against climate change, Brazil has never had a perfect track record on environmental preservation. Even at its best, the country sought to maintain a dangerous balancing act between the interests of the powerful agribusiness lobby and green concerns. The election of the far-right Bolsonaro in 2018 exposed the dismissive attitude of the majority of Brazilians towards the Amazon and its indigenous people: this is a man who has never disguised his contempt for green activists, and takes an almost sadistic pleasure in mocking the concerns of scientists and celebrities. 

This is the first essential truth when confronting the tragedy before us: Bolsonaro does not care about our anxieties. The only thing Bolsonaro cares about are those whom he sees as extensions of himself — that is to say, his family and his foot soldiers. That is the extent of his empathy; this is a man who scoffed at the brutal torture of a pregnant teenager. The only language Bolsonaro understands is power. Look at the photos of the fire engulfing the largest carbon sink in the world; look at what they represent. This is a threat to our right to exist. Start asking, then, how to fight back.

Fighting a foreign government thousands of miles away might appear an impossible task, but punching back is not only possible, it is actually much easier for the average person in a developed country such as the UK or the US. Brazilians are under Bolsonaro’s power and at risk of losing their jobs or being attacked by the president’s supporters. Donating to NGOs, which monitor the destruction of the Amazon and defend indigenous rights, is a start but that is merely a defensive ploy. We must strike back.

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Bolsonaro believes that destroying the Amazon is profitable. Every Brazilian president is politically fragile before an opportunistic Congress, and Bolsonaro, in particular, has frequent scuffles with it. He is kept in power by the extravagantly wealthy: the people who believe his excesses are tolerable in return for pension reform and employment deregulation. Neither Congress nor the Brazilian elite, have any loyalty to Bolsonaro’s ideology; instead, like parasites, they simply use him as a vehicle to pass legislation and will discard him should he become too inconvenient. 

The best weapon against a Bolsonaro administration is to hurt the Brazilian economy. Countries such as Norway have tried the gentler approach of financial incentives, which were rejected. It is now time to be aggressive. Boycott Brazilian products. Make association with Brazil an ugly stain for international companies, and demand they pull their business. Push your government to take an extremely hard line on Bolsonaro. If it is necessary to discuss the possibility of sanctions, so be it. The mere notion will shake people in important places to their core, and what they lack in morals, they exceed in cowardice when it comes to losing money. 

If we believe in the immensity of the harm caused by climate change, if we believe that the images from Brazil are harbingers of doom, if we believe that the Brazilian government will kill not just us, but generations still unborn, then we would also do well to remember that we are not being murdered by a criminal mastermind, or by an unstoppable force.

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The dark future we fear is not a certainty or a punishment from God. If this administration is anything, it is a low-level thug. Its president is a cowardly simulation of a man, who talks of torture and rape when dealing with those weaker than him, but who mutters and acquiesces the moment he meets any resistance. Bolsonaro has no human kindness or empathy, but he does have weaknesses: press those wounds and they will bleed. The time for our horror is long gone; now is the time for fury.

Julia Blunck is a Brazilian writer who has contributed to the Guardian and Prospect