Opinion – The Amazon: Before the blaze, there was the tinderbox

September 16, 2019

By Nikole Ottolia

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Brazilians have protested in the streets, world leaders have offered money, #savetheamazon has trended for weeks and yet the fires continue to burn and the debate rages on. Who is responsible for the Amazon Rainforest? Lost between the drama and the hashtags lies the story of how the Amazon came to this point. How did the “lungs of the earth” become a tinderbox of political appeasement and economic ambition?

In his memoir, former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (2006) explained the origins of one of Brazil’s most controversial barriers to development: the distribution of land.

“By 1580, a mere 50,000 settlers had trickled into Brazil. Meanwhile, Portugal’s rival, Spain, was making quick headway in colonizing other parts of Latin America…Desperate to halt the invaders, the Portuguese Crown decided to make colonization of Brazil its top priority. To populate the wild and hostile lands as quickly as possible, the Crown granted unthinkably large tracts of land to a very tiny group of settlers…As technology improved over the centuries, allowing the cultivation of cash crops, such as coffee and sugar, many of these same vast landholdings then became fabulously wealthy fazendas, or plantations, that were—and to some extent, still are—the backbone of Brazil’s economy. That hurried decision by the Crown in 1580 was fundamental to so many of the problems that would later haunt Brazil: slavery, economic underdevelopment, and disrespect for the rule of law…” (p. 209)

Cardoso was referring to deeply entrenched power dynamics that continue in present-day Brazil, with power concentrated in the hands of a privileged few. This description rings especially true when considering the history and present circumstances of the Amazon Rainforest. 

During the colonial era, the magnitude and density of the rainforest was enough to keep most invaders at bay. Yet improvements in technology and a growing Brazilian population have increasingly brought the Amazon under threat. While the world may take notice of the destruction of the Amazon today, the forest’s history has always been marked by the suffering of indigenous tribes caught between greed and inconsistent government policies.

In the 19th century, Brazilian law determined that indigenous peoples’ material and personal rights be placed under the protection of the “Justice of Orphans.” This effectively characterized indigenous peoples as incapable of autonomous interaction with “civilized” society and as a population in need of guidance and protection, much like an orphaned child (Rodriguez, 2002). In 1916, the Brazilian Civil Code included “Indians,” grouped together with minors and the mentally ill, as among those considered “relatively incapable” of exercising their rights. One might think such perceptions of Brazil’s indigenous peoples might have changed in modern times—but as recently as April 2015, Brazilian politician Jair Bolsonaro said of the indigenous peoples, “The Indians do not speak our language, they do not have money, they do not have culture. They are native peoples. How did they manage to get 13% of the national territory?” (Campo Grande News, 2015)

They “managed” this thanks to the decree within the Brazilian Constitution of 1988 that Brazil recognize indigenous people’s “original rights over the lands that they have traditionally occupied, it being the duty of the federal government to demarcate these lands, protect them and ensure that all their properties and assets are respected.” However, the federal government has never completed this demarcation process and indigenous rights remain vulnerable to the mercy of whoever is in power.  

The 1988 Constitution was written as Brazil made a return to democracy following two decades of military rule from 1964 to 1984—a dictatorship that President Jair Bolsonaro describes as a “glorious” time in Brazilian history. Bolsonaro’s rhetoric has been enough to embolden farmers living on the edges of the Amazon Rainforest to claim land that falls within the jurisdiction of indigenous tribes. In her recent testimony to the U.S. Congress, SAIS Professor Monica de Bolle noted, “The rise of deforestation precedes President Bolsonaro’s electoral victory. But the dismantling of environmental agencies under his watch and his past and present rhetoric on environmental issues have emboldened farmers, loggers and other players to engage in predatory behavior in the rainforest.” 

Throughout modern history, the Amazon Rainforest has been a political tinderbox, but it was President Bolsonaro’s voice that sparked increasingly aggressive and illegal encroachment on what should be protected land. To make matters worse, Brazilian society is more politically divided than ever and the country’s economy continues to lag after a recession in 2015 and 2016. With 80% of the country’s population living in coastal areas, the Amazon is “out of sight and out of mind” for most Brazilians who will likely turn their attention back to their everyday lives. 

Now that the world has realized it will choke if the Amazon continues to burn, it may not be easy for Bolsonaro to brush off pressure to improve protection of the Amazon. Yet global attention and discourse on this issue will fail to drive real improvement  if the Brazilian government and its people do not acknowledge the legacy of colonization and indigenous peoples’ rights. Unfortunately, for that to happen, Brazil may have to wait for the next presidential election—but until then, what will become of the Amazon Rainforest? 

Sources: Cardoso, F. H., & Winter, B. (2006). The accidental president of Brazil: A memoir. New York: PublicAffairs, 209-210. 


Constitution of Brazil. (1988). Available at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/4c4820bf2.html  


De Bolle, Monica. (2019). Preserving the Amazon: A Shared Moral Imperative. Peterson Institute for International Economics. Retrieved from https://www.piie.com/commentary/testimonies/preserving-amazon-shared-moral-imperative


Marques, A. & Rocha, L. (2019). Bolsonaro diz que OAB só defende bandido e reserva indígena é um crime. Campo Grande News. Retrieved from https://www.campograndenews.com.br/politica/bolsonaro-diz-que-oab-so-defende-bandido-e-reserva-indigena-e-um-crime


Rodrigues, M. (2002). Indigenous Rights in Democratic Brazil. Human Rights Quarterly, 24(2), 487-512. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20069611