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and branded land rights activists “terrorists.” Since taking office on 1st January, he has banned environmental agencies from talking directly to the press, and flirted with ruinous Amazon mining schemes. He has painted those who wish to protect the Amazon as not just his enemies, but enemies of the whole nation. In sum, the Brazil he is building is, very starkly, a land where the might of loggers and cattle farmers will count for everything, and the vast wooded wilderness and its people will count for nothing.
“Bolsonaro cast doubt on climate change, vowed to slash environmental regulation and branded activists as ‘terrorists’”
Dorothy Stang was 73 when she was murdered. Cornered by the man who would kill her, she said she did not have a weapon; instead she took out her Bible and read him a couple of verses. The gunman was unmoved—he shot her six times, with extreme brutality for such a frail body, and left her to die.
The murder took place in Anapu, a small city in the Brazilian state of Pará which is more than 2,000km north of Rio. Stang was known to all as Sister Dorothy. A missionary in the Catholic Church’s Pastoral Land Commission, she worked with peasants and small farmers for sustainable ways to develop the land. She was a fierce defender of the Amazon, but not simply as a place filled with magnificent trees and exotic animals: Sister Dorothy understood that the forest was a means of survival for many of Brazil’s poorest people.
This was what made her dangerous to wealthy farmers. She wasn’t merely defending some vaguelydefined concept of “nature;” she saw the Amazon as an empowering resource to people who would otherwise have nothing. Her presence was bothersome to powerful groups who sought to exploit the forest’s land for profit—so much so, that she had begun to receive death threats. Days before she was murdered, Sister Dorothy had reported her situation to officials tasked with protecting human rights, in the hope that the government would be moved to action. It was not.
It is easy to place this ugly story into the emerging narrative of Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil. On his way to the top, the new far-right president cast doubt on climate change, committed to slash environmental protections
Sister Dorothy’s murder, however, did not take place during Bolsonaro’s rule: it happened in 2005, under the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who led arguably Brazil’s most progressive government. These were the country’s golden years, the years of praise from the Economist, back-slapping meetings about the Third Way with Tony Blair and the glory of winning the rights to host both the football World Cup and the Olympic Games. Poverty rates were falling, and the economy was healthy. To outsiders, Lula also seemed like he was serious about the environment—he backed Kyoto, understood global warming to be real, and oversaw a slowing of the pace of Amazon deforestation rates.
Even during Brazil’s brighter times, however, the Amazon region has been scorched with ash—and the Amazon question drenched in blood.
The Amazon has a strange place in the Brazilian psyche. Most Brazilians are proud of the great rainforest’s vastness, of the rich diversity in both plants and native fauna. Yet in a country where basic sanitation is far from guaranteed for all, concerns about conservation take a backseat to other, more pressing issues. Though polling at number five among Brazilians’ main concerns, the environment is far behind violence, corruption and health—the issues that usually help decide elections.
Though the forest itself expands across South America, almost half of it is contained inside Brazil, covering some 4.1m km². To put that in perspective, if the Brazilian Amazon were a country, it would be the seventh largest in area in the world—even bigger than India. Parts of it are still entirely isolated from the rest of the nation, and on occasion, new species are found. But only about 12 per cent of the Brazilian population actually lives in the region, and the size of the country means most people never visit.
The Amazon exists, then, in a kind of vast abstraction in the Brazilian mind. Distant from most, it is