his callous indifference to the Amazon, are extraneous forces put into Brazilian politics. But in many ways, they are its culmination.
Though the Brazilian Amazon was considered of economic interest during the Rubber Boom of the late 1800s and early 1900s, it mostly remained untouched into the 1960s. It was the military dictatorship, which ran from 1964 to 1985 and whose political soil Bolsonaro grows out of, that changed that. Unlike its Chilean cousin, with its proto-Thatcherite small state economics, the Brazilian generals were hands-on and dirigiste in pursuit of modernisation. They saw the Amazon region as under-developed and its resources under-exploited. The dictatorship’s so-called “pharaonic projects” were an opportunity, they believed, to drag the isolated regions in the north into the future.
One of these projects was the plan for an immense highway called Transamazonica, the Trans-Amazon Highway, which began construction in the 1970s. It embodied everything about Brazil’s reliably unreliable handling of infrastructure projects: it was overly ambitious, unnecessarily expensive, and never properly finished. From the smallest hospital to the 2014 World Cup stadiums, few construction projects escape the same fate as the immense highway.
“Prosecutors accuse the Brazilian state of genocide, alleging the military dropped chemical bombs on villages”
It was supposed to be much more than a road. The government hoped to eventually house one million people in a series of villages and towns built alongside the highway. Every 10km there would be an “agrovillage,” with 48 to 64 houses, a school and a clinic. These would be under the supervision of an “agropolis,” situated every 50km along the highway, which would have 500 houses, shops and petrol stations. Finally, there would be a larger “ruropolis” every 150km.
These new homes would be for Brazilians primarily from the drought-affected northeast. But only 20 of the new settlements were ever built, with homes for just 20,000 families. Those families found scarce support when they arrived. Instead, there was hunger, disease, and a bitter terrain.
The road itself hardly constituted a success either. Starting from the city of Cabedelo, in the northeast, the highway was supposed to cut a swathe through the Amazon and reach the border with Peru—via a winding route at one point envisaged as 8,000km long. Eventually, the project was abandoned after 4,200km of road had been completed. And parts of the supposedly finished highway were actually just rough roads without tarmac. During the worst of rainy season, it is all but
Presidents and the Amazon
Jair Bolsonaro Deforestation is up, the soy moratorium is under threat and more land will be cleared to farm cattle
Backed big infrastructure projects in the Amazon despite environmental protests
Lula da Silva Kyoto treaty signed and deforestation came down, but the beef caucus went unchallanged unusable for six months. This monument to failure cost the military regime about US$1.5bn; one can only wonder at the other tenebrous transactions that took place under the table.
The environmental damage, however, was done. If you were to pinpoint the moment where distance and volume would no longer keep the Amazon safe from human destruction, the Trans-Amazon Highway would be probably a good place to start. Once the way was open for trucks to drive into the heart of the rainforest, deforestation shot up, opening the way for loggers and cattle farmers. The forest had been broken; by the 1980s, a decade after the highway had first begun to cut a swathe through the rainforest, it was estimated that an area of 56,000km²—that’s almost three times the size of Wales—had been cut down.
The loss of ancient trees and undiscovered species attracted much ire, but it is the dictatorship’s massacres of indigenous people that was the unspoken horror of the Trans-Amazon Highway. To clear a way for the road, communities had to be moved. And when they refused to go, the military regime forced them. In a civil suit that is currently being heard in Brazil, federal prosecutors accuse the Brazilian state of genocide following the deaths and disappearances of an estimated 2,000 people when another highway, BR-174, was built. Prosecutors allege the Brazilian military dropped chemical bombs before soldiers slaughtered fleeing villagers.
The Brazilian dictatorship is often classed as “soft” when compared to those in neighbouring Chile and Argentina, because the number of people “disappeared” was only in the hundreds, not the thousands. But such tallies rarely account for what was done to Brazilian indigenous people: contact with the new settlers and builders meant thousands of Native Brazilians died from exposure to previously unknown diseases. On top of that came sexual abuse, torture, forced displacements and outright killings.
The dictatorship’s legacy was never repudiated. Instead, Brazil did what Brazil does: it forgot all about it, trying to find an easy way out of facing its history. The view that the Amazon is a backwards region that desperately needs some kind of gigantic project to move it forward is still a part of the country’s mindset. During last year’s election, even some on the left would talk complacently about how a flawed dictatorship at least believed in investing in the country. And now we’re governed by Bolsonaro, who positively praises the military dictatorship for the resolution it demonstrated through its inhumane acts.
The 1980s were transitional times for Brazil; a fledgling democracy was coming to life, through a traumatic transition marked by the inauspicious death of what should have been the first civilian president, Tancredo Neves, and the turbulent economic policies of his successor, José Sarney.
Sarney was from a landowning dynasty, with little reason to care about the plight of the rainforest. But even he could not ignore the Amazon’s first dramatic