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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > June 2019 > Bolsonaro, the Amazon and the world’s next environmental catastrophe

Bolsonaro, the Amazon and the world’s next environmental catastrophe

Brazil’s far-right leader has designs on the rainforest—and we will all suffer the consequences
© REUTERS/PAULO WHITAKER TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

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 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.

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