by Matthew Magill
"How many lives will be gambled before Bolsonaro achieves his 'dream'? Will it end with the indigenous people, their children, or the future lives of the global community experiencing the ecological fallout from the death of the Amazon?"
On the 4th of April, a crowd gathered outside the Embassy of Brazil in London to protest against the continued illegal mining of the Amazon and its effect on indigenous people.
Although an ongoing issue, the debate has been amplified by president Bolsonaro's recent proposal to legalise mining the rainforest.
That proposal in question is known as PL 191 and is at the heart of much of this debate. Translated from Portuguese, the Brazilian government website states the proposal is intended to:
"...establish the specific conditions for the realization of research and mining of mineral and hydrocarbon resources and for the use of water resources for the generation of electricity in indigenous lands and establishes compensation for the restriction of the enjoyment of indigenous lands"
There are three key points of this overview. The simplest aspect is the use of "hydrocarbon resources" to refer to the mining of petroleum and natural gas. After that, things become more complex.
The "mining of mineral...resources" refers to potassium and other components found in agricultural fertilizers. This is due to Brazil being comprised of 41% agricultural land as of 2020, a significant statistic for the largest country in the southern hemisphere, yet only producing 2% of the world's fertilizer.
Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, economic sanctions have been placed on the country which has hindered its trading power. For Brazil, this has resulted in an uncertain future regarding their imports of potassium chloride fertilizer from Russia, which provided up to 34% of the total Brazilian import for 2021.
In 2020 Brazil was the largest global exporter of soybeans and raw sugar but was also the largest importer of mixed mineral or chemical fertilizers.
Bolsonaro has played upon this economic balance by retweeting his address in 2016 as a deputy, voicing his concerns on "potassium and food security" which concludes, he claims, with three problems: "...environment, indigenous people, and who owns the exploratory right at the mouth of the Madeira River".
Bolsonaro's "dream" for the Amazon, of transforming it into a complex mining operation in part to reduce reliance on these Russian imports, has been described by Indigenous leaders as an act of genocide.
That is the extent of Bolsonaro's concern for the lives, culture, and history of the indigenous people.
The ex-military leader has implied in the past that indigenous people are sub-human and, despite publicity appeals, he has applied a similar disregard in his policies.
One such case was placing FUNAI (Fundação Nacional do Índio), a government protection group for indigenous people and culture, under the Agricultural Ministry which is responsible for the expansion of crop production, in a clear bid for diminishing their power through hierarchal interests.
While this was later overturned by Congress, Bolsonaro's politically charged decisions continued into 2020 by appointing a former evangelical missionary as head of FUNAI's isolated tribe department.
Considering that by 2020 the country has measured a 22% increase in planted agricultural area since 2011, and the previous involvement with the Agricultural Ministry, it may be an easy mistake to assume that the Amazon could be safely repurposed following or during such operations for their proposed cattle rearing.
Aside from the entire indigenous groups who rely on the rainforest, once the Amazon has been deforested it is unlike to sustain regrowth due to its controlled ecocycle and, if even possible, could take up to 4,000 years. Providing 6% of the world's oxygen supply, the rainforest is said to reach the point-of-no-return at 40% deforestation. It reached 20% in 1970.
In Bolsonaro's government, deforestation has hit levels that has not been seen in over a decade. As of 2019, it was announced that if levels continued the southern Amazon would become a savannah in ten to fifteen years.
But the president's stance seems clear, "We will be pressured by the environmentalists. Those people, if I could, I would confine them to the Amazon region since they like the environment so much."
However, the protest spanned wider than just the PL 191 as it coincided with the beginning of the eighteenth edition of the Free Land Camp which is established each year by indigenous people travelling to Brasília.
As the leaders of this protest handed in a letter of warning and indigenous solidarity to the Brazilian embassy, the historic cycle of this struggle was clear. Some of the speakers were Krenak Indigenous people who joined in further protest of the 2015 BHP incident; the worst environmental event to ever happen to Brazil.
Being brought back to light with a resurrected lawsuit, the event in which the Fundao dam broke and 40 million cubic metres of mining waste killed nineteen people and destroyed villages, is an echo of the destruction that Bolsanaro's current policies could lead to for future generations.
Such active threats include the illegal gold mining trade which, under Bolsonaro's ambivalence, is becoming a major threat.
As voiced during the end of the protest, which featured direct quotes from indigenous people, "[we seek] clean water, pure air, uncontaminated food".
These basic human rights are being jeopardised by the mercury used to separate gold from sand which can leak into the soil, the water, and build-up in the bodies of fish, ultimately causing damage to the central nervous system.
From gold rushes in the 1980s, there is a long history between miners and indigenous people, but now with reports of miners establishing bases with access to shops, internet, and weapons it is never a simple case of chopping down trees or digging holes.
These are organised, interconnected businesses that operate through force and intimidation. In the case of PL 191, the question is how much worse will it become when even the minor risk of legal intervention evaporates.
How many lives will be gambled before Bolsonaro achieves his "dream"? Will it end with the indigenous people, their children, or the future lives of the global community experiencing the ecological fallout from the death of the Amazon? With direct action, solidarity, and protest, we can ensure that these questions do not have to be broached.
Follow @brazilmatters to keep up to date on Brazilian issues and learn how you can stand in solidarity with indigenous protestors.
Matthew Magill is an Irish writer and editor. He is also one of the Literature Editors at Radical Art Review. Follow him on Twitter.