If a passerby had wandered into the auditorium of the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture on the early afternoon of 10 April 10, they probably would not have realized that the crowd were there for a game-changing meeting with president Jair Bolsonaro’s agriculture and environment authorities.
Here were some of the largest farmers from Pará, a Northern state in the heart of the Amazon Forest, although the lilt of their accents was notably southern – a common trait among the owners of large estates on Amazonian soil. Gathered in an auditorium named after Brazil’s ‘king of soy’, Olacyr de Moraes, these rural producers were in Brasilia to deliver the bill for their emphatic support of Jair Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign.
A reporter from Agência Pública was present at the four-hour meeting, convened by the Agriculture and Livestock Federation of Pará and funded by the federal government, represented at the meeting by Luiz Antônio Nabhan Garcia, the head of Special Land Affairs. Nabhan Garcia, former president of the Rural Democratic Union, had summoned rural producers to the meeting via WhatsApp videos. The invitation caused a buzz. The auditorium was packed. Some eager farmers stood outside, craning their necks to hear the discussion.
The minister of agriculture, Teresa Cristina, kicked off the meeting by acknowledging the campaign support lent by agribusiness, the protagonist of the Brazilian economy in recent years. ’You can rest assured that President Bolsonaro’s government has a special appreciation and affection for rural producers, who were the first to support him and believe in him,’ she said. ’The state of Pará was one of the first states to give him [Bolsonaro] a vote of confidence.’ The minister was referring only to the farmers – voters in the state by a small margin favoured Fernando Haddad, the candidate of the Worker’s Party.
Facing minister Nabhan Garcia and other government authorities, including the government environmental agency IBAMA, rural farmers set out their central demand: the radical easing – or perhaps, dismantling – of environmental inspection on Pará soil.
The leading law enforcement agencies for environmental monitoring – IBAMA and the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio) – were targets of harsh criticism and expletives. At the mere mention of their names, loud complaints began to echo round the room. Gradually, the angry murmur swelled into shouted slogans and unrestrained applause.
Speakers from environmental agencies were heckled, accused of practising ‘state terrorism’ and called a ‘cancer.’ Some held that the current government ‘needs to abolish’ the agencies, despite the state’s obligation to maintain them. Others called for the complete ‘dismantling of those damned Conservation Units.’ Indigenous lands and agrarian reform settlements were the butt of similar insults.
Demands became so extreme that the Bolsonaro government representative found himself in the unusual position of calling for calm, caution, and respect for institutions. Bolsonaro’s disregard for nature may send a shiver down the spine of many environmentalists but, for these farmers, it’s nowhere near enough. They want the golden age Bolsonaro promised now, and reassurance that environmental agents will be kept far away from their farm gates.
Abolition, not reform
Quartiero, the former vice-governor of Roraima, Brazil’s northernmost state, had a farm confiscated as a result of indigenous land demarcation. In 2008, during his term as mayor of Pacaraima, a small town on the border with Venezuela, he was arrested by the Federal Police accused of attempted murder, conspiracy and possession of explosive devices.
According to the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office, these crimes occurred after he plotted attacks on the indigenous people of the Renascer community. Nine indigenous people were injured, eight shot. The trial, in the Federal Court, is ongoing.
Quartiero’s suggestion to abolish environmental agencies provoked an immediate reaction by meeting host Nabhan Garcia. He stressed that the Bolsonaro government had not created or signed off on indigenous land demarcations but he stressed the legal consequences of abolishing environmental agencies. ‘There’s no room here for pyrotechnics, I’m sorry. If anyone here has legal training, you know what I’m saying. That is not the way to end these agencies,’
Instead of abolishing the organizations, Nabhan Garcia set out the federal government’s plan to ‘slim them down’ in favor of ruralist interests. FUNAI, the federal indigenous protection agency, he explained, was responsible for identification, delimitation, demarcation, and land licensing. ‘[The government] took that away from FUNAI,’ he boasted. ‘You cannot do away with FUNAI, but you can remove what was harmful about FUNAI. And that’s what the government did on 1 January, a national holiday and the first day of his [Bolsonaro’s] government.’
He named the provisional measure which removed all these powers from FUNAI. ‘Today’ he said, ‘everything is in the Ministry of Agriculture and the Secretariat of Land Affairs, which in turn is INCRA –the new INCRA, which has good intentions that will promote changes,’ he argued, signalling changes in indigenous policy.
When he took the stand Major Olivaldi, IBAMA’s new director of environmental protection, looked nervous. The audience became restive. Olivaldi called for calm. When he was finally able to speak, the army major placated the agitated crowd. ‘We are going to make a joint effort to clear embargoed areas where possible. It’s the promise made by the Bolsonaro government and by [Environment Minister] Ricardo Salles,’ he boasted. ‘We will try and reverse as much as possible of what is causing harm. This is not just a promise. We will do it. But I need time.’ The new environment director reminded the audience of the obstacles in the legal system. ‘Someone created a horde of Conservation Units; I’m not going to get into whether that is right or wrong.’
Worse than Islamic State
The attack on the environmental control agencies also garnered support among parliamentarians at the meeting. Congressman Éder Mauro of the Social Democratic Party and Christian Party Senator Zequinha Marinho closed ranks with the farmers to oppose environmental agencies IBAMA and ICMBio.
‘We are witnessing the worst kind of arbitrary actions a government can inflict upon its citizens – citizens who produce and pay taxes,’ said Marinho, referring to the operations carried out by social and environmental agencies. ‘If you have time to listen to what the residents from the BR-163 area are saying,’ he asserted, ‘It’s like something from another planet. It is worse than the Islamic state in Syria!’ The BR-163 is a federal highway that cuts through 11 municipalities in the state of Pará where, in 2006, the federal government created a mosaic of protected areas as part of a sustainable development plan for the region, to mitigate the impact of new tarmac highway.
‘This will change, my friend. Trust me,’ added Mauro, outlining his plan to garner support among other Pará parliamentarians and the Chief of Staff Onyx Lorenzoni in order to wipe out the environmental protection structures in the state. ‘We want to move forward, and I believe in President Bolsonaro and the men he has put in charge here in Brasilia.’ Mauro left before the end of the meeting but not before he had endorsed the second largest massacre in the Brazilian countryside in the last 20 years – the Pau d’Arco Massacre. Ten landless workers died in a land repossession operation in 2017. ‘The police were in Pau d’Arco to defend the state and the landowner, to evict the invaders from the land. They killed everyone who offered resistance, and those policemen are now treated like bandits,” he bellowed in disbelief.
Nabhan Garcia sought to calm the angers in the room, pointing to the promise of a new Bolsonarist age. ‘Now, we have this new government, which began almost 90 days ago. We are under the command of greater authority, one that was elected by the majority of the Brazilian people. His name is Jair Messias Bolsonaro. He is our chief,” he enthused. Most of the audience were reassured by his words. But a certain impatience lingered. ‘Don’t expect a government that took power 90 days ago to fix, in 90 or 100 days everything that went wrong in the preceding 34 years [the period since the end of the military dictatorship]. He needs the support of the population to exact change. No one legislates or governs alone,’ he emphasized.
The day after the meeting at the ministry, President Bolsonaro signed a decree to annul and readjust environmental fines. Three days later, in a video posted on social media, he repudiated an ongoing IBAMA operation aimed at fighting illegal logging. One week after the meeting, during a live stream on Facebook, Bolsonaro threatened to fire FUNAI’s board of directors and criticized the current environmental legislation.