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Opinion | Brazil’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, Is Bringing Devastation to the World

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — “I’m an army captain,” Jair Bolsonaro said in 2017. “My specialty is killing.”

He has been true to his word. In just over three years in office, Mr. Bolsonaro has overseen an administration notable for its disregard for human life. There are, most immediately, the country’s 660,000 deaths from Covid-19 — the second most in the world, after the United States. Throughout the pandemic, he obstructed social distancing, sabotaged mask wearing and undermined vaccination. He maintains that he “didn’t make a single mistake during the pandemic.” So we have to assume it all went to plan.

Then there are the guns. A series of presidential decrees loosening gun controls have opened the floodgates. Last year the federal police issued 204,300 new gun licenses, a 300 percent increase from 2018. Permits granted by the army to hunters and collectors rose 340 percent. The country, which recorded the most homicides in the world in 2021, is awash with firearms.

And then there’s the planet. Deforestation in the Amazon has reached its highest rate in 15 years, thanks in no small part to the president’s eager dismantling and defunding of environmental enforcement agencies. Not content with his efforts so far, Mr. Bolsonaro is now attempting to push through five bills that will strip away Indigenous rights, open up the Amazon to rampant profiteering and bring untold damage to the planet.

With international attention on the war in Ukraine and six months before an election he’s on course to lose, Mr. Bolsonaro is in a rush to use his power. And he seems intent on bringing death and devastation to the world.

It’s hard to choose the worst of the suite of bills, which activists call the Destruction Package. But let’s start with the one that seeks to overrule the land claims of Indigenous groups. By setting a date — Oct. 5, 1988, the day of the Brazilian Constitution’s promulgation — through which Indigenous people needed to physically occupy their land, the bill permanently dispossesses those who had been already expelled from their ancestral homes. Experts say that some 70,000 Indigenous people, nearly 8 percent of the Indigenous population, might be affected.

Another bill aims to open up Indigenous lands to mining. Audaciously, Mr. Bolsonaro has claimed the war in Ukraine is a “good opportunity for us.” With the country’s access to Russian-supplied fertilizers disrupted, the argument goes, Brazil must accelerate efforts to become self-sufficient. But most of the country’s potassium — one of the main ingredients in fertilizers and which the country has large reserves of — is not under Indigenous lands. It is a characteristically lame excuse, the sort of thing we expect from a guy who visited Vladimir Putin a week before the invasion of Ukraine and then boasted of having prevented the war.

Mining in these areas, though formally prohibited by the Constitution, has been happening anyway. Illicit mining operations, mainly from rafts and dredges anchored in streams, hit a record high in 2020. The effects on Indigenous people are dire. In 2021, six out of 10 people in three Munduruku villages tested positive for unsafe levels in their bodies of mercury, which is used in the gold extraction process and then released, contaminating waterways and fish. Fifteen percent of the children under the age of 9 showed neurological symptoms linked to mercury poisoning.

Gold miners, of which there are an estimated 20,000 working illegally in Yanomami lands, are a particular problem. Seemingly emboldened by the president, they have been intensifying attacks against local communities, setting houses on fire and threatening and killing Indigenous people with shotguns. In May, after miners opened fire with automatic weapons from speedboats, two Yanomami children panicked, fell into a river and drowned.

Decades ago, Mr. Bolsonaro lamented that the Brazilian cavalry hadn’t been as competent “as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians in the past.” No doubt these two bills — which would also legalize logging, industrial agriculture, oil exploration, hydroelectric dams and other projects on Indigenous lands without even having to ask for the consent of their inhabitants — are, to him, something of a legislative correction. They amount to a stunning and sustained assault on Indigenous life.

That would be bad enough. But the bills don’t stop there. A third aims to loosen environmental licensing requirements for a dozen economic activities, like mining and farming, and a fourth plans to give amnesty to land grabbers and illegal loggers in the Amazon. The last of the five bills aims to loosen regulations on pesticide use, something that Mr. Bolsonaro’s administration — which has registered 1,467 pesticides, many of them with highly hazardous ingredients — seems to be especially keen on.

Taken together, these bills will significantly accelerate the destruction of the Amazon. The world’s largest rainforest, already emitting more carbon dioxide than it can absorb, could reach a tipping point and turn into a savanna. That would unleash greenhouse gases in huge quantities, disrupt water cycles at a regional and perhaps global level and substantially curtail our ability to capture carbon emissions. Climate change would pick up at an even greater pace. It would be a disaster.

Even so, Mr. Bolsonaro will probably get his way. Though thousands of people have taken to the streets in a colorful display of dissent, there seems to be enough congressional support — underwritten by the powerful agribusiness lobby — to pass the bills. It is likely just a matter of time before they become law.

Yet in a way, Mr. Bolsonaro doesn’t even need the legislation on his side. In the field of death and destruction, after all, he already has outstanding results.

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