How Nationalism Set the Amazon on Fire

Letting his citizens chip away at the world’s biggest rainforest was a part of the promise Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro made to ranchers.
Image: Gustavo Basso/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has been called the “Trump of the Tropics,” and he’s doing his best to earn that title.

You’ve likely heard by now that the Amazon has been burning. Unlike the fires in the American West, these aren’t naturally occurring fires exacerbated by climate change. In Brazil, the burning is political.

Though deforestation has been a problem in the Amazon for decades, the Brazilian government had been trying to slow that destruction. As Minister of Environment, Marina Silva helped to reduce deforestation by 83 percent over 10 years, as she told Seb Walker in a Vice Investigates documentary on Hulu. Last year, she ran against Bolsonaro. She lost the election, and the subsequent rate of tree loss has been staggering.


Brazil’s indigenous tribes have flocked to the frontlines, trying to put out fires and protect the forest that has been their home for centuries, and which they managed long before colonizers took over. Now, the increased frequency and intensity of the blazes threatens their way of life. In some regions, the fires are inching closer to uncontacted tribes. Though firefighters attempt to stamp out the flames, too much land is being burned for them to possibly manage.

Bolsonaro doesn’t just want to watch Brazil burn: letting his citizens chip away at the world’s biggest rainforest was a part of a promise he made to ranchers. At the heart of this conflict is a conservative voting bloc interested “bulls, bullets, and bibles” who want to open up the Amazon to have more space to graze their cattle.

These voters flocked to Bolsonaro, who has upped his credibility by riding into rodeos with Cuiabano Lima, Brazil’s most famous rodeo announcer. Some of these Bolsonaro voters held a “Day of Fire” in August, deliberately setting fire to the rainforest in order to show support for the president and hasten the development of that land.

As international media outlets have picked up word of the Amazon fires, citizens, politicians, and celebrities have decried Bolsonaro’s policies. French President Emmanuel Macron has been particularly outspoken in his criticism, allocating over millions of dollars to help Brazil protect the Amazon. In an interview with Walker, he called it the “best natural element to reduce CO2.”

This international outcry does not seem to have swayed Brazil’s leader. Bolsonaro has denied that the Amazon is on fire, accused the international community of meddling, and peddled a hard-line Brazil-first policy. Some of his constituents agree with him: one rancher told Walker that he thought the coverage of the fires was “political” and that the media was “lying.”

Bolsonaro does have at least one international supporter left: President Donald Trump. These two hyper-nationalist leaders share a world view that prizes short-term economic gain over long-term ecosystem health. America also plays a role in the destruction of the Amazon: our trade war with China has increased demand for Brazilian goods, causing more forest to burn to make room for soybeans and cattle for export to Asia.

Before this particularly destructive brand of extreme nationalism took hold in Brazil, the country has a plan for protecting the rainforest. Until he’s out of office, local and international communities will continue to be creative in their crusade to save the Amazon, incentivizing protecting the forest and its people over profit.