When social reformers fail to make good on their promises, it is of little surprise that they get punished. Any legitimate State or ruling body needs to maintain the trust of its citizens in order to function. When trust is lost, the vacuum is created for the “strong man” to walk in.
I find it hard to blame Brazilian citizens for voting Jair Bolsonaro into the presidency. They, like most, want what is best for their families, peace, stability and security. The sense of deep disappointment in the ruling elite, felt as much in Europe nowadays as it is Latin America, has allowed Bolsonaro to reinvent himself in Trumpian style as “not one of them”. Although in reality, he very much is one of them having been actively involved in politics since 1988.
What this means for the conservation of the Amazon, the environment and the preservation of indigenous land rights, on the other hand, is deeply disturbing. Bolsonaro has stated on the campaign trail that he would, like the US, pull Brazil out of the Paris Agreement, ban public funding to NGOs working on climate and conservation issues, allow for a rise in the rate of logging and thus deforestation in the Amazon, pave the notorious BR-319 highway that runs through the rainforest, expand agribusiness in beef and soy, and possibly go ahead with threats to strip indigenous peoples of their land rights. “There won’t be a square centimetre demarcated as an indigenous reserve”, Bolsonaro has thundered on the campaign trail.
In an atmosphere of strong and clear public support for a hard-line figure like Bolsonaro who espouses the use of armed force to crack down on disorder, activists engaging in acts of civil disobedience must tread carefully; monitoring the level of impunity being granted to law enforcement and military units, analysing the level of public approval of government policies, and realising that the risk of being portrayed as the kind of people Bolsonaro was elected to contain and shut down is extremely high. That said, with the reductivist measures being planned that will turn the Amazon from being the world’s carbon sink into a major source of greenhouse gases, emergency and extreme measures must be taken now to resist.
Some lessons from my time in Latin America in human rights activism and non-violent resistance may be relevant here:
- Be leaderless. Engage and advocate regularly with the State and its enforcement mechanisms. Get your message across but show a different face each time. Leaders or appointed liaisons will be used to control the activist group through deals and promises.
- Stick to the script. Write an FAQ of the most challenging questions you expect to face and make sure everyone repeats them verbatim. Use your message to sell your position and polarise your opponent. Know your rights and the law.
- Build networks. With indigenous groups under threat, it is necessary to build national and international emergency response networks that can be activated to raise the political cost of any attempt to strip people of their land rights, intimidate or kill them, or evict them from their lands. Those living on the lands know best, allow them to make their own decisions. Having an international network that can reach the ears of those with vested interests in Brazil will be crucial in supporting indigenous people to protect themselves and their lands. Partner with the communities that are willing to have international outreach; map the stakeholders and those with interests and target accordingly. Do not be surprised if the indigenous groups themselves are the ones to emerge first with acts of resistance and civil disobedience, they are at a critical juncture now with the results of this presidential election.
- Target multinationals and businesses operating in or planning to operate in the rainforest. Analyse which methods will have the most negative impact on their brand; boycotts, social media campaigns, direct action in their physical locations, or blockades. Do your homework, analyse the context and re-analyse regularly.
- If the security crackdown is too severe, consider using forms of resistance that do not involve direct physical confrontation; work slowdowns can be an equally effective tactic in some circumstance and represent a low risk/high impact strategy for activists.
These techniques have been used by human rights defenders for decades while attempting to protect their lands and seeking to enjoy their rights under international law. The Guardian and Global witness state that from 2015 to date, “145 land and environmental defenders have died in Brazil: the highest number on Earth”. The dismal scenario that is unfolding with the news of Bolsonaro’s election is that this number will only rise not fall.
A Mongabay forecast of events in Brazil’s upcoming election written at the start of 2018, painted a bleak but accurate prediction of the path Brazil has taken this year. The forecast closes being heartened to see growing indigenous and grassroots resistance continuing to develop. The piece quotes Survival International as saying:
“On the positive side, indigenous organizations at grassroots and regional levels are active and vocal in defending their Amazon homeland and, if anything, they will be more vocal in 2018. In the almost absence of the state, tribes like Guajajara and Ka’apor have formed their own groups of ‘guardians’ to defend their forest and the vulnerable, uncontacted people who live there too. We can expect to see more action from them (in 2018).”
The results of the election are dispiriting for those of us who see the protection of the environment, the Amazon rainforest, and the people that live in it as necessary for the global good of the planet. Acts of civil disobedience against those institutions and corporations that seek to profit monetarily from the deforestation and destruction of the rainforest must be taken now. Strategic acts of civil disobedience that strengthen the hand of indigenous peoples defending their land, rights and heritage, could weaken the citizens’ trust that the ruling class is truly working for their benefit.
 Surveys in August 2017 found disapproval of the government to be at 83 percent, see http://dapp.fgv.br/o-dilema-brasileiro-entre-descrenca-no-presente-e-esperanca-no-futuro/
 He subsequently rowed back on this but it is hard to see why he would not go ahead with such a move given the swathe of other anti-conservation, anti-climate measures he plans to introduce.
 https://c532f75abb9c1c021b8c-e46e473f8aadb72cf2a8ea564b4e6a76.ssl.cf5.rackcdn.com/2018/09/12/8vxkock8bw_Policy_Brief_WCS_CDU_UMD_Indigenous_Lands_and_Intact_Forest_Landscapes_v5.pdf This study has found that at least 35 percent of the world’s remaining intact forest landscapes are managed or owned by Indigenous Peoples