After Brazil’s Summer of Fire, the Militarization of the Amazon Remains

Bolsonaro sent the troops to put out the flames, but now they may be looking to other enemies.

A burnt area of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil.
View of a burnt area of the Amazon rainforest near Porto Velho, the capital of the Brazilian state of Rondônia, on Aug. 26, 2019. Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images

Over the summer, as fires burned more than 20,000 hectares of Amazon forest, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro decided to authorize the deployment of the Brazilian Armed Forces to try to contain the blaze. The operation lasted until Oct. 24 and, according to the Defense Ministry, resulted in 127 arrests and more than $33 million in fines.

To deploy the troops, Bolsonaro signed a Guarantee of Law and Order (GLO), an instrument used by the president when civil police forces are not able to provide security. Such operations have been allowed by the Brazilian Constitution since it was drafted in 1988, but the mechanism for using them was only written into legislation in 1999 by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and then reinforced in 2013 by Celso Amorim, who was defense minister for President Dilma Rousseff’s government. These laws allowed the military to carry out operations and assume police duties for a set period in a restricted area and using limited force.

Between 1999 and 2019, the federal government has used the GLO 114 times, including during Pope Francis’s visits to Brazil in 2013 and during the FIFA World Cup in 2014. In 2018, the Michel Temer government announced a GLO to contain a truckers’ strike that held the country at a standstill for weeks. Troops were also deployed to maintain law and order in Bahia (2014) and in the Alemão favela complex (2010) and Maré favela complex (2014-2015) in Rio de Janeiro during Rousseff’s administration. The results, in those cases, have been mixed, and the deployments have won immense criticism from human rights groups.

Before this year, though, Brazil’s army had never been sent in to manage a natural disaster. “The Brazilian Armed Forces do not specifically have a constitutional function of fighting fires,” said Milton Deiró de Mello Neto, a professor in Brazil. But they do have enormous reach and networks across the country “with bases, ports, logistics hubs, and expanded operational capacity—they can be integrated into this type of operation to perform the most diverse functions.”

The operation in the Amazon saw the mobilization of approximately 10,000 people, including military members of municipal, state, and federal agencies. On the front line of this “war,” Deiró argued, are the states. After all, the federal government could only intervene “if the state government requests this support.”

The action came after the government in Brasília refused help from the G-7 nations, calling such offers an infringement on sovereignty. “There is an obsolete and inadequate ideology that great powers want to invade and occupy the Amazon,” said Maurício Santoro, a professor of political science at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. Outside powers, the thinking goes, “are afraid or jealous of Brazil’s growth potential,” Santoro continued, even though the country “faces a dire economic crisis.”

One of the Brazilian military’s guiding theses is that the United States will someday invade the Amazon and that the army needs to be prepared to respond.

Indeed, one of the Brazilian military’s guiding theses is that the United States will someday invade the Amazon and that the army needs to be prepared to respond—including through a potential guerrilla war that would take best advantage of the army’s knowledge of the region, which it identified as the perfect spot to stop an attack from the United States or any other belligerent nation. This is a “delusional scenario,” Santoro explained, “since the two real risks are organized crime on the borders or attacks on Brazilian communities in neighboring countries, but it’s part of the doctrine that a power outside the region would occupy the Amazon.”

Deiró doesn’t dismiss Brazilian concerns so readily, though. “It should also be considered that France maintains considerable military force in French Guyana, including having a military component—the 3rd Legionary Infantry Regiment—stationed there,” he said. The installation was initially meant to protect the European space program at the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, but it was also intended “to promote war training in the jungle,” Deiró said.

To be sure, the French military presence is not big (perhaps around 600 people), but the force is highly specialized, which does give some weight to conspiracy theories about a looming invasion—especially after Bolsonaro and French President Emmanuel Macron’s spat this summer over aid to fight the Amazon fires. For its part, the Brazilian military, Deiró added, “does not speak openly about a possible French intervention but considers that Macron has interests that go beyond environmental preservation.”

According to Deiró, the operation had the additional effects of bolstering “law and order, in addition to further developing operational and logistical capabilities in the Amazon, including search and rescue and control of natural disasters.” He added that successive administrations in Brazil have sought to militarize the Amazon, “but the current paradigm, including that which has guided these operations, is control beyond the purely military but with use of the logistical networks of the Armed Forces, which in the Amazon are excellent.”

Meanwhile, the government appears to have this year’s burning cycle under control. October was the month with the lowest number of fires in history, after a record increase by 80 percent in September compared with the previous year. But the apparent victory may only last until next summer. Runaway conflagrations in the Amazon usually start with farmers attempting to prepare the land for a new growing season or to move their cattle. That’s exactly what happened this year, with the added complication that, between Aug. 10 and 11, farmers in the state of Pará, organized through WhatsApp, decided to set the forest on fire as a way to show support for Bolsonaro.

Use of fire as a technique to suppress vegetation is not absolutely forbidden, but the law requires it to be strictly controlled by the country’s environmental agency. On Aug. 28, Bolsonaro decreed the prohibition of any fires for 60 days, but a few days later, he allowed the practice again in areas outside the Amazon region, which led to a 334 percent increase in fires in the Pantanal region, another biome of great importance.

At the end of October, Brazil’s Federal Police reported having enough evidence to accuse and prosecute some of the farmers, loggers, and influential businessmen in Pará for illegally setting the forest on fire, since they had not sought approval.

Speaking in October from Saudi Arabia, where he met with local businessmen, Bolsonaro acknowledged that he “potentiated” the fires with his speech in opposition to the environmental protection policies of previous governments.

And, at any rate, it is likely that farmers will start the same process again next year, and given the Bolsonaro administration’s bunker mentality, it is debatable whether the Armed Forces alone will be able to solve the problem for the long term. “We could think of alternatives for the Amazon, a model based on biotechnology, scientific research, working with groups that would be small university cities, research centers throughout the region. Nobody has ever done this, and the government does not think about alternatives. It is also a model adopted by the Brazilian left—see for instance the Belo Monte Dam,” Santoro said.

But that seems unlikely to happen with this government. According to a report by Repórter Brasil, loggers have already started to organize themselves to promote more fires and to threaten social and environmental leaders should they try to intervene.

Raphael Tsavkko Garcia is a journalist with Ph.D. in human rights, migration, and diaspora studies in Spain.