The Amazon under Bolsonaro: Back to Conventional Frontier Economics—In Its Most Radical Version

From the Series: Bolsonaro and the Unmaking of Brazil

Photo by Fernando Piva/ADUNICAMP. "Amerindian Scholars from Unicamp (State University of Campinas) against budget cuts in education." Student rally against Bolsonaro (Campinas-SP, May 2019).

The Brazilian Amazon has long played the role of resource frontier in colonial and national projects, and has been the subject of development schemes as old as the country. Indeed, the framing of the “Amazon question” has run parallel to the constitution of South American nation-states. Prior to the existence of today’s states, the rainforest region was already entwined in the “original processes of globalization” that “ripped it of its innocence, and threw it into the play of the international forces of mercantilism, monarchical absolutism, enlightened absolutism, original accumulation, and Reason” (Silva 1994, 4).

In the 1970s, the Brazilian dictatorship initiatives toward the Amazon differed in their attempt to imbricate science and technology with power structures in the drive for autonomous state action, typical of the centralized planning schemes of the dictatorship. According to the hegemonic discourse, the mandate was to overcome obstacles—great distances, demographic void, inhospitable environment—to the exploitation of resources by means of state actions, such as inducing migration or establishing development poles and various types of networks needed for the region’s national integration.

In the late twentieth century context of democratization, though, grassroots social movements, activists, politicians, and scholars—anthropologists included—fostered deep transformations in ideas about the ecological and cultural history of the Amazon and helped to build a modest but consistent system of environmental regulation. Although not hegemonic, the current view of the Amazon among educated audiences is that of an originally populous and sociopolitically complex region, a biogeographical system composed of various ecosystems, each with specific histories of constitution, in which the plasticity of human interventions and the ingenuity of diverse knowledge regimes played a role.1This vision was strengthened in the two decades that followed the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, in 1992, in the context of the “international politics of Amazonian deforestation” (Hurrell 1992).

Throughout this period, different paths were attempted to develop the Amazon’s unique sociocultural potentialities and intrinsic values and resources, together with the institutionalized participation of networks of social movements and scholars, and backed by international institutions (Barretto Filho 2004). It was when the rate of deforestation plummeted the most that the recognition of Indigenous Lands advanced, the creation of protected areas expanded, and the assistance to local-based agroextractivist economies flourished. This posed a threat to conventional frontier economy, which was never dismantled. Brazil’s insertion in the international economy as a provider of primary resources and commodities with low technological input for export has always persisted. This explains the prevalence of a neo-extractivist economy in the Amazon: large-scale cattle ranching in low productivity pastures; monocultures of soy, cane, and eucalyptus; hydroelectric megaprojects; mining complexes with open pit mines; roads and port systems. All this leads to violent outcomes in the territories and lives of local communities, who have been fighting against this model and the consequent restriction of their rights ever since.

The novelty of Bolsonaro lies in the absolute release of these vectors through, for example, reiterating the xenophobic argument that foreign interference in Indigenous Lands and environmental protection hampers the country’s progress; ceasing to demarcate Indigenous Lands and planning to open previously protected territories to business-related schemes; dismantling the environmental regulation system by revising the rules for environmental impact assessment and harassing law enforcement officials in charge of this task2; distorting information and lying about numerous environmental issues3; and claiming that data on deforestation supplied by the National Institute for Space Research are manipulated.4

The result is a general feeling that now everything is permissible. As armed squatters who invaded Indigenous Lands in Rondônia in January declared: “Now Bolsonaro is the President!”5The outcomes in the Amazon are grim: the systematic invasion of protected areas and Indigenous Lands in the first month of the administration6; the renewal of the invasion of Yanomami Indigenous Land by more than ten thousand gold-diggers, in numbers analogous to 19927; an upsurge of the rate of deforestation, which in June 2019 registered a 60 percent increase in relation to June 20188; and the widespread escalation of land grabbing, large-scale clandestine mining, and predatory logging—tied with either veiled or explicit threats to local socioenvironmental activists, government and NGOs’ field teams, and officials.

What is happening in the Amazon today seems to confirm Pinto Neto’s hypothesis that we are not facing classical authoritarianism, based on laws and institutions under the rule of a dictator, but rather a government that releases the controls to oppressive violence and allows for a laissez-faire civil society, free of legal limits.9

Considering both Neto’s hypothesis and the developmental schemes of military-technocratic inspiration previously mentioned, one should think twice about the impact on the already conflicted corners of the Amazon of the promised liberation of firearms to residents of rural areas and violent cities, and owners of commercial establishments.10 Releasing curbs on firearms will have the effect of silencing—whether through symbolic or physical violence—opponents and eliminating the mediation provided by the environmental regulation system. It now remains only to liberate the blind forces of society to accomplish the plunder of the booty that the previous colonial apparatus failed to destroy completely.


1. For concerns in this and the following paragraphs I draw freely on Bertha K. Becker (1990), Shelton H. Davis (1977), MMA (1997), and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro 1996.

2. See

3. See

4. See the July 5, 2019, letter from the Science and Society Coalition, called “Government and Deforestation: Denial as a defense mechanism”, in

5. See

6. See

7. See

8. See

9. "O projeto bolsonarista não é um autoritarismo clássico baseado em leis e instituições sob comando do ditador. É um governo do caos que desbloqueia os freios à violência opressiva e deixa espécie de laissez-faire na sociedade civil liberta dos limites legais." Posted on July 9, 2019, by @moysespintonet0. See Accessed July 13, 2019.

10. See


Barretto Filho, Henyo Trindade. 2004. “Meio ambiente, ‘realpolitik’, reforma do Estado e ajuste fiscal.” In A Era FHC e o Governo Lula: transição?, edited by Denise Rocha and Maristela Bernardo, 327–58. Brasília: Inesc.

Becker, Bertha K. 1990. “Gestão do território e territorialidade na Amazônia: A CVRD e os garimpeiros na província mineral de Carajás.” In Fronteira Amazônica: Questões sobre a gestão do território, edited by Bertha K. Becker, Mariana Miranda, and Lia O. Machado, 197–214. Brasília: Editora UnB.

Davis, Shelton H. 1977. Victims of the Miracle: Development and the Indians of Brazil. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Hurrell, Andrew. 1992. “Brazil and the International Politics of Amazonian Deforestation.” In The International Politics of the Environment: Actors, Interests and Institutions, edited by Andrew Hurrell and Benedict Kinsgbury, 398–429. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

MMA (Ministério do Meio Ambiente). 1997. Agenda Amazônia 21: Bases para discussão. Brasília: MMA, Secretaria de Coordenação da Amazônia.

Silva, Marilene Corrêa da. 1994. Os Processos de Globalização na Amazônia. Paper presented at the “Sociologia da Cultura Brasileira,” annual meeting of ANPOCS, Caxambu-MG.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 1996. “Images of Nature and Society in Amazonian Ethnology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 25: 179–200.