Jair Bolsonaro assumed power on 1 January 2019 and within days of this former fringe lawmaker becoming Brazil’s next president, he started to turn some of his incendiary election campaign rhetoric into policy. He introduced a decree that would undermine protections for indigenous populations and the environment, especially the Amazon forests. He announced a proposal to privatise airports and seaports, repeated his intention to loosen gun restrictions, and to limit rights for gay and lesbian communities.
In perhaps his most high-profile first move Bolsonaro issued a decree to put the minister of agriculture in charge of designating protected lands for indigenous peoples. FUNAI (the National Indian Foundation), the department in charge of indigenous rights, had previously been part of the Ministry of Justice. FUNAI demarcated and oversaw indigenous lands, but Bolsonaro’s decree now delegated those responsibilities to the ministry of agriculture, a ministry closely tied to the farm industry and logging and mining interests which have traditionally wanted to expand into these protected lands and sometimes tried to take them by force.
Bolsonaro’s encroachment on indigenous rights isn’t just a local problem—it has massive environmental implications for the world. The Amazon’s rain forests have often been referred to as the “world’s lungs” and the best defence against climate change. But Bolsonaro has scoffed at environmental protections and threatened to pull out of the Paris climate agreement. The summer of 2019 saw the worst fires in the Amazon rain forests which coincided with a spike in deforestation instigated by Bolsanaro’s policies. NASA scientists warned that the summer of 2019 witnessed Amazon’s deforestation progressing much more rapidly than a year before. In April, May, and June 2019 over 700 square miles of forest had been chopped down—about 25% more than the year before. A stunning 906 thousand hectares of rain forest was lost to fires in 2019.
Another issue about which Bolsonaro vocally campaigned was migration of Venezuelan refugees who were coming to Brazil following the collapse of their country’s economy. In response and as soon as he took office Bolsonaro announced that Brazil would no longer be party to a recently proposed United Nations migration accord, arguing that “not just anyone can come into our home.” Getting out of the deal, known as the “Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration” signalled that Latin America’s largest nation, which had long been welcoming to foreigners, was now adopting a hard line approach towards migrants. “Brazil has a sovereign right to decide whether or not it accepts migrants,” Bolsonaro tweeted, “Anyone who comes here must be subject to our laws and customs, and must sing our national anthem and respect our culture.”
One of Bolsonaro’s repeated pledges during the election was a promise to return to some of the policies of Brazilian military rulers. Brazil had a coup d’état in 1964 which overthrew the left-leaning reformist government of President João Goulart and established an authoritarian regime controlled by the armed forces that lasted until 1985. During the twenty-one years of military rule, various “Institutional Acts” were issued, all of which, in some way, reinforced the prerogatives and discretionary power of the executive branch, and the president in particular, to control Brazilian society. These institutional acts gave the president the power to restrict political rights of citizens, enact laws, abolish existing political parties, establish indirect elections for the presidency, and strengthen the unchecked power of the executive in constitutional, legislative, and budgetary matters. The acts also granted military courts the authority to try civilians accused of crimes against “national security.”
The BBC has reported that Bolsonaro has often been heard saying, “...we want a Brazil that is similar to the one we had 40, 50 years ago...”—and has repeatedly praised one of the dictatorship’s most notorious torture chiefs, Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra. As the head of the military intelligence office in the 1970s, Ustra had been accused of torturing thousands of civilians many of whom were intellectuals, artists, writers, and student leaders. After his inauguration Bolsonaro, a former army captain himself, immediately reinstated commemoration of the 1964 coup. In doing so, he reversed a policy established in 2011 by President Dilma Rousseff, a survivor of torture herself, who had ordered the end to any celebration of the coup.
Even a cursory look at Bolsonaro’s policies and rhetoric can show why Modi would see him as a kindred spirit.
Like Bolsonaro, Modi has been no friend of the environment. Since his widely-ridiculed comment in 2014 that “the climate has not changed, we have changed” Modi has been careful about not sounding like an overt climate change denier. However, his government’s environmental policies can hardly be labelled as efforts to reduce global warming or address climate change in any constructive way. Soon after he came to power, the government began efforts to change the country’s forest policy. It drafted revisions to the existing policy which now encourages the participation of the private sector for undertaking afforestation and reforestation activities in degraded forest areas. But that was not a stand-alone proposal; the policy also makes references to leasing of wasteland to the corporate sector. Modi’s government has carried out a series of changes in India’s environmental laws to simplify them and make it easier for the industry to get so-called “green clearances” which make it easier to bypass requirements for pollution containment and reduction. Modi’s India is home to four of the ten most polluted cities and some of the most polluted rivers of the world. Modi’s advocacy for CAA-NRC and his RSS affiliation also match Bolsonaro’s anti-migrant proto-fascist sympathies.
India’s Republic Day parade has historically been a display of regional military prowess, but also a celebration of its post-independent constitutional democracy. Modi and Bolsonaro’s presence might bolster military strength but undermines the democratic spirit of both countries.
The author teaches at the Department of Communication Studies, State University of New York, Plattsburgh. The views are personal.