Opinion | Captain Chain Saw’s Delusion

Captain Chain Saw’s Delusion

The question is not how to
extract more raw materials from the forest,
but how to empower its people.

The question is not how to extract more raw materials from the forest, but how to empower its people.

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The Amazon was never a “land without men.”

By Chris Feliciano Arnold

Mr. Arnold is the author of “The Third Bank of the River: Power and Survival in the Twenty-First-Century Amazon.”

Amid political strife and smoke visible from space, the future of the Amazon has rarely been so hazy. Environmentalists see a vanishing rainforest of global consequence. Indigenous leaders see an ancestral home still being exploited by settlers after 500 years of genocidal violence. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, sees valuable acreage wasted by “cave men” and Marxists.

Sixty percent of the world’s largest tropical forest lies within Brazil’s borders, and since 2006 I’ve traveled thousands of miles in the Amazon, witnessing how the river and its people have experienced a century’s worth of ecological and cultural change in a generation. For a few weeks last year, record-setting fires in the region focused the world’s attention with an intensity reminiscent of the Save the Rainforest campaigns of the 1980s, but this year, the land is burning during a pandemic that has interrupted travel, stymied environmental protection efforts, and emboldened miners, loggers and ranchers to encroach on Indigenous land with impunity.

This spring, Environment Minister Ricardo Salles was caught on video urging Mr. Bolsonaro to use the distraction of the coronavirus as cover to loosen environmental regulations. “We need to make an effort here during this period of calm in terms of press coverage because people are only talking about Covid,” he said, as mass graves were being dug for coronavirus victims in Manaus, the capital of Amazonas State.


Mr. Bolsonaro, who just last month blamed the wildfires on “peasants and Indians,” embodies the brutal history of the Amazon. “Captain Chain Saw,” as he has smugly nicknamed himself, spent his formative years as an Army paratrooper, idolizing the generals and autocrats of the United States-supported dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985.

During Brazil’s “Economic Miracle” of the 1970s, the military president Emílio Médici proclaimed the Amazon “a land without men for men without land,” suggesting that its undeveloped wilderness and unsettled tribes were at once the cause of — and the solution to — Brazil’s woes. “We must start up the Amazon clock,” he wrote in 1971, urging Brazil to make up for lost time by carving the 3,400-mile Transamazônica highway through the heart of the forest. Brazilians from the drought-stricken northeast could start new lives along the highway, solving “the Indian problem” along the way.

For migrants who heeded Mr. Médici’s call, the road to salvation ended in starvation. The rich topsoil of their freshly cleared plots washed away in torrential rains. Most were forced to abandon their dreams, but not before countless tribes were massacred, ravaged by disease, or forcibly relocated, sometimes minutes before bulldozers arrived.

Decades later, thousands of roads, rumbling with logging trucks and cattle trailers, fishbone into the rainforest off the spine of the Transamazônica and highways like it. Along the delicate Amazon watershed — responsible for more than 15 percent of the planet’s river discharge into oceans — gas pipelines and hydroelectric dams pump energy for cities around Brazil. Industrial farms ship billions of dollars of beef and soy to a hungry world. Manaus hosts multinational manufacturers like Harley Davidson and Samsung alongside biotech laboratories and universities that are beacons of rainforest research.

Thirty million people live within the Amazon basin — more than the populations of the five Nordic countries combined. They include Indigenous peoples, migrants from throughout Brazil, and immigrants from around the world. Yet Mr. Bolsonaro would have you believe that the Amazon is an untamed jungle. His calls for new roads, dams, mines and ranches paint a false choice — save Brazilians, or save the rainforest — that ignores the fact that Brazil has been aggressively developing the Amazon since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

As the planet warms over the next decades, the Amazon will become a cradle of human discovery or an ecological crime scene. The question for the 21st century is not how to extract more raw materials from the forest, but how to empower its people to live sustainably in the forest, the way Indigenous Brazilians did before Europeans committed genocide on the continent.


The Amazon was never a land “without men.” When a Spanish brigantine first sailed the length of the river in 1542, the basin was home to at least eight million people practicing large-scale agriculture that harnessed the natural cycle of the rising and falling waters.

Guns and armor were of little use in the forest. On the brink of starvation, the Spanish, Portuguese and other colonizers relied on Indigenous people for survival, repaying that generosity with violence. As in North America, waves of settlers treated tribes as subhuman even as they demanded their labor and knowledge on behalf of the crown.

Smallpox eviscerated Indigenous cities. Tribes who escaped disease were captured into slavery, often relocated to Brazil’s southern capitals by savage “bandeirantes” whose exploits were elevated to national myth. Other tribes were resettled in model towns governed by clergy or white directors who forced them to wear clothes, adopt Christianity and marry their colonizers.

Some tribes fled upriver, only to be captured generations later during the rubber boom. The British Foreign Office sent an inspector, Sir Roger Casement, who had investigated King Leopold II’s brutality on the Congo River, to report on accusations of labor abuse. After witnessing a rubber quota system that relied on progressive amputation, torture and rape to spur production, Sir Roger used a new phrase, “crimes against humanity.”

The collapse of the Brazilian rubber industry — after an Englishman smuggled rubber seedlings to Europe in 1876 — slowed the atrocities, but not for long.

In the first half of the 20th century, Brazil built roads, telegraph lines, ports and airstrips to integrate the rainforest into the rest of the country, paving the way for “Order and Progress.” Frontiersmen like Cândido Rondon and the Villas Bôas brothers fought to protect Indigenous people, but Brazil’s Indian Protection Service was eventually corrupted by bureaucrats and speculators.

By the 1960s, as airstrips were built through the Amazon, some profiteers eradicated tribes using warlike tactics, luring them to clearings — dropping sugar and other gifts — then bombing them with dynamite. The bodies were buried along the river as land grabbers hacked their way into the interior.

As often as these stories of pestilence and slaughter are sanitized, stories of Indigenous resistance are erased. Brazilians glorify the legend of the Manau chief Ajuricaba, who chose death over slavery, but death cannot be the only path to Indigenous freedom in the Brazilian imagination.

In the 1960s and ’70s, tribes organized to preserve their land and heritage with the support of activists and the clergy of the Liberation Theology Movement. In the 1980s, as hydroelectric dams threatened the Xingu River, an Indigenous woman, Tuira Kayapó, touched her machete to a hydroelectric engineer’s face, warning his company off the land.

Indigenous rights were guaranteed in the 1988 Brazilian Constitution, and the Amazon was enshrined as part of the national patrimony — with land rights guaranteed to the Indigenous people who lived there. But violations persisted. By the 1990s, leaders like Yanomami Shaman Davi Kopenawa were traveling the world to sound the alarm about wildcat miners invading his people’s territory. His worst fears were realized in 1993 when a Yanomami tribe — including its infants and elders — was massacred by a band of gold prospectors. The perpetrators were convicted of genocide.

That nearly a million Indigenous Brazilians have survived in the Amazon is a testament to their resilience — and to the vastness of the forest. Today tribes combine traditional ingenuity with modern technology to defend their land, share their stories, and help isolated groups avoid the exploitation and bloodshed that befell their ancestors. Even Captain Chain Saw has noticed: “The Indians are evolving,” Mr. Bolsonaro said in January. “More and more they are human beings like us.”


Brazilians on the right and left bristle at the notion that they’ve mismanaged the majority of their territory while neglecting the millions of people who live there. When last year’s fires drew the ire of international leaders and investors, Mr. Bolsonaro told a group of European reporters, “The Amazon is ours, not yours,” echoing a long-held suspicion in Brazil that foreigners have their eyes on the Amazon.

Many point to how the United States treated its Indigenous people and primary forests as evidence that outsiders should keep their mouths shut. “I don’t want any gringo asking us to let an Amazon resident die of hunger under a tree,” the former Brazilian president and Worker’s Party founder, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, told an audience at the 2009 Amazon Summit.

As a dual U.S.-Brazilian citizen who has witnessed both countries’ social, environmental and economic failures, I see the Amazon from two perspectives. International pressure has often forced Brazil’s leaders to live up to the ideals of their Constitution. The Amazon is vital to Earth’s carbon regulation and fresh water supply and home to at least 10 percent of its biodiversity — and everyone on the planet depends on its health.

But that doesn’t mean the Amazon belongs to everyone. Celebrity benefit concerts and Saturday morning cartoons devoted to saving the rainforest inadvertently reinforced colonialist attitudes toward the Amazon. While those efforts stirred the conscience of the world, they tended to bundle the flora and the fauna with the people, portraying Indigenous communities as species from a distant past that needed to be protected, rather than present tense human beings with ambitions for the future.

Capitalists and environmentalists alike might want to resist it, but the future has already come to the Brazilian rainforest — and it looks much like the past: chaotic, unjust and unsustainable.

In cities like Manaus, elites bask in sunset river views from high-rise condominiums and eat sushi in air-conditioned shopping malls. A rising middle class of mostly non-Indigenous Brazilians enjoy food truck festivals, Texas Hold ‘Em tournaments and craft breweries. During the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, I watched throngs of international soccer fans flood Ubers and Airbnbs.

But while luxuries have boomed, essential services like public transportation, safety and health care are shoddy to nonexistent. Overcrowded prisons routinely spasm with horrific riots while government officials negotiate with crime bosses for votes from their neighborhoods. Residents lack water, sanitation and electricity. Urban neighborhoods are dominated by drug traffickers and rogue police officers, while tribes in the interior are menaced by wildcat miners, drillers and loggers. They leave in their wake mercury, spilled oil, tree stumps, survivors of violence and sexual assault, and pathogens like influenza that are every bit as novel there as the coronavirus.

During the pandemic, thousands of people in the Amazon have died in their homes because there aren’t enough hospitals. In its hasty response, government relief teams may themselves have been responsible for spreading the virus as they rushed to provide testing and unproven drugs like chloroquine to the vulnerable tribes.


The chaotic results of this slipshod development are nowhere so visible as in Altamira, Pará, in the north, where the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam powered up its first turbines in 2016 on the banks of the Rio Xingu.

The dam was a public-private partnership, part of President da Silva’s largely admirable attempt to conjure a new Amazon story, one of sustainable green development, ecotourism and Indigenous inclusion.

Still, when the dam was announced, Indigenous leaders were swift to organize against it, slowing development long enough to negotiate environmental and economic concessions from the Norte Energia consortium overseeing the project.

In practice, those impact assessments were farcical. And though Norte Energia says that its operations are grounded in best practices when it comes to human rights and environmental responsibility, its promises to provide financial and housing assistance to Indigenous residents threw the region into disarray. Thaís Santi, a federal prosecutor, charged the Brazilian government and Norte Energia with “ethnocide” in 2015 for forcibly integrating Indigenous groups into modern society, often pitting younger generations against their elders.

When I traveled to Altamira in April 2016, the town had swelled from 30,000 residents to more than 100,000 in just a few years. Teachers had quit their classrooms to work on the dam. In a community accustomed to getting around on foot or bicycle, hospitals were overrun by pedestrians struck by cars. The riverbank where children once played was bulldozed into a promenade featuring a skate park where kids without skateboards sat on the rim of the halfpipe, gazing at their former swimming holes.

Throughout town, Norte Energia billboards promised construction projects — parks, schools and hospitals — with indefinite completion dates.

The new Altamira took pride in its reputation as the “City of Work,” even as all of its basic services, from power to transportation to parks and public security, were outsourced to the consortium. Families who had spent generations living by firelight on the Rio Xingu were forced to relocate to suburban tract homes connected to Norte Energia power they could not afford.

One fisherman I spoke to lamented that he hadn’t seen the river in weeks, adding, “I used to wake up there every morning.”


Without local leadership, transparency and strong oversight, public-private partnerships like these become two-headed beasts: Kafkaesque bureaucracy working in service of rapacious business. But a real plan for the future of the Amazon will need to inspire industrialists as well as environmentalists. It needs to acknowledge the Amazon as vital to the global commons, but also as a home to millions of Brazilians with a right to sovereignty and self-determination.

The myth of the untouched rainforest has endured because it is easy for consumers to imagine. It’s easier to raise funds against bulldozers toppling old-growth forests than it is to support itinerant farmers who burn pastures to graze their bony cattle. It’s easier to order forest code-certified furniture on Amazon than it is to question how Amazon rainforest hardwood ended up on the Brooklyn Bridge walkway. It’s easier to condemn industrial meatpackers than it is to understand how China’s rising middle class — and the U.S. trade war — feed demand for Amazon beef and soy. It’s easier to root for a chief with a headdress and a bow than it is to rally around Indigenous leaders with dirt bikes, cellphones and shotguns.

Development blunders — from colonial model towns to the rubber boom to the Transamazônica to the Belo Monte — show how, despite the challenges of living in the rainforest, or perhaps even because of them, this breathtaking place inspires big dreams. And big dreams are exactly what the Amazon needs.

One lesson from 2020 is that, in moments of crisis, politically impossible ideas can become possible overnight. Covid-19 spurred telemedicine, distance learning and universal basic income from the fringes to the mainstream. Global support for the Black Lives Matter movement awakened millions of people to see history — and the future — in a new light. Apocalyptic wildfires on America’s West Coast are burning in tandem with agricultural fires in the Amazon, showing how our climate future is intertwined across hemispheres.

Solving old problems will require asking new questions. How could drones and autonomous vehicles improve transportation in the Amazon? How could satellite constellations connect remote villages to better education and health care? How could cities like Manaus, Santarém and Belém become international leaders in biotechnology, rather than shipping hubs for commodities?

First, the Bolsonaro administration must recognize that the Amazon is urbanizing as rapidly as any region in the world. Instead of encouraging developers to plunge deeper into the forest, it should invest in its existing cities. Award contracts for more schools, water treatment centers and hospitals, not penetration roads and private prisons.

Second, de-escalate the war on drugs and refocus on corruption in the halls of state and local governments. Trafficking is a problem, but the more worrisome issue is that traffickers can provide communities a sense of security and cohesion that they don’t get from the state.

Third, though Brazil’s agricultural exports are booming, ranchers are over-reliant on fertilizers and pesticides, the razing of new land and abusive labor practices akin to slavery. Instead of urging farmers to clear new pastures, help farmers raise healthier herds on existing land.

Lastly, a supposed law and order president like Mr. Bolsonaro ought to redouble — not weaken — the agencies that enforce environmental laws and Indigenous rights. Restore funding to Brazil’s environmental and Indigenous protection agencies. Come up with new biotechnology agreements that guarantee species are collected, studied and analyzed in Brazil by Brazilians so that the bioprospecting of the future is not as exploitative as are today’s illegal logging and gold mining.

Indigenous councils should play a leading role as they decide what land and knowledge are sacred, what can be shared with the world, and how best to recoup a just share of the rewards. With the right resources, they could be exemplary stewards of the land, lessening fire risk, organizing law enforcement teams to defend their borders, and teaching the world respect for a forest that outsiders usually observe through satellites.

Of course all of this supposes that Jair Bolsonaro is governing rationally, in the interest of all Brazilians. As the coronavirus pandemic has made clear, like his counterpart in the United States, Mr. Bolsonaro has his eyes on the past, not the future, and he lacks the temperament and moral authority to lead a tour of the presidential palace, let alone a multiracial democracy. Even the dictatorship-era generals Mr. Bolsonaro so admires would be ashamed of his lack of strategy in Brazil’s most vital region.

Polls show that Brazilians treasure the rainforest and understand the threat of the climate crisis. If Captain Chain Saw continues to cut down the Amazon, the next generation of Brazilian leaders will cut down his administration.

The Amazon is not a placid river, but a maelstrom of the most pressing concerns of our era: climate change, public health and economic and environmental justice. It is not a backwater and its people are not backward. In fact, they are living through the most extreme versions of our planet’s most urgent problems, fighting for their lives — and their children’s lives.

Chris Feliciano Arnold is the author of “The Third Bank of the River: Power and Survival in the Twenty-First Century Amazon.”

Cover photo by Victor Moriyama for The New York Times. Cover inset photo by Carl De Souza/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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The Amazon Has Seen Our Future

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