Leave The Amazon Be
Manaus is a city in the middle of the jungle in the Brazilian Amazon. The only way to travel to the city by land from any part of Brazil outside the Amazon requires people to drive on a dirt road for long stretches and still having to take a ferry to cross the Negro and Amazon Rivers. Most people travel to the city by plane or by boat.
People outside of Brazil might imagine that Manaus is a small city. Like Boise or Billings, in the United States or any of these random cities in Eastern Russia. But Manaus is a large. It is part of a Metropolitan Area of 2.6 million people – larger than the Metropolitan areas of Las Vegas, Orlando or Charlotte in the United States. And larger than the Metropolitan Areas of Amsterdam, Stockholm or Manchester in Europe.
Manaus population did not happen by an accident. If you buy a TV set in São Paulo or in Rio de Janeiro it’s pretty likely that the TV was manufactured (Or at least assembled) in Manaus. Corporations like Sony and Samsung have large plants in Manaus, one of the largest industrial centers in Brazil, that employs more than 500,000 people. Companies don’t build factories in the middle of the Amazon, thousands of kilometers away from any large urban center, because they like the logistics. They do so because the Brazilian government offers subsidies to factories that operate from Manaus. Assembling TVs in Manaus is a way of trying to avoid the infamous tariffs and import duties that Brazil imposes on manufactured goods, and is part of the industrial policies of the Brazilian government.
Farmers in the Amazonian region usually points out that there are twenty million people living there, and that these people deserve to have access to economic development. The problem is that a lot of these twenty million people were incentivized to settle there because the Brazilian government feared losing the Amazon. And they would not be living there without these artificial incentives. In the 70’s the generals feared losing what they thought as an empty Amazon to foreigners (They would talk about poachers from Bolivia or some type of European/North American Army).
The Economic Free Zone of Manaus (Or Free Trade Zone of Manaus), that offers tax subsidies so that companies assemble electronics in the middle of the Amazon, was just one of the tools that successive governments used to develop the Amazon (Meaning, creating artificial incentives for the settlement of the region). That also included infrastructure projects like hydro dams and highways (Including the infamous Transamazônica Highway) and development programs. Former Military ruler Médici thought that he could solve two problems at the same time by incentivizing people to move from the Northeast (That endured droughts and famine during his tenure as President) to the Amazon.
The Transamazônica Highway (BR-230) would become one of the symbols of the failures of the megaprojects during the Military Regime of 1964-85. It was intended to connect the Brazilian Northeast to the Pacific Ocean. Only 4.223 kilometers (2624 miles) of the highway were constructed, most of them was never paved with asphalt, and the forest would simply eat long stretches of the road. Thousands of settlers would be completely isolated in the middle of nowhere.
The Hydro Dams are more complicated. They bring a lot of externalities to people that live in the Amazon while allowing people in the urban centers in the Southeast to have energy without having to deal with the externalities of nuclear reactors or coal plants. But some of them, like Balbina or Belo Monte, to a lesser extent, had huge environmental externalities and construction costs and low energy efficiency.
With the debate about the wildfires in the Amazon, people inevitably bring the point of developing the Amazon. As a whole, Brazil does not need to develop the Amazon. Brazil might have a GDP per capita that’s a third of the GDP per capita of Mississippi, but it’s not a total backwater like many foreign journalists like to think.
Brazil is a country uniquely blessed for agriculture. Brazilians only know about the existence of snow when they travel abroad – there is some occasional snow in some mountains in the South, but that’s it. There is no large desert in Brazil: the interior of the Northeast, known for its droughts, is a semi-arid not too dissimilar from most of California or Spain. It’s not difficult to find relatively unused terrains even in areas close to São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro.
We are talking about a country without large deserts or snow lands that’s larger than the continental United States, with two thirds of its population. Ask about Brazil in orange producing areas of California or Florida. Chiquita Banana is controlled by a Brazilian company.
Trump’s idea of trade war with China is idiotic precisely because it means that farmers in Missouri, Iowa and South Dakota are losing market share to farmers in South America that had far better climate conditions. There is no reason for China to resume buying soybeans from Iowa or Arkansas when the trade war is over.
One could argue that the Amazon is one of the Brazilian regions least suitable for agriculture. Rainforests usually have a thin soil, poor in nutrients. One could also argue that it is the Amazon Rainforest that allows Brazil to have a wet climate in the rest of the country. The same wet climate that allows Brazilian oranges to be so competitive with oranges in Florida. It’s not like you could bulldoze the Amazon to build soybeans farms in the entire region, and one could easily argue that the role of the Amazon over Brazilian climate is far more important than its role absorbing carbon emissions from Europe or the United States.
The Amazon matters more to Brazilian climate than to the climate in Europe. Sure, there are some challenges and some hard choices. The expansion of the soybean belt in Mato Grosso and Goiás inevitably put pressures in the Amazon Rainforest. But then, it’s not like Brazil needs to bulldoze the Amazon for economic development.
But you’d still have a regional pressure to create development in the Amazon- twenty million people are living there. Yes, a large portion of these twenty million people live in the coast (One third of the population of the state of Pará lives in the Metropolitan Region of Belém do Pará, a coastal city, for instance) or in border regions of the Amazon. But there are still millions of people living in the interior of the Amazon, in part because the government created artificial incentives for people to live there. And many are living in poor conditions.
There is a mixture of paranoia, culture wars and wishful thinking when people, specially people in Brazil, talk about developing the Amazon. Few subjects are more prolific for fake news among Brazilians than the Amazon rainforest.
During the 90’s, before WhatsApp and the popularization of commercial internet, people would talk about the Americans using military force to create some type of international territory in the Amazon. There were images of forged textbooks from American schools where the Amazon was presented as an “international territory” (That’s why toying with the idea of using military force to make Brazil preserve the Amazon is a completely idiotic idea – and people like Franklin Foer and Stephen Walt should definitely know better).
There are rumors about huge areas where no one speaks Portuguese, for instance. And people like to imagine that environmental concerns are just an excuse to make Brazil poor or to steal resources from the Amazon. That’s not something that you hear from that uncle that still like to send these emails with the subject line of “FWD:RE:FWD:WATCH THIS”. It’s part of a thinking that’s shared by many people in the Military. By many politicians and many judges. Bolsonaro, in fact, repeats a lot of clichés about the Amazon that Brazilians have been listening since forever.
One of the reasons why the Brazilian Military said “no” to the idea of military intervention in Venezuela is precisely that they did not want to have American troops moving inside the Amazon (it would be difficult to have a land invasion of Venezuela without moving troops from Roraima, in the Brazilian Amazon). It’s not a coincidence that these problems with fires are happening in the Amazon right now, with a President that has a cabinet filled with generals and other members of the Military.
There is also a racial element: some people resent the large areas of the Amerindian Reserves, and about the Amerindians that use smartphones and drive cars (It’s not so different from the “Welfare Queen” trope in the United States, even if you consider that in Brazil just having Amerindian blood is not enough to call yourself as a member of any tribe). When Bolsonaro speaks about areas where no one speaks Portuguese there is a veiled reference to the fact that some Amerindian leaders have friendships with foreign celebrities.
Jair Bolsonaro became infamous in Brazil for his long and incoherent rants about niobium, a rare earth metal, in which there is a large untapped reserve in the Amazon. But it also shows the type of wishful thinking that many Brazilians have about the economic prospects of the Amazon.
International cooperation for the preservation of the rainforests – not only the Amazon but others rainforests in the world – is not a bad idea. These are fragile ecosystems, and it’s a good idea to have international organization to help upper-middle to low income countries to preserve these areas. But Brazil managed to cut down deforestation during a center-left government – and unlike Ernesto Londoño, the New York Times local correspondent pointed out in “The Daily” Podcast, this slowing down of deforestation did not rely entirely on having economic growth. Deforestation was higher in 2009, when the economy was skyrocketing, than during the recession of 2014.
Supporters of the PT (Workers Party) in Brazil may point out that curbing deforestation is an overlooked achievement of the Lula-Dilma Rousseff Era. But, regardless of your opinion about Lula it’s not like it’s something that Brazil did not manage to do before.
Besides that, the policies to develop the Amazon have been horrible for Brazil. The Brazilian government spent (if not wasted) a huge amount of money trying to build the Transamazônica Highway. The current model of development of the Amazon, relying heavily on mining, cattle ranching and megaprojects like the Belo Monte Dam also means making a lot of young and low-income males to move there, and that has had horrendous consequences over crime (More than a hundred people were killed during riots in prisons in the region this year). And the fact that these prison massacres are related to drug gangs indicate that there is a huge problem there, that in the future can have huge repercussions even outside Brazil.
Having this model in an even larger scale would mean even bigger problems with crime.
One could argue that the region, that gained three new states in 1988(with the entire bureaucracy that states are entitled), requires huge transfers of resources from the federal government to provide basic functions to its citizens.
The Military regime began its efforts of development in the Amazon during the same time that the Brazilian Northeast experienced droughts with millions dying of famine. During the same period Brazilian cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro were exploding in size, with many people living in poor conditions in the outskirts of these cities. To this day there are no railways providing direct connections between São Paulo and cities like Curitiba and Belo Horizonte. There is no dual-carriage expressway connecting Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo to the Northeast. Maybe, maybe, it would have been a better idea to develop the part of Brazil were there were Brazilians already living instead of trying to develop a large rainforest not suitable for large scale agriculture or industrial activity where there were not so many people living there.
And there is a frequently overlooked problem: the conditions that allow Manaus to be one the largest manufacturing hubs in Brazil impose huge burdens on the Brazilian consumer and make the economy less competitive. In fact, Brazil manufacturing as a whole can’t be competitive if you are basically forcing manufacturers to assemble electronics in the middle of the Amazon. Without prohibitive tariffs no one would keep large manufacturing plants for electronics in Manaus.
People in the Bolsonaro administration were floating the idea of a “Dubai Plan” to substitute manufacturing in Manaus, but it’s obvious that it would have zero chance of working (I confess that I could manage to not laugh every time that I’ve read “Dubai Plan” while revising this article). But then you have a city larger than Las Vegas or Amsterdam that relies on subsidized manufacturing – remember, there is no direct, fully paved highway connecting Manaus to any city outside the Amazon.
Without these artificial incentives for the settlement of the Amazon less people would be living there, and it would be easier to provide sustainable development. It would be easier to provide transport infrastructure. Small scale logging can be easily sustainable in the Amazon, and there are valuable agricultural commodities that can be produced (think of açaí or guaraná). It would be a better use of the land than cattle grazing. It would be easier to build a tourism infrastructure, and there would be lower violent crime rates. There would even have space for industrial mining and farming in a sustainable way.
You wouldn’t need to burn the forest. The Amazon would be far better off without large-scale development.
Like another country to the North, the Brazilian political system is biased toward small states (In fact, even more: not only there is equal representation in the Senate, but the Lower Chamber of Congress, where there is a minimum and a maximum number of members for each state and the Federal District, is also biased toward small states). Something like a third of the Senate comes from states that are located entirely or partially in the Amazon rainforest. That does not help.
That’s not so different from what happen in the United States, where Senators from small states are always trying to protect some small agricultural interest like potatoes, corn or coal. Even if subsidies for potatoes or for corn based ethanol are bad for the country as a whole.
When Bolsonaro rants about how European countries had destroyed their forests he is sounding exactly like when the Soviets would point out to Jim Crow Laws or poverty in the United States. Or even with the anticolonialism of dictators like Leopoldo Galtieri, Robert Mugabe or Idi Amin Dada. Idi Amin Dada might have had good points about the British Empire but that did not make life in Uganda any better. The fact that the United States had the Ku Klux Klan or poverty did not improve the lives of people that lived in the Soviet Union. Just because the United States did idiotic things involving the environment does not mean that Brazil should repeat the same errors.
It’s relatively easy to replant temperate forests. The French or the Germans can replant forests, but it would be very difficult to replant large portions of the Amazon, and that’s something that Brazilians, not the French or Germans, would be losing.
Yes, there is a little bit of hypocrisy when famers in countries that subsidize their agricultural sectors want a boycott of Brazilian goods. But Brazilian farmers knew – or at least should have – how this game is played. Soft power matters. Everyone knew who Bolsonaro was when they voted for him(And he won handily in the states that are among the biggest exporters of agricultural commodities), and like, if Brazil had a President with an IQ with a three-digit number he or she would be spending a lot of time in Beijing while thinking to himself “Too bad, farmers in Iowa and Missouri – suckers”. Elections have consequences, right?
What Macron says or do not say does not matter: Brazil should preserve the Amazon because the policies to develop the Amazon have been a huge waste of resources and because preserving the Amazon is more important to Brazil than it is to Europeans. Brazil would be better off if the generals haven’t decided to “develop” the Amazon – and Brazil will be better off if politicians decide to stop trying to do that.