Fires hit the Amazon hard this year — the worst in a decade.
Recently, the Karipuna tribe in the Brazilian state of Rondônia faced severe devastation on their land. Photographs show a burned and charred forest. Other images, shot by drone, indicate how a huge chunk of the once-pristine jungle was carved out like a slice of cake, then ravaged by fires, loggers and illegal land grabbers. Five years ago, this area was almost completely intact.
“Land invasions in Karipuna land began in 2016,” said chief Andre Karipuna. “But they exploded from 2018 on, with the rhetoric of President [Jair] Bolsonaro.”
The Brazilian president has pushed a policy of developing the expansive Amazon region. He has also defunded Indigenous and environmental agencies and is looking to legalize mining on Indigenous territories. Moreover, Bolsonaro has empowered land thieves to push into native regions. Illegal invasions of Indigenous territories increased 150% in just the first three months of his administration.
That’s exactly why Andre Karipuna, from his tiny corner of the Amazon, is watching the US elections this week.
“We think this election is very important,” he said. “The US president acts just like the one we have here… If Trump loses, it will leave President Bolsonaro kind of alone, out in the cold.”
‘Trump of the tropics’
Bolsonaro has visited Trump, in the United States, four times since his own inauguration in January 2019. The countries have signed a military cooperation agreement and committed to work together to promote private-sector development of the Amazon. In October, they announced a series of new trade deals.
“Over this last year and a half, in partnership with President Donald Trump, we lifted US-Brazilian relations to their best moment, and with this we renewed a new era of relations between the two largest economies and democracies of the hemisphere,” Bolsonaro said at the US-Brazil Connect Summit, held online last month.
“If Trump is defeated, Bolsonaro won’t have one of his main supporters in the international arena,” said João Feres Júnior, a political scientist at Rio de Janeiro State University. “I think that there’s a symbolic alliance between those two rulers, and with Biden, I think Bolsonaro is going to have a much harder time.”
That’s what many other Brazilians are similarly hoping will happen.
Flavia Oliveira is a Brazilian who became a naturalized US citizen and is finishing her PhD in Environmental Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She just filled out a ballot to vote in her first US presidential election.
“If Trump loses, I think it’s going to be great for Brazil,” she said. “Bolsonaro’s going to be weaker and I think that can only be good for Brazil.”
But that opinion is far from universal.
Bolsonaro supporters carried “Trump 2020” signs during an anti-vaccine rally over the weekend in Sao Paulo.
Like Trump, Brazil’s president has an approval rating of about 40%. He’s backed by much of big business and large agricultural corporations.
“We are hopeful that Trump will be able to win this election,” said Décio Teixeira, the president of the Rio Grande do Sul state chapter of the Brazilian Association of Soy Farmers. He said he was pleased by the number of US businessmen arriving in Brazil following Bolsonaro’s election.
“We have high hopes that commerce will flow, that American products will enter here, and that our products will enter the US market,” he said. “If the Americans reelect Trump, Brazil will be in good shape.”
But some say, not good for all.
Marcia Collares is a small farmer whose family has lived on their land in southern Brazil for hundreds of years. They’ve recently been fighting corporate plans for a lead and copper mine just up the road.
“We are watching the US elections closely, because the United States has a lot of influence in Brazil and the world,” said Collares. “Since the world is living through a global environmental crisis without precedent, we know that we need to have leaders who are conscious of this and care for the planet. It’s a question of life or death.”
"Since the world is living through a global environmental crisis without precedent, we know that we need to have leaders who are conscious of this and care for the planet. It’s a question of life or death."
Brazilians are also aware that the results of Tuesday’s vote in the US could be an important predictor for Bolsonaro’s own reelection prospects.
“In a way, we are expecting to see what’s going to happen for us in Brazil in 2022,” said Camila Feix Vidal, an international relations professor at the Federal University of Santa Catarina. “We are already seeing here in Argentina, [Mauricio] Macri was not reelected. And Macri as well was someone that Bolsonaro trusted.”
Even if Democratic candidate Joe Biden wins, Feix Vidal doesn’t expect major changes in US-Brazilian relations. US foreign policy with Brazil has remained fairly constant under both Democrats and Republicans.
But under Biden, there would likely be much greater pushback from the US over Bolsonaro’s weakening of environmental protections and his push to open the Amazon for development. Those issues, many Brazilians say, could have an impact on the planet for generations.
“The project for Brazil that Bolsonaro dreams of creating, completely depends on the world that Donald Trump created for himself,” said Lilia Schwarcz, a professor at the University of São Paulo, in a recent video on foreign relations.
“On Nov. 3, I’m going to be watching the results until late in the evening. I imagine that Bolsonaro and his three sons will also be watching,” Schwarcz said. “We are going to be rooting for the other side.”