RIO DE JANEIRO – In the Brazilian Amazon these days, it's nearly impossible to run for office talking up the environment.
More common is a scene like this: A candidate for Congress parades a helicopter — the symbol of illegal gold mining — painted with the Brazilian flag, through the streets of the Amazon city of Boa Vista. He defends a gold rush that has devastated Indigenous territories and contaminated rivers. In a neighboring state an Indigenous candidate stops wearing green clothing in public out of fear of violence.
Like all Brazilians, residents of the vast Amazon region will elect governors and lawmakers in October’s general elections. But as the campaign takes the streets, few candidates or voters are talking about current record-breaking deforestation rates or other environmental problems.
Instead, many politicians vie for who has a bolder promise to relax legal restrictions on gold mining, expand deforestation for agribusiness or pave highways through the forest. The few who run on an environmental platform struggle to compete and face public hostility.
Amid widespread poverty and lack of economic opportunities besides those that are environmentally damaging, Amazon voters have increasingly favored politicians who frame legal protection of the world’s largest tropical rainforest as a barrier to development.
A survey carried out by the website ((o))eco news found that most lawmakers from Brazil’s nine Amazon states voted in favor of five major bills that soften environmental laws, from opening Indigenous territories to mining, to legalizing land-robbing. In three of the votes, representatives from the Amazon region voted more heavily in favor than those from other parts of Brazil.
ONE OUT OF MORE THAN A HUNDRED
Today, just 1 of the 118 lawmakers in Congress representing the Amazon was elected on a socio-environmental platform. Joenia Wapichana, only the second Indigenous leader elected to the national parliament in Brazil's history, is from Roraima state, where Indigenous people make up 11% of the population, the highest in the country.
In her bid for reelection, one of her opponents is a gold prospector and businessman named Rodrigo Martins de Mello who has used a helicopter as the trademark of his campaign. Aircraft is the only way to transport prospectors and equipment to remote Indigenous reserves, such as that belonging to the Yanomami people, where most illegal gold mining occurs in Roraima.
“It is mining that brings money to Boa Vista’s commerce,” Mello said through a microphone from the back of a pickup truck. Behind him, a much larger truck rolled forward, transporting the helicopter emblazoned with the Brazilian flag, now a symbol of support for far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.
In a phone interview with The Associated Press, Mello, who is campaigning under the name Rodrigo Cataratas, (Rodrigo Waterfall in English), promised to defend the rights of prospectors, who he estimated number 40,000.
The tendency to discount the value of the forest is stronger in regions where migrants of European ancestry arrived in the 1960s and '70s. To attract people to the Amazon, the military government at that time built roads, turned a blind eye to a chaotic gold rush and gave away vast swaths of pristine rainforest where isolated Indigenous tribes lived. Disease and forced displacement brought some groups to the brink of extermination.
That is the case in Rondonia, where most cities were founded beginning in the 1970s by such migrants from southern Brazil. Today it is one of the most deforested Amazon states and a large beef producer, with soybean agriculture on the uptick.
Last year, Rondonia’s State Assembly voted unanimously 17 to 0 to reduce a protected area by 2,200 square kilometers (850 square miles), an area larger than greater London, to allow in illegal cattle ranchers and open rainforest to agribusiness. Governor Marcos Rocha, a staunch ally of Bolsonaro, signed the law. It was later ruled unconstitutional by a state court.
According to Ricardo Gilson, a geographer at the Federal University of Rondonia, large swaths of the so-called arc of deforestation, which encompasses dozens of cities, share that cultural history.
“It is a frontier society, which transforms the natural landscape into an extractive economy: mining, cattle, crops, hydro energy. It is not a society that regards the standing forest as something positive,” he told the AP.
To stand out in such a culture, Military Police Corporal Cáiro Teixeira da Silva, who is running for Congress for the first time, sells himself as more radical than his competitors. With a Brazilian flag printed on his shirt, he recently appeared in a campaign video brandishing a rifle and promising to arm illegal prospectors against police raids.
“I will fight for the miner to have a T4 rifle to secure his dredge, his gold,” he shouted, patting the gun.
The historically small and dwindling support for the environment explains why two of the Amazon’s top rainforest defenders have opted to leave the region entirely and run for Congress in Sao Paulo state, thousands of miles away. They are Indigenous leader Sônia Guajajara, who Time Magazine crowned one of the world’s most influential people, and former minister Marina Silva, who was elected senator twice from the Amazon’s state of Acre.
For Mario Mantovani, a senior advisor to the Environmental Parliamentary Front, running an environment-based campaign in Amazon states has become harder this year, because lawmakers who support Bolsonaro have had access to generous federal funds they can dole out as they choose.
“They have put so much money into the region that it is hard to even set up a strategy against them. It is a game played with marked cards. You would be an isolated voice there, you wouldn’t be able to do anything,” Mantovani told the AP in a phone interview.
In such a hostile environment, it makes sense to run for office in Sao Paulo, where there are more people who care about the Amazon, he said.
Despite these odds, several lesser known pro-environmental candidates are competing in Amazon states, most of them Indigenous leaders. Vanda Witoto is running for Congress in Amazonas state. That state has eight seats, currently all of them occupied by men and none of them from her party, Rede, founded and led by Marina Silva, who is also a former Environment minister.
“It is a huge challenge, as big as the Amazon,” Witoto told the AP by phone. “We already have a background of threats due to our defense of environment and Indigenous peoples. We are seen as against the economic power.”
Witoto is a nurse on the outskirts of Manaus with no net worth according to disclosures. Mello, whose main business is air transportation for gold miners, declared $6.5 million in assets.
Recently, during a road trip, Witoto was harassed by a car that chased her group for dozens of kilometers. She said it was probably because she and her supporters were wearing the red caps associated with Brazil’s landless movement, a leftist symbol.
After the incident, she was advised by Indigenous leaders who support her not to wear red or green to avoid attention from anti-environmentalists and anti-leftists, usually Bolsonaro supporters. “We are using clothes with neutral colors to try to avoid conflicts,” she said.
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