TOPSHOT - Aerial view of deforestation in the Menkragnoti Indigenous Territory in Altamira, Para state, Brazil, in the Amazon basin, on August 28, 2019. (Photo by Joao LAET / AFP)        (Photo credit should read JOAO LAET/AFP/Getty Images)

Operation Amazon Redux

Brazil’s Army Wanted to “Occupy” the Amazon Before. Leaked Audio Reveals Their Plan to Try Again.

An aerial view of deforestation in the Menkragnoti Indigenous Territory in Altamira, Pará state, Brazil, on Aug. 28, 2019. Photo: Joao Laet/AFP/Getty Images

BBrazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is planning to push industrialization and development in the interior of the country’s Amazon basin. It is far from a new project. For more than a century, a series of Brazilian governments have sought to move into the country’s interior, developing — or, to be more precise, colonizing — the Amazon. From the populist president-turned-dictator who made one of the early industrial pushes into the forest in the 1930s to the military dictatorship that ruled the country for two decades from 1964 until 1985, the justifications have largely been the same — economic gain and geopolitical paranoia — as were the often poor results.

Take the dictatorship’s push. Known as Operation Amazon, the colonization plan hatched during the military government envisioned integrating the territory into Brazil through building roads and developing agricultural and corporate enterprises — all accomplished by settling people from the south, southeast, and northeast of the country and the coasts in the forest.

As for the aim, the dictatorship’s motto for the project spoke volumes: “Occupy to avoid surrender.” The military government argued that a thinly populated Amazon might create avenues for foreign powers to invade Brazilian territory. “One aspect of the doctrine said that Brazil could not leave any empty space, because it could threaten national security,” said João Roberto Martins Filho, a professor at the Federal University of São Carlos who has spent decades researching the dictatorship. “The idea was that it was necessary to channel activity into regions with smaller population density, and this became a state policy.”

Like all the other so-called development pushes into the Amazon, the results were catastrophic — for the forest itself, but especially for the communities who already lived amid it. One highway, for instance, was designed to travel from the city of Manaus, on the Amazon River, to nearly the northern edge of the basin. “The highway is irreversible, for the integration of the Amazon into the country,” the army’s Col. João Tarcísio Cartaxo Arruda, who led the construction battalion, said in 1975, according to a document made available by the National Truth Commission. “This road is important and must be constructed, whatever the cost. We will not change its layout, and the only burden for our battalions will be to pacify the Indians.”

That pacification came through so-called demonstrations of force — using machine guns, grenades, and dynamite — against the Waimiri-Atroari tribe. In these moves and others like it, thousands of Indigenous people were massacred. In 1972, the Waimiri-Atroari had a population of 3,000; by 1983, their number was reduced to 350. The National Truth Commission estimates that at least 8,350 Indigenous people were killed by the military government.

Operation Amazon came at a tremendous environmental cost. Nearly 10,000 miles of roads were built in seven years. Extractive and agricultural industrialists moved into the region, polluting and depleting resources. Over the nearly two decades of dictatorship, deforestation rates in the Amazon tripled.

Eventually, in the mid-2000s, the deforestation rate was reduced. But it’s already back on the rise. And a new military industrial push into the forest could prove to be a death blow to the Amazon.

Arara indigenous children drink water at the Laranjal tribal camp, in Arara indigenous land, Para state, in the northern Brazilian Amazon rainforest, on March 14, 2019. - Isolated and off the grid, the nearly 200 residents of Laranjal village on the edge of the Iriri River in Brazil's northern state of Para are among the some 800,000 indigenous people President Jair Bolsonaro says he wants to "integrate into society." Bolsonaro's remarks alarmed the Arara, who like other indigenous groups across Latin America's biggest country have long battled to protect their traditional way of life, away from towns and cities. (Photo by Mauro Pimentel / AFP)        (Photo credit should read MAURO PIMENTEL/AFP/Getty Images)

Arara indigenous children drink water at the Laranjal tribal camp in Arara indigenous land, Pará, Brazil, on March 14, 2019. Isolated and off the grid, the nearly 200 residents of Laranjal village are among the some 800,000 indigenous people President Jair Bolsonaro says he wants to “integrate into society.”

Photo: Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty Images

Reviving an Old Military Dream

Today, the Amazon is on fire, the result of moves attributed to Bolsonaro’s allies among the agribusiness interests trying to open up the forest for their economic gain. And the army, empowered by Bolsonaro’s presidency, is simultaneously beginning another push of its own: the largest-scale plan to occupy and settle the Amazon since the dictatorship.

Previously unpublished documents obtained exclusively by The Intercept flesh out the military’s plan for a push into the interior of the Amazon. Known as the Baron of Rio Branco Project, the plan envisions large-scale development projects, eventually raising the Amazon region’s contribution to the Brazilian economy. Amid today’s conflagration in the Amazon, Bolsonaro went on television to pledge to protect the delicate — and globally vital — ecosystem. Yet the Rio Branco Project would exploit resources; build large-scale bridges, dams, and highways; and attract non-Indigenous citizens to settle the northern region, the sparsely populated Brazilian hinterlands. Each project would inevitably create ripple waves of secondary deforestation and disrupt local communities.


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The project takes up the old military dream to colonize the Amazon, under the stated goal of developing the region and protecting Brazil’s northern border. The document obtained by The Intercept shows that the government envisions sources of “riches” in potential mining, a hydroelectric dam, and farming projects in the Guiana Shield — a geographic region that covers the Brazilian states of Amapá, Roraima, and the northern segments of Pará and Amazonas, as well as the nations of French Guiana, Suriname, and Guyana, much of Venezuela, and a sliver of Colombia. “It’s all virtually unexplored,” the slides say of these portions of Brazil. “It’s right there alongside the riches of the North.”

The plan outlines three large-scale construction projects in the state of Pará: a hydroelectric dam, a bridge extending over the Amazon River, and an extension of the BR-163 highway all the way to the border with Suriname. The overall objective is to integrate the remote northern region of the state of Pará with the state’s more industrialized southern reaches and, from there, with the rest of Brazil. The impoverished and sparsely populated area is crisscrossed by rivers and difficult to access. It is also the most well-preserved area of tropical forest in Pará, a state that is otherwise a national leader in deforestation.

Graphic: Rodrigo Bento/The Intercept Brasil

While the purported economic benefits are offered as justifications for the Rio Branco Project, what is not mentioned — but referenced in the materials obtained by The Intercept — is another reason for the Amazon push: a revived version of the military dictatorship’s paranoid fears of an invasion of Brazil through the sparsely populated northern border.

The Rio Branco Project plan was first put forth this February by the Special Secretariat for Strategic Affairs, an entity overseen by the secretary-general of the presidency and charged with focusing on Brazil’s long-term social and economic growth. The special secretariat is led by retired Gen. Maynard Marques de Santa Rosa, and the plan is being coordinated by retired Col. Raimundo César Calderaro.

The project began enmeshed in the sort of chaos that typically reigns over politics in Bolsonaro’s Brazil. In February, the then-Secretary-General Gustavo Bebbiano was on his way to Tiriós, in the state of Pará, with two ministers, Environment Minister Ricardo Salles and Human Rights Minister Damares Alves, as part of a committee to meet with local notables. Bolsonaro, however, was unaware of the plan and vetoed the trip as soon as he found out. That decision helped trigger the crisis that eventually culminated in Bebbiano’s resignation later that month. The same plan was then presented by the Special Secretariat without fanfare later in closed meetings with local leaders and businesspeople in Pará.

The U.K.-based political website Open Democracy published parts of the presentation late last month. The Intercept has since obtained exclusive access to audio recordings and a full slide presentation from one of the meetings, in late April, which details the project and the private justifications given by officials for carrying it out. The meeting was organized by the Special Secretariat and was held at the headquarters of Federação da Agricultura e Pecuária do Pará, an agroindustry association in the state of Pará.

Whether or not the Rio Branco Project is successful in accomplishing its aims of bringing economic growth and national security to the northern region, the attempt to develop, industrialize, and securitize the region are likely to have a similar effect as previous Brazilian governments’ forays into the Amazon: catastrophic environmental degradation and calamity for the communities who have long since called the Amazon home.

“We’re quite concerned about the way things are being done,” said Caetano Scannavino, who runs the NGO Saúde e Alegria, or Health and Happiness, and lives in Santarém, Pará. “It’s not a question of being against infrastructure. It’s important to look at how it has been implemented, with no regard for the proper procedures or consultations.”

In this Sept. 3, 2019 photo, indigenous Tembé eomen listen to speakers during a meeting of tribes at the Tekohaw indigenous reserve, Para state, Brazil. President Jair Bolsonaro has argued that such large reserves have hindered Brazil’s economic interests. But the indigenous people of Latin America’s largest economy have everything at stake. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Indigenous Tembé eomen listen to speakers during a meeting of tribes at the Tekohaw indigenous reserve in Pará, Brazil, on Sept. 3, 2019.

Photo: Rodrigo Abd/AP

The “Globalist” Threat

The presentations in Tiriós framed the plan as a response to a dark threat: an unnamed foreign invasion. In an audio recording taken during the meeting and sent to The Intercept by a source who requested anonymity, Marques de Santa Rosa, the secretary of strategic affairs, claims that Brazil must act to guarantee its sovereignty at the borders with Suriname. The impetus is Chinese investment in and immigration to Suriname, on Brazil’s northern border. The speaker cites China’s purported record abroad: “On the eastern border of Siberia today, there are more Chinese than Cossacks,” the voice says on the recording. “Russia is now facing a very serious national security problem. We need to wake up before the same problem happens here.”

Suriname, a small country with a population of half a million, has indeed seen a wave of Chinese immigration accompanying investments from the Eastern superpower, but there is no Chinese policy of mass emigration to Suriname, said Mauricio Santoro, a professor of international relations at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.

“The military tends to view the presence of foreigners in the Amazon, above all those from countries outside of South America, as a problem and a national security threat,” Santoro said. “But this says more about the world vision of the Brazilian armed forces than it does about the goals of other nations in the region.”

The purported Chinese threat is only one aspect of what government presenters called a “globalist campaign” to undermine Brazil’s sovereignty. The presenters identified NGOs, environmentalists, and, ironically, local populations — both quilombos, the sometimes centuries-old Amazon communities descended from escaped slaves, as well as Indigenous people — as the main agents of the globalist plot. According to the presentations, this diverse group is working to restrict the government’s “freedom of action” in the region.

Echoing Bolsonaro’s campaign slogan, the presentation slides proclaim, “Brazil above all else” — implying that Indigenous, quilombo, and environmental movements are not part of Brazil. Instead, the presenters framed them as hindrances of the past — obstacles that, today, are on the cusp of being overcome.

In the past, these groups had indeed presented obstacles. One of the new projects outlined in the presentations obtained by The Intercept is the Oriximiná hydroelectric dam, on the Trombetas River, a large tributary of the Amazon, in the state of Pará. Past projects along the same river have been canceled because of the socio-environmental impact on Indigenous and quilombo communities. Among the area’s inhabitants are uncontacted tribes.

The government’s new initiative would steamroll through the region by shutting Indigenous, quilombo, and environmental movements out of the process.

The government’s new initiative would steamroll through the region by shutting Indigenous, quilombo, and environmental movements out of the process. Indigenous organizations only learned of the Rio Branco Project through media reports. And yet the project will impact 27 Indigenous territories and protected areas within the northern region — including the Wajpi territory in the state of Amapá, where an indigenous leader was reportedly murdered by mining prospectors last July.

In an official statement, four Indigenous organizations said that the project “will have destructive and irreversible impacts for us, as Indigenous peoples, and our ways of life, based on the sustainable use of natural resources, which has in fact helped us to preserve one of the largest areas of environmental protection on the planet.” The statement, published in May, says that the plan will “tear in half” the Indigenous territories currently recognized by the Brazilian state — and thereby infringe on the tribes’ constitutional protections.

The Conspiracy Theory

Just as the purported threat of Chinese invasion harkens back to the fears of the bygone dictatorship, so too does the modern Brazilian right’s fears of environmental activism — another potential source of foreign meddling in Brazil’s sovereignty over the Amazon.

With the end of the Cold War, and the geopolitical situation changed, the military dictatorship’s main concern became the U.S. The 1980s had seen dramatic growth in environmental concern over the Amazon and in certain corners of the international community, a discussion began over whether Brazil was failing to protect the forest. The military, at one point, actually feared that the U.S. might invade the rainforest under the pretense that it was necessary to protect the environment for the benefit of the whole planet. In the wake of the dictatorship, these fears waned as the Brazilian government took forest stewardship more seriously. In 1989, it created the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, known as IBAMA, which operates as the nation’s principal enforcement arm for environmental protections.

The post-military presidencies of Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva saw fears over an international push into the Amazon recede further, but amid an economic downturn, the military began to oppose the presidency of Dilma Rousseff and talk of national sovereignty in the region bubbled up again.

Today, these sentiments are rapidly on the rise, with two army generals claiming in August that there was a “great indirect plot” to nullify the Brazilian state in the Amazon. This conspiracy theory posits that the dissolution of the Brazilian state in the region would progress as international aid bolstered the rise of Indigenous states. There is a longstanding fear, for example, that the Yanomami tribes on the Brazilian side of the border will unite with those on the Venezuelan side to create an independent Yanomami nation.

For the army and its right-wing allies in government, the conspiracy theory extends all the way to the Catholic Church. In particular, the military establishment is worried about the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, a conference scheduled to take place in October. Organized by the Vatican, 250 leading bishops of the Catholic Church will meet for 21 days to discuss the topic “Amazonia: new paths for the Church and for an integral ecology.” Brazilian Gen. Eduardo Villas Bôas claimed that the confab is tainted by “political bias.” In a presentation in August, Villas Bôas and Gen. Alberto Cardoso said that the synod, the media, foreign governments, the United Nations, nongovernmental organizations, and the Council of Missionaries to the Indigenous are all agents of the “grand indirect plot.”

TOPSHOT - View of a burnt area of forest in Altamira, Para state, Brazil, in the Amazon basin, on August 27, 2019. - Brazil will accept foreign aid to help fight fires in the Amazon rainforest on the condition the Latin American country controls the money, the president's spokesman said Tuesday. (Photo by Joao LAET / AFP)        (Photo credit should read JOAO LAET/AFP/Getty Images)

A burnt portion of forest in Altamira, Pará, Brazil on Aug. 27, 2019.

Photo: Joao Laet/AFP/Getty Images

Bolsonaro’s Playbook

The same fears of a “grand indirect plot” can be seen in Bolsonaro and his allies’ response to the recent fires in the Amazon. While wildfires are common at this time of year, data provided by the National Institute for Space Research indicate that this year, fires increased 84 percent compared to the period between January and August 2018. Moreover, there is evidence that many of them were lit on purpose by loggers and land-grabbers in response to Bolsonaro’s policies, which have loosened environmental monitoring and enforcement.

Bolsonaro, though, initially responded to the crisis by accusing NGOs of having started the wildfires to “attract attention.” Then, in a meeting with the governors of the nine states in the Amazon basin, he claimed that Indigenous reservations “impair the nation” and that the policies and laws that protect them are effectively using Indigenous people as “pawns in a maneuver” to block the riches of the region from being used “for the common good.” He also stated that NGOs form part of a plot to leave the Amazon intact for “future exploitation by other countries.”

“The military’s objective, thinking strategically, is this: to get in close again with the government.”

Martins Filho, the professor who has extensively studied the dictatorship, said he sees the army’s influence in many of Bolsonaro’s policies and reactions. “The military’s objective, thinking strategically, is this: to get in close again with the government,” he said.

Indeed, current and former top military officials echo the president’s belligerent tone. After French President Emmanuel Macron called the Amazon fires an “international crisis,” Villas Bôas said that Macron’s statements were “direct attacks on Brazilian sovereignty.” Augusto Heleno, a retired general and top Bolsonaro security adviser, said that those advocating for international action on the fires “just want to put the brakes on our inevitable economic growth.” And Vice President Hamilton Mourão, another retired general, said those who are referring to the fires as a crisis were “dishonest, as if they don’t know that the lungs of the planet are the oceans, and not the Amazon.”

Bolsonaro, meanwhile, has ramped up deregulation ever since taking office. Salles, the environment minister, has been spearheading the effort to dismantle IBAMA, the environmental protection agency, and other monitoring agencies. During his campaign, Bolsonaro warned that he would not demarcate “even a centimeter” of new land for Indigenous territories, and when he assumed power, he appointed Nabhan Garcia — a member of the agribusiness lobby known for wielding rifles to warn off supposed trespassers on his land — in charge of agrarian reform and land demarcations.

For the Amazon, the results have already been disastrous. Research indicates that the rate of deforestation in 2019 is 50 percent greater than in the previous year — an estimate which may be conservative, given that figures calculated at the end of the year tend to be much higher. According to the latest statistics, July was the worst month yet, with an increase of 278 percent in deforestation compared to July 2018.

The Fate of the Rio Branco Project

For Amazon defenders, the crises of wildfires and deforestation will only worsen if the Baron of Rio Branco Project is fully implemented, with the rainforest further opened up to the destruction wrought by Bolsonaro’s allies in agribusiness.

Because of secrecy and obfuscation, the project’s fate is unclear. In January, the government wanted to pass a resolution that would mandate a 100-day implementation deadline for the project, although that did not come to pass. The plan, nonetheless, was discussed in closed meetings coordinated by Calderaro, who went to Santarém in February to discuss the project with the mayor, Nélio Aguiar, and to Rio de Janeiro to meet with the staff of the Institute of Military Engineers to get strategic maps of the region. In March, Calderaro discussed the Baron of Rio Branco plan with Marques de Santa Rosa, who was previously removed from a high-ranking military post in 2010 for criticizing the National Truth Commission that investigated crimes committed by the military dictatorship.

In April, agribusiness leaders were appraised of the Rio Branco Project at a meeting at the headquarters of the Federation of Agriculture and Livestock in Pará. And, in the capital Brasília, numerous meetings were held to discuss the plan. The most recent, on June 19, featured the participation of Marques de Santa Rosa, the Strategic Planning Secretary Wilson Trezza, and Director of International Strategic Affairs Paulo Érico Santos de Oliveira. In the official records, there is no mention of the participation of the authorities of the Ministry of the Environment in these discussions.

The Rio Branco Project “is still in the discussion and consideration phases,” said a spokesperson for the Secretariat of Strategic Affairs in a statement. “We are planning to form a group integrating various ministries, through an official resolution, to refine the Rio Branco Project. However, there is no set date for its launch.” The spokesperson added that Bolsonaro would soon issue an order to form the working group, and the government expected the project to benefit local communities who live in poverty.

In response to an inquiry, the army said that the military has nothing to say on the subject.

If the project is fully implemented, it’s unlikely to ever accomplish the goals laid out in the presentations obtained by The Intercept. “We must raise income and the contribution of the Amazon to the Brazilian GDP, which at present is no more than 5.4 percent in such a rich area,” the presenter says on the recording. “We must reach a value of at least 50 percent to achieve equality with the rest of the country.”

In fact, the gross domestic product yielded by legal activity in the Amazon corresponds to 8.6 percent of the Brazilian total — a proportion that has grown in recent years. To reach 50 percent of the country’s GDP would be a herculean task: The Amazon region would have to generate twice as much income as São Paulo, the richest state in Brazil, which currently accounts for 31 percent of the GDP.

Reported in collaboration with Manuella Libardi of Open Democracy

Translation: Andrew Nevins

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets that aims to strengthen coverage of the climate crisis.

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