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And here we are, citizens of the world, standing before Vladimir Putin like Greeks before the Sphinx: What do you want? What are you thinking? What’s your riddle? How many demons possess you and how ferocious are they? What is your mystical vision of History? Your imperial dream? What purifying dimension does violence have for you? To what lengths are you willing to go? Do limits exist? If so, will it be easier to honor them in triumph or in calamity? Are you more dangerous with your hands tied behind your back or victoriously clasped over your head?

Russia is me

No one knows. In an interview with the journalist Ezra Klein, the political analyst and CNN host Fareed Zakaria says that, today, Russia is the most unstable country in the world. Even in the most restrictive totalitarian regimes, some semblance of institutionalism exists to sustain political processes. There are protocols and bureaucratic procedures which give some indication of how decisions will be made. In the old Soviet Union, when the Secretary General of the Communist Party died, the Supreme Soviet Presidium met, and it was taken for granted that the new leader of the country would be chosen from there. If Chinese president Xi Jinping should die tomorrow, it would be a planetary headline but not a cause for trauma because it would come unaccompanied by the fear of institutional tremors: a member of the high political technocracy would soon replace him. The same is true of totalitarian dynasties like Saudi Arabia or North Korea. If a Saud exits, a Saud enters; if one Kim dies, another Kim appears.

This is not so in Putin’s Russia, where there are no clear systems of succession or hypothetical successors. And this is a problem. One has the impression that Louis XIV’s apocryphal phrase, “L’État cest moi!—I am the State!” supposedly uttered by a monarch with defined heirs, numerous counselors and a vast bureaucratic entourage at his service, would be more likely to come out of the mouth of the current Sun King of the Kremlin: Russia is me.

In fact, that seems to be the case. Traditional autocracies take the form of a pyramid with the leader at the apex and, below him, in order of hierarchical importance, the different strata of the State bureaucracy. In contemporary Russia, the pyramid has collapsed. Like a closed tripod, the sides were brought to the center and joined in a vertical line. The new shape of the State is a shepherd’s or a bishop’s staff whose plain or ornate handle is firmly and exclusively in Putin’s hand. Clearly, it is the only hand with the weight to push that button.

Putin is the sole and solitary man, isolated from everything and everyone, who uses what he knows is our suspicion of his irrationality as a political weapon. Or perhaps, as some people speculate, he has already freed himself from reality. At this stage, no hypothesis can be discounted. Since February, the possibility of a fatal event entered our calculations. If this scenario is still not probable, now it became possible. Much more so than a month ago, incomparably more than a year or a decade ago.

Europe is in shock. In Italy, a company that makes nuclear shelters and that has built 50 of these structures in the last 22 years, received 500 orders in the first two weeks of the war. The government of Belgium is distributing iodine pills to anyone who has a Belgian passport. Taken as prescribed, iodine helps absorb radiation that lodges in the thyroid. In the second week of March, that nation’s pharmacies distributed 30,000 boxes of the pills in a single day.

What the end of the world is like

Although not everyone paid attention, that amount of anguish brought people together who never imagined they had any affinity. People who live in European or North American cities do not realize that, since the invasion of Ukraine, there are people in the Brazilian forests able to teach them how to live from day to day with fear rooted in their bodies like a parasite. According to an astute observation by the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, if we want to understand what the end of the world is like, we have only to ask the original inhabitants of the Americas. They are specialists in the subject. From the Guarani peoples in Brazil to the Mayas in Mexico, many of them have experienced the destruction of their worlds.

It is estimated that in the 16th century, when the first European explorers came to the Amazon, from 8 to 10 million people lived in the forest. Within decades of their making contact, 90% of this population disappeared, an extermination so radical that almost five centuries would have to pass for the biome to return to the demographic level of the world before the Portuguese mariner Pedro Alves Cabral “discovered” Brazil. This happened in the 1960s.

The descendants of this massacre preserve it in their memory. What was lived by their ancestors in the remote past and by their grandparents and parents in the recent past runs through their body and, to the shame of all of us Brazilians, it runs through their body what it means to live it in the present. Today, more than ever. In the next month, more than ever, as we will soon see.

A map of the Amazon forest, showing which countries it spans / CIAT International Center for Tropical Agriculture. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

A map of the Amazon forest, showing which countries it spans / CIAT International Center for Tropical Agriculture. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Brazil was always slower (some say, more relaxed) and less efficient than nations solidified by industrial logic. In spite of this, it would be a mistake to suppose that the world has no reason to fear us. Our national flag-bearing green and yellow weapon of mass destruction does not produce such instantaneous effects as the nuclear nations, but it is just as lethal. Naturally, what I refer to is the destruction of the Amazon, our ecological bomb.

The Amazonian biome is one of the systems vital to the functioning of the planet. It controls at least three fluxes essential to the maintenance of life: those of carbon, biodiversity and hydrological cycles. There are no more than nine of these vital fluxes, “life support systems,” as scientists call them. That means that we are responsible for at least a third of them.

We have not assumed this responsibility, as we did once, if only for a decade. The stage has darkened since 2015, and the situation became critical in 2019. The Amazon is on the brink of unfeasibility as a tropical forest. The scientific evidence of this environmental cul-de-sac accumulated quickly, so much so that respected scientists who were formerly skeptical now recognize that we are a short remove away from the fatal turning point. If the deforestation continues at this rate, it will be a few years at most.

In this scenario of imminent catastrophe, the government and its base of supporters are pushing through an urgent docket legalizing mining, drilling for oil, and the construction of hydroelectric plants on Indigenous lands. In certain circumstances, the text in discussion foresees provisional authorization of mining activities while there is no legislative authorization. In lands not yet officially recognized, any studies of environmental impact will be dispensed with.

This is the dictate of someone in a rush to destroy. It means pillaging ancestral territories, the dwelling place of peoples who, since the first encounter with white men, lost a lot, lost always, lost their place in the world, fell ill, became impoverished, saddened, were reduced to begging at the crossroads of the cities and, melancholy, killed themselves.

In spite of this constant historic violence, they, the Indigenes, are the ones responsible for the protection of the greatest tropical forest on the planet. There is not a better forest guard in the world. Without charging a cent, they preserve a system without which the equilibrium of the planet could not be maintained. The lowest levels of deforestation are on Indigenous lands. They are the last bastion of the forest.

Imminent catastrophe

Now the government wants to invade the main support of our almost inexistent environmental responsibility. It is instructive to know who intends to plunge into these lands. Large businesses that need to be accountable to society will hesitate before entering territories which have been protected until recently. Between 2020 and 2021, for example, Vale[1] halted all mineral projects in Brazilian Indigenous territories—there were 89 of them—canceling requirements for research and extraction. This is understandable: doing otherwise would compromise the reputation of a company that, in recent years, has been involved in two of the greatest environmental disasters in Brazilian history.

It is difficult to believe that corporations the size of Vale would take a different path—that would be corporate suicide. The Brazilian Mining Institute (IBRAM), an entity whose members account for 85% of Brazilian mineral production, published a note contrary to the bill, considering it inadequate “for the results it envisions.” To run roughshod over Indigenous lands in the heart of the planet’s largest tropical biome, to take over the last areas in which a forest under attack is still resisting, to wound territories in which the slightest environmental disturbances are now registered in real time by thousands of satellites that cross its skies, is a toxic decision. The mining companies which will eventually swallow the bait will come from countries without strong social systems and, therefore, not subject to the obligation of transparency. They will come from China, from the countries of the Middle East or from Central Asia. Not coincidentally, they will be corporations that prefer to act in regions of minimal development to take advantage of malleable political systems, fragile environmental legislation and the weak presence of the State.

If these peripheral enterprises come, it is certain that profitable deals will be made, many of them as secret as the reporter’s amendments to the Union Budget. However, the project is not meant to attract Chinese or Kazaks. In the words of the far from environmentalist president of the Brazilian Association of Mineral Research Businesses (ABPM), Luis Maurício Ferraiuoli Azevedo, “As it is, it has a vein much more focused on prospecting than mining.”

We know about prospecting. As many recent studies show, it has become the right arm of the criminal factions, beginning with the Capital First Command (PCC), which today dominates activities in Yanomami lands. The prospector panning for gold by the riverside, an impoverished Brazilian earning his daily bread, is an outdated character whose only purpose, with a tinge of social nostalgia, to put a mask over an increasingly violent and capitalized activity. The means of production for current prospecting are rafts that cost 2 million reais [approximately $421,600], degrading working conditions, the use of commercial mercury illegal in Brazil, and AR-15 rifles, now equipped with untraceable projectiles, thanks to presidential bonhomie.

A novelty of the last four years is the vertiginous expansion of organized crime inside the Amazon biome. Today the forest is a main stage for the dispute between the PCC and the Red Command (CV). The factions are quarreling over the administration of Amazonian illegality, whether it concerns prospecting, land grabbing, woodcutting, or control of the routes of the drug traffic to Europe. Communities of riverside dwellers and Indigenous peoples are being coopted. The day-to-day life of innumerable small cities is dependent on crime.

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It remains a development project, the political-administrative model of the Baixada Fluminense[2] transplanted to the Amazon. All considered—from support to the land grabbers, deforesters and prospectors to the dismantling of watchdog agencies like IBAMA—it would not be a mistake to call it the Program of Accelerated Crime, appropriating PAC, a renowned set of initials.[3]

To say that what is being developed in the Amazon is well-known to the nation’s first family is simply redundant. It is nothing more nor less than the expansion of the militias and of the factions, precisely the world from which emerged the ramping-up of the politics that are now spreading throughout the country. It’s instructive never to forget that the president’s oldest son, today a senator of the Republic, decorated one of the biggest murderers of Rio de Janeiro, the militiaman Adriano da Nóbrega; imprisoned, accused of homicide, Nóbrega received the Tiradentes Medal, the highest medal of Rio de Janeiro state government, while in jail.

But not facing the Sphinx

So here we are, Brazilians, standing in front of Jair Bolsonaro, but not as if we were facing the Sphinx, because the man has no enigmas. We know who he is and what he wants. We are familiar with his long list of sins.

We know his obscenity when he declares himself in solidarity with Russia, solidarity, therefore, with those responsible for scenes like that registered in the sorrowful photo of a family strewn in the street, the 43-year-old mother, her 18-year-old son, her 9-year-old daughter, backpacks attached, killed while trying to flee from Russian riflemen on a bridge in the outskirts of Kiev (there is a fourth corpse in the photo, a 26-year-old volunteer who was helping the family flee). Bolsonaro’s is not a surprising solidarity. The president, as we have known for some time, is not indifferent to the spectacle of violent death. On the contrary, it excites him.

Lynsey Addario (The New York Times/Fotoarena).

Lynsey Addario (The New York Times/Fotoarena).

We know his cowardice, how pathetic it is when he calls the president of Ukraine a comedian.

We know his corruption, which started small and wretched, puny like he was at the time, and today is immense, the size of his current means, which allow him to facilitate the spree of public money distributed without vigilance or control. Three and a half years into his mandate, it would be interesting to ask the heralds of morality if they are satisfied with the Union Budget sent to Arthur Lira, President of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies [equivalent to the U.S. House of Representatives]. If they are at peace with the system that produces parliamentarians like Josimar Maranhãozinho, a deputy from the president’s party, investigated by the Federal Police for employing armed groups to extort his part of the grift that mayors of municipalities in his state, Maranhão, received by means of a shady reporter’s “corrections.” 

If they are happy about the Minister of Education’s handout to the evangelical pastors who pay for his faithful service with bars of gold. If they are comforted by the most intimate circle of power, brothers of faith and even counselors like Fabrício Queiroz and Frederick Wassef—the former, spending his post-prison days offering YouTube exegeses in which, with geopolitical perspicacity, he justifies the Russian action against Ukraine: “this impotent government, this comic government that disarmed the people and turned in their weapons,” this weakness typical of a “leftist government.” 

The latter, Wassef, accused of racial abuse and racism, protagonist in the sad spectacle of refusing to be served by an 18-year-old waitress in a pizzeria in Brasília, Brazil’s federal district, “because you are black and have a sly face.” These are the denizens of a world cultivated by the man chosen to restore our nation’s honor.

Infinite sorrow

We have known all of this, and it was with this catalogue of immoralities that we arrived at this very personal version of the end of the world that now runs through the Congress with a bandit’s haste.

The forest will be transformed into a militiaman’s land, in a dynamic that’s already begun. The project will be voted on in April, without any legitimate debate. If it passes, Brazil will have committed the perfect crime against the future—its own and the planet’s. The sorrow of this is infinite. We will have to live confronted daily by the injustice committed in our lifetimes, under our eyes, against those who, before we came, not only made the forest their home, but worked it and constructed it, in a labor of millennia in consort with other creatures. The Amazon is not only a boon of nature, it is a cultural resource, the legacy of an organic civilization that erected its edifice not with stones or metals, but with soil and plants, with woods and fungi—these forests that, in the beautiful expression of the archeologist Eduardo Neves, “are our pyramids.” These are the pyramids that will now be officially delivered to piracy.

So here we are, fellow Brazilians, months away from a choice that, for quite a while, has been more than merely a political choice and become a question of civilization.

Ukraine “entrusted a comedian with the destiny of a nation,” the president of Brazil declared, like someone who could not fathom it, “and look what happened.” In fact, what happened was that the people united in a life and death battle for self-determination, for liberty and for the right to say to posterity that, in a terrible time, they stepped up and were honored. That is quite a legacy.

Brazil elected Bolsonaro and look what happened. The angel of History would say: Look around and contemplate the ruins. They surround us and shame us much more than those of Mariupol or Kiev. Those were the work of the aggressor; these, of Brazilians. The ruin of education, the ruin of hunger, the hygienic ruin, the ruin of unemployment, the political ruin, the environmental ruin, the moral ruin of the clear-headed, of liberals with diplomas from good universities and well-paying jobs who co-signed onto a project that never hid its colors.

Historians reject the concept of the “providential man,” but at certain moments it is difficult to doubt his existence. Born of historical circumstances, when providential men come to power, they are radicalized by them to such a point that they unleash changes not of intensity, but of quality. Churchill is a providential man, Fidel, Mandela, Gandhi, perhaps Volodymyr Zelensky (it is still too early). And certainly Putin, even though his providence is sinister.

In October, we will be face to face with our great enigma: Who are we, as Brazilians? Those who say no to the barbarized land, or those who reaffirm the choice we made in 2018? Will we be Zelensky or Putin? Will we choose life or death?

Translated from Portuguese by Peter Lownds. The original article in Portuguese from Folha de S. Paulo/Piauí can be found here.

Footnotes

[1] Vale S.A. (Portuguese pronunciation: VAH-lee) is a Brazilian multinational corporation engaged in metals and mining and one of the largest logistics operators in Brazil. Vale, formerly Companhia Vale do Rio Doce, is the largest producer of iron ore and nickel in the world. Vale also produces manganese, ferroalloys, copper, bauxite, potash, kaolin, and cobalt, currently operating nine hydroelectricity plants and a large network of railroads, ships, and ports used to transport its products. The company has had two catastrophic tailings dam failures in Brazil: Mariana, in 2015, and Brumadinho, in 2019. The Brumadinho dam disaster caused the company to lose its license to operate eight tailings dams in the state of Minas Gerais, and its stock to lose nearly 25% in value. Vale is considered the most valuable company in Latin America, with an estimated market value of US$ 111 billion in 2021 (Wikipedia).

[2] The Baixada Fluminense, literally “riverine lowland,” is a region in the state of Rio de Janeiro located on Guanabara Bay, between the city of Rio de Janeiro to the south and the Serra dos Órgãos range of hills to the north (Wikipedia).

[3] PAC is the acronym of the Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento, the “Accelerated Growth Program” of the federal government created in 2007 during President Lula da Silva’s second term. The PAC promoted urban development, expansion of the energy grid and the nation’s social and logistic development, and contributed, directly and indirectly, to the expansion of the economy and the job market [translator’s note].