RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s furious reaction to foreign criticism of his handling of Amazon fires reflects the sacred place the vast region occupies in the minds of Brazil’s military, for whom the rainforest is almost a raison d’être.
While many around the world view the Amazon as a vital defence against climate change, within Brazil’s military the sparsely developed region represents a sprawling, resource-rich asset that they believe foreigners are desperate to control.
That helps explain why Bolsonaro, a far-right former army captain, reacted with fury to the world’s condemnation of his handling of the fires and initially slapped down many of its offers of help.
“There is foreign interest in the mineral wealth and biodiversity of the Amazon,” retired General Paulo Chagas, a friend of Bolsonaro’s, told Reuters. “When (foreigners) speak of protecting the Indians and the environment, that is just a cover to justify outside interference.”
“President Bolsonaro believes this totally. It comes from the cradle, the military academy.”
But the Amazon is not just a potent symbol of national sovereignty for the armed forces, officials, former soldiers and experts said.
It has also given Brazil’s embattled military, buffeted by budget cuts and demoralized after years of hostile leftist administrations, an area to defend on a continent where it faces few real foes. It maintains a significant presence in the Amazon, manning battalions, building roads and staffing military hospitals in the remote jungle region.
Xavier Arnauld, a French academic who has studied the military’s role in the Amazon, said the area was a vital part of the armed forces’ identity.
“An army needs enemies,” he said. “In peacetime, when a country has financial difficulties, the temptation to reduce the army’s budget is huge. With this discourse, the army doesn’t only justify its budget, but it also gives it a mission.”
The jump in Amazon forest fires this year has created an international crisis for Bolsonaro, threatening his efforts to ignite Brazil’s sickly economy and trade more with the world.
As global outrage over the fires spread, many pointed fingers at Brazil’s president for rolling back environmental protections to benefit agribusiness producers.
Bolsonaro responded by suggesting, without providing evidence, that international non-governmental organizations may have started the blazes. He also chafed at offers of foreign aid, and told critics like French President Emmanuel Macron to mind their own business and stop disrespecting Brazil’s sovereignty.
Although Bolsonaro’s reaction may have surprised foreign leaders, his views have played better in Brazil, and particularly within the military. In response to foreign criticism, Bolsonaro finally announced this week that the army would help fight the fires.
Bolsonaro is an outspoken admirer of the 1964-85 military dictatorship, which took power in a U.S.-backed coup to stop an alleged communist plot to take over Brazil. One of its main missions was opening Brazil’s vast interior to development.
His election immediately elevated the standing of the armed forces, which had grown increasingly restive under more than a decade of leftist administrations.
Since taking office in January, Bolsonaro has placed at least 10 senior army and navy officials in his cabinet, giving military ideology a strong voice in his administration.
Former generals in the cabinet include Vice President Hamilton Mourão, and national security advisor Augusto Heleno, who in 2008 resigned from the army’s top job in the Amazon after criticizing the then-leftist government’s indigenous policies.
In an op-ed this week, Mourão decried “an international campaign against Brazil... to neutralise Brazilian sovereignty over our part of the Amazon region.”
The son of a wildcat miner who worked the Amazon’s illicit pits, Bolsonaro was imbued with a pioneer spirit from a young age. After passing through the Black Needles Military Academy, Brazil’s version of West Point, he enjoyed a short-lived military career, lacking in distinction.
“The Brazilian army... influences (Bolsonaro) in the sense that it is a school of patriotism underpinned by the idea of sovereignty... in the Amazon,” Brazilian Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo told Reuters.
Brazil’s military has long been at the forefront of Amazon exploration, joining with missionaries and land-hungry entrepreneurs who trekked deep into the jungle seeking exotic goods, indigenous souls and the outer limits of the new nation.
Yet aside from a brief war with Paraguay in the 19th century and an expeditionary force that joined the Allies during World War Two, Brazil’s military has seen little real combat. These days, the armed forces are mainly engaged in the odd public security mission, infrastructure projects and helping during natural disasters.
Arnauld said that during the 1960s, the dictatorship reframed ideas of the Amazon, arguing that developing the region was key to protecting national security.
That ideology was best summed up by government slogans from the time: “integrate so as not to forfeit” and “give a land without men to men without land”.
The military’s presence in the region remains formidable.
“Here we have an economy that very much revolves around our soldiers,” said Herivaneo Seixas, the mayor of Humaita, a town in Amazonas state which is also home to the immaculate 54th Jungle Infantry Battalion.
Tassio Franchi, an Amazon expert at the Brazilian Army Command and General Staff School, said the military’s fears were justified in a dangerous, lawless region, surrounded by the world’s top three cocaine-producing nations.
“It’s necessary to guarantee presence, the possession and control of the territory,” he said.
Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter, Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle and Jake Spring; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Rosalba O'Brien