Bolsonara, Brazil, populism, amazon fires

The Amazon fires as talking to Bolsonaro

16 minutes to read
Daniel Silva

The current era of emerging forms of populisms in the world is bringing novel vocabularies, sentiments, and modes of political action into political systems. In the United States, the populism of Donald Trump is unprecedented in many senses. It would be unimaginable that the preceding leaders in the U.S. executive backed a wall to separate the country from Mexico, that they called people fleeing violence in Central America “invaders”, or that they openly supported physical violence against enemies as Trump does in his speeches. In the context of the recent impeachment case that is being shaped in the U.S. congress, Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, said that the content of the accusations of a C.I.A. whistle blower against Trump – i.e., that he used his privilege as sitting president to demand interference from a foreign country into the next national elections – is “totally unprecedented” (Fandos 2019). 

Bolsonaro's digital populism

In Italy, the almost immediate success of the Five Star Movement in the elections of 2013 – when the populist party that had been created just four years earlier won 25% of the seats in the first time it contested in an Italian election – was astonishing to the political establishment. Created by a comedian, Beppe Grillo, and by a web strategist, Gianroberto Casallegio, the Five Star Movement followed the logics of the digitalization of social life (Jacquemet 2019, Cesarino 2019). That is, the Five Star gathered users-voters by exploiting affordances of digital media, like the possibility of immediate interactions between geographically distant people or the chance of a user directly interacting with an influencer, and by relying on algorithms to break down numbers about users’ preferences and biographic data into appropriately segmented messages and suggestions. In explaining the electoral success of the media strategy of this new political party, Ico Maly calls this "algorithmic populism", and Darren Loucaides (2019) wrote: “Nothing like this had happened before in modern Italian politics”. 

The populist movements in the world exploit the changes in patterns of socialization and communication that digital technologies brought about

In Brazil, the populist discourse of Jair Bolsonaro and his digital strategy are novel in many senses. Brazil left a 21-year military dictatorship in 1985, and since then no other leader of the executive would have dared to say that indigenous peoples are an “impediment” to Brazil’s development, that as “they don’t speak our language and own 14% of the national territory”, they should adapt and “develop” to “civilized” standards (Jornal GGN 2019, Revista Exame 2019). In no other incumbency a sitting president in Brazil would publicly tell the president of Brazil’s Bar Association, Felipe Santa Cruz, that he could disclose the details about the murder of his father under the military regime; no other president would openly discredit and reduce the power of action of IBAMA, the agency responsible for environmental enforcement; no other president would fire a renowned physicist like Ricardo Galvão, the scientist who directed INPE, Brazil’s Space Agency, for not believing the data about deforestation that INPE is obliged by law to disclose every month.

In addition to this new political register – that is, an ordered and stratified assemblage of forms of talk that index certain ways of belonging in the world (Agha 2007; Blommaert 2014) –, the Bolsonaro campaign innovated in the election last year by creating a very complex hierarchic amalgam of WhatsApp groups to disseminate his tropes. As we have seen, Ico Maly calls this strategy "algorithmic populism", and Leticia Cesarino (2018, 2019, in press) based on now fourteen months of ethnography into these WhatsApp groups, has termed it “digital populism”, that is, the transformation of classical aspects of populism (Laclau 2005, Mouffe 2019) – like hegemony through the construction of opposing camps, opposition to an “enemy”, and affective attachment to the leader – into digital networks and formats.

These populist movements in the world have a lot in common: they exploit the changes in patterns of socialization and communication that digital technologies brought about; they bring outsiders like Trump or alleged outsiders like Bolsonaro (who instead had been an elected congressman for almost three decades) promising to fight an enemy; they share similar agendas and political strategists, like Steve Bannon, Trump’s political adviser, who helped to devise Bolsonaro’s electoral strategy and declared to be an enthusiast of the Five Star Movement (Loucaides 2019). In this text, I want to demonstrate that the efficacy of Bolsonaro’s populist strategy draws its force from the combination between the digitalization of populism and a recent process of enregisterment (Agha 2007) in Brazil that enabled the new political register that I briefly characterized above. 

Jair Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo, poses in a picture with Steve Bannon, two months ahead of the national election in 2018, thereby indicating that right-wing populisms around the world are connected

The Amazon Fires as political talk

The entire world was appalled by the fires in the Amazon region in August this year. On August 19, the city of S. Paulo, distant some 2,800 km from the foci of the fires, saw the day become night due to the fumes and their amalgamation into a dark rain that travelled all the way from the Amazon to Brazil’s largest city. A combination of the smoke from the Amazonian fires and other atmospheric conditions made the smoke travel across a distance like the one separating the cities of Lisbon and Berlin (Agencia Fapesp 2019).

Scientists assessing the available meteorology data point that the fires between January and August this year in the region are 77% higher than the same period in 2018 (BBC 2019). The University of S. Paulo climatologist Carlos Nobre said that it is very likely that the numbers spiked for human rather than natural reasons, as the region “has not been usually dry” this year (Boadle and Stargardter 2019). Thus the scientific evidence so far point that illegal deforestation and the clearing of land for cattle breeding are the main reasons for the rising numbers of fire this year, as opposed to more than a decade of decreasing digits since Marina Silva, an environmentalist who served from 2003 to 2008 as minister of Environment under Lula’s government, designed a stark policy against deforestation in the Amazon. 

One of Brazil’s leading newspapers, O Estado de S. Paulo, published a cover picture of the “afternoon that turned into night”, on August 20. Scientists later found that the fumes came all the way from the fires in the Amazon.

Here, I intend to correlate the fumes that the world saw in the Amazon and Bolsonaro’s novel register of political talk in Brazil. In other words, my point is that the staggering fires that we saw in the world’s most diverse biome this year are a consequence, and an index of, the new digital rhetoric in the Brazilian executive. Below, I will link criminal and journalistic evidence of a local digital movement in the Amazon known as Dia do Fogo, or Fire Day, and Bolsonaro’s ongoing plan of exploiting resources, deregulating the environment, and disrespecting human and nature’s rights in the Brazilian rainforest.

The Fire Day, as I said, is a token of both the digitalization of populism that Cesarino (2019) has described and of the enregisterment of a right-wing populism that I have been invested in delineating (Silva 2019). Let’s look at how this political semiotic register was enacted. August 10th, nine days before the fumes reached S. Paulo, is now nationally known as the Fire Day (Phillips 2019, Matias 2019, Machado 2019). Five days before, a newspaper from the small town of Novo Progresso, located inside the Zone of Environmental protection of Jamanxin, in the Amazonian state of Pará, published an article warning that farmers were planning to lit fire in the region (Folha do Progresso, 2019). 

The newspaper article reads:

“Backed by the words of President Bolsonaro, farmers and/or cattle breeders in the region of the Road BR 163 chose the date of August 10 to set fires for cleaning pasture and felling trees.

The Newspaper talked this week to some of the movement’s leaders. On August 10, they want to call the attention of authorities in the region about the fact that the advance in the production is happening without the support of the government. ‘We need to tell the President that we want to work, and the only way to do so is by felling down the forest, and the only way to clean and form the pastures is with fire’, they claim.” (Folha do Progresso, 2019)

A newspaper in the city of Novo Progresso, in the Amazonian state of Pará, published a news piece five days before the “fire day”. Brazilian authorities, including the Ministries of Justice and Environment, were warned about the crime, but they refused to

In a dry forest, the message of fire propagates easily. Even though news outlets reported on the irrationality of setting fire randomly in the forest, the farmers and land grabbers of Novo Progresso and the City of Altamira in Pará had a semiotic rationalization in their concerted action. Their going down in the forest to tear down trees and set them on fire was a way to tell Bolsonaro that they heard the message about his curbing of environmental enforcement, his attack on indigenous peoples, and his green light on predatorial activities in the forest. Through the medium of fire, they were both sending a message of back-up to the executive and asking for additional support to their activity in the region.

The propagation of fire was made possible through the same digital mechanism in which the political apparatus of Bolsonaro has been formed and spread. Leticia Cesarino (in press) and other analysts have pointed that the main novelty in Bolsonaro’s election has to do with the reliance of the campaign on the affordances of WhatsApp. Digitally, a hidden industrial marketing created a sophisticated and intricate digital network to distribute messages pro-Bolsonaro, a process of dissemination first enacted in a hierarchy of WhatsApp groups, then recycled on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram interactions (Pavarin 2019).

Users could initiate their own digital groups and replicate these messages, fractalizing the support for and identification with the leader across different scales. Cesarino points that some discursive patterns could be easily learnt and replicated in the Bolsonarist digital sphere. One of such patterns is the possibility, proper of digital media, of potentially interacting with the leader (the influencer, the Youtuber, the president) without the traditional layers of mediation in analogic spheres of communication or in institutional politics. In pro-Bolsonaro messages and videos that circulate in the digital word, it is very common to find utterances such as “please make this message reach the president”. 

It is exactly this potential of direct, unmediated communication, exploited by political parties such as the Five Star in Italy and Bolsonaro’s PSL in Brazil, that was harnessed by the farmers and land-grabbers in Novo Progresso and Altamira. In a WhatsApp Group called “Sertão”, or Hinterland, 70 people planned to tear plants down and to start the fires. Everything had been devised in advance for the Fire Day (Rodrigues 2019). Workers from other parts of the Amazon and from the Northeast region were hired. New chainsaws were purchased. A current criminal investigation is now being carried out by the Federal Police and the by Brazil’s General Prosecution. Paulo de Tarso Oliveira, a Federal Prosecutor, told BBC Brazil that “it is possible that hundreds of people may have participated in the crime” (Machado 2019). 

The propagation of fire was made possible through the same digital mechanism in which the political apparatus of Bolsonaro has been formed and spread.

The article published 5 days before the Fire Day stress that farmers and land grabbers of Novo Progresso felt empowered by Bolsonaro’s words: “Backed by the words of President Bolsonaro, farmers and/or cattle breeders in the region (…) chose the date of August 10 to set fires for cleaning pasture and felling trees”. They knew that the president had fired Ricardo Galvão, the renowned physicist who directed INPE. In July, the president did not agree with the numbers about deforestation in Brazil this year, and in a clear anti-science move fired Galvão for “publicizing alarming numbers in a shallow manner” and for “not being a patriot.” (Meteoro Brasil 2019) The Novo Progresso farmers also knew that the IBAMA post in the city had been closed down because the Justice Minister, Sergio Moro, withdrew the national security force from the region. Without armed protection, the IBAMA enforcement simply does not exist. 

Information about this concerted plan was leaked to the environmental agencies at least two days before the Fire Day. The agencies communicated federal prosecutors and the justice minister, and yet no security force was offered for supporting an IBAMA action to stop the protest of farmers’ protest. An enforcement agent told the Agency Amazonia Real, “The minister Moro knew about it. We need security in the operations against deforestation and criminal fires” (Amazonia Real 2019).

It is thus very likely that Bolsonaro knew about this concerted action, and yet he didn’t acknowledge at first that the fires were being caused by farmers, much less that these farmers were sending him a message. When asked to comment on the situation, he accused NGOs and indigenous peoples of setting fire in the forest to cause harm to his image. He presented no evidence to support his accusation, and climate experts immediately disputed his claims. 

Fire and enregisterment          

How is the political message sent through fire by farmers and land grabbers in the Amazon connected to the enregisterment of a new right-wing political language in Brazil? Let’s first go back to Agha’s (2007) theorization of enregisterment. His point is that a register is always the crystallization of a semiotic process – an interval in a chain of semiotic encounters that over a certain period of time become ritualized and conventionalized. Agha discusses, for instance, how in the 18th century the phonolexical register now known as Standard British English was formed.

In the early 17thcentury, there was no such thing as a standard pronunciation of English. Through documental evidence, Agha describes how metadiscourses about lower status forms of uttering the sounds of English, and about “proper” ways of pronouncing them, began to circulate, first in manuals of etiquette and then in novels and other public discourses such as schooling manuals and the Queen’s speeches. In a relatively short period of the history of Britain, people began to mutually focus their attention to a “thing” – a cultural value now labeled Standard pronunciation – that previously did not exist as a nameable category. To use Agha’s technical terms, the Received Pronunciation of English (RP) thus became enregistered as an elite phonolexical register.

A similar process is at work in Brazil. It is unimaginable that land grabbers would have felt so empowered by the discourse of a former president to the point of going to the forest and setting it on fire as way to demonstrate their support. In a recent work (Silva 2019), I describe how Bolsonaro’s campaign captured emerging tropes of right-wing membership and dissatisfaction with the “system” that had been floating in Brazil, and thereby created for himself an image of a man who behaves, dresses, and talks like the “people”. Some six years ago, Bolsonaro was relatively unknown in the national political debate – his appearances in the media were often caricatural, but unable to gather the massive attention that he does today. 

In the delegitimation of the political establishment that began in the large-scale protests in 2013 by people who took it to the streets to protest for a myriad of causes, ranging from the quality of public services to the high spending on mega-events, Bolsonaro increasingly coopted the sentiments of dissatisfaction with institutional politics. With the help of his three sons who are also elected representatives, he created his social media accounts in 2013, and since then has gathered millions of followers (Sawczuk da Silva 2019). 

The new right-wing register that has emerged in Brazil fits the lines of the populist mechanism that has been delineated by Ernesto Laclau (2005) and Chantal Mouffe (2019). This register translates popular demands that were not responded by neoliberal social-democratic governance – like rising unemployment, increasing deindustrialization, and insecurity – and anxieties entertained by conservative Christian movements – like the fear of homosexual indoctrination in schools, movements against “gender ideology” and abortion, initiatives for defending pro-heterosexual families – into a coherent bundle of otherwise contradictory tropes.

This register then opposes these forms of text and talk to an enemy – iconized by (a combination between) a “corrupt” system, represented by the social-democratic center left and center right that had led Brazil’s executive since the end of dictatorship; politically correct language, seen as way that the left found to suppress popular demands; human rights, seen as “privilege for criminals”; transnational NGOs, construed as part of a globalist plot to take over the Amazon; communism, expressed by Lula’s entanglements with Latin American socialist countries, and his party’s plan of corrupting politics and perverting society. Finally, this register indexes an affective identification with the leader – e.g., “he is a myth”, “he talks what he thinks” – and with his outrageous speech (seen as a liberation from the muzzle of politically correct language). 

Progressives all around the world are worried about the rise of reactionary populism. Perhaps it is not by saying that these different others are irrational that the progressive field should respond to their demands. What Chantal Mouffe (2019) says is that the world lives a moment of populism, resulting (among other reasons) from problems in the neoliberal consensus of politics seen as administrative bureaucracy. And politicians and social scientists alike must be able to address the people, to recognize a democratic core in their fears, and to shape a register for offering progressive responses to them. 



Agencia Fapesp (2019) Pesquisadores descrevem trajetória do “rio de fumaça” que escureceu São Paulo. [Researchers describe trajectory of “river of smoke” that made São Paulo dark] Agencia Fapesp, August 22, 2019

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