Illustration Credit: Nando Motta
In Brazil—still in the throes of the pandemic, as evidenced by the country’s ignominious passage through the threshold of 500,000 dead from COVID-19—public dissatisfaction with the government of President Jair Bolsonaro collided this week with a looming socio-environmental catastrophe: a historic drought that has parched large swathes of Brazil’s Centro-Oeste (i.e., the states of Goiás and Mato Grosso do Sul) and populous southeast (in particular, São Paulo, Minas Gerais, and Paraná, three of the most populous states in the country) in advance of the annual Amazon wildfire season. On the Brazilian side of Iguaçu Falls, the world’s largest waterfall system, the typical torrent of the Iguaçu River has slowed to a trickle amid the worst recorded drought in nearly a century; meanwhile, to the west, two early summer wildfires have already swept through deforested regions of the Amazon rainforest.
Brazil’s national meteorological agency has warned that the aforementioned five states—which have a combined population of some 90 million people—may face chronic water shortages from the end of June until September. Even Bolsonaro—historically, fairly cavalier in the face of crisis, be it epidemiological or environmental—has taken notice, declaring that “the worst hydrological crisis in [Brazil’s] history” would create “headaches” for livelihoods and daily routines. Meanwhile, medical experts have warned of potential complications for the country’s fight against COVID-19, with water shortages and wildfire-fueled air pollution threatening to exacerbate respiratory illness and place further pressure on Brazil’s strained public health infrastructure. Experts have expressed fears that Indigenous Amazonian communities—already besieged by COVID-19, state neglect, land invasions, and violent incursions by illegal loggers, ranchers, and miners—stand to be most affected by the health repercussions of a severe fire season.
As Brazil’s laggardly pandemic response—and in particular, its languorous vaccine rollout, which has thus far fully vaccinated less 12 percent of the population—persists, public outrage spilled out into the streets for the second day of national, anti-government demonstrations in a month. In protests that took place in 22 of 26 Brazilian states, as well as in the capital of Brasília, hundreds of thousands called for Bolsonaro’s immediate resignation, impeachment, and arrest, charging him with “genocide” for the haphazard government response that continues to preside over 100,000 cases and 2,000 deaths per day. Saturday’s demonstrations occurred less than a week after Bolsonaro had convened his own mass event: a motorcycle rally involving an estimated 12,000 riders in the heart of São Paulo’s Parque Ibirapuera (for which the president was fined the equivalent of USD $110 by the São Paulo state government for failing to adhere to its mask mandate). Despite his plummeting popularity and approval ratings, Bolsonaro’s motorcade nevertheless functioned as a flexing of his political movement’s muscle, a demonstration of the fanatical devotion that he still commands with a significant (albeit shrinking) slice of the Brazilian electorate, ahead of what is shaping up to be a difficult reelection bid in 2022.
Meanwhile, in Brasília, security forces attempted on Tuesday to clear an encampment where Indigenous activists and leaders had been living for two weeks, demonstrating in opposition to legislation proposed in Brazil’s National Congress that would inhibit the future recognition of Indigenous territories and threaten existing legal protections for Indigenous reserves—potentially exposing such lands to commercial agriculture, mining, and other extractive industries.