Brazilian 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.” [Continue reading…]