RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — In the Brazilian Amazon these days, it's nearly impossible to run for office talking up the environment.
More common is a scene like this: A candidate for Congress parades a helicopter — the symbol of illegal gold mining — painted with the Brazilian flag, through the streets of the Amazon city of Boa Vista. He defends a gold rush that has devastated Indigenous territories and contaminated rivers. In a neighboring state an Indigenous candidate stops wearing green clothing in public out of fear of violence.
Like all Brazilians, residents of the vast Amazon region will elect governors and lawmakers in October’s general elections. But as the campaign takes the streets, few candidates or voters are talking about current record-breaking deforestation rates or other environmental problems.
Instead, many politicians vie for who has a bolder promise to relax legal restrictions on gold mining, expand deforestation for agribusiness or pave highways through the forest. The few who run on an environmental platform struggle to compete and face public hostility.
Amid widespread poverty and lack of economic opportunities besides those that are environmentally damaging, Amazon voters have increasingly favored politicians who frame legal protection of the world’s largest tropical rainforest as a barrier to development.
A survey carried out by the website ((o))eco news found that most lawmakers from Brazil’s nine Amazon states voted in favor of five major bills that soften environmental laws, from opening Indigenous territories to mining, to legalizing land-robbing. In three of the votes, representatives from the Amazon region voted more heavily in favor than those from other parts of Brazil.
ONE OUT OF MORE THAN A HUNDRED
Today, just 1 of the 118 lawmakers in Congress representing the Amazon was elected on a socio-environmental platform. Joênia Wapichana, only the second Indigenous leader elected to the national parliament in Brazil's history, is from Roraima state, where Indigenous people make up 11% of the population, the highest in the country.
In her bid for reelection, one of her opponents is a gold prospector and businessman named Rodrigo Martins de Mello who has used a helicopter as the trademark of his campaign. Aircraft is the only way to transport prospectors and equipment to remote Indigenous reserves, such as that belonging to the Yanomami people, where most illegal gold mining occurs in Roraima.
“It is mining that brings money to Boa Vista’s commerce,” Mello said through a microphone from the back of a pickup truck. Behind him, a much larger truck rolled forward, transporting the helicopter emblazoned with the Brazilian flag, now a symbol of support for far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.
In a phone interview with The Associated Press, Mello, who is campaigning under the name Rodrigo Cataratas, (Rodrigo Waterfall in English), promised to defend the rights of prospectors, who he estimated number 40,000.
The tendency to discount the value of the forest is stronger in regions where migrants of European ancestry arrived in the 1960s and '70s. To attract people to the Amazon, the military government at that time built roads, turned a blind eye to a chaotic gold rush and gave away vast swaths of pristine rainforest where isolated Indigenous tribes lived. Disease and forced displacement brought some groups to the brink of extermination.
That is the case in Rondonia, where most cities were founded beginning in the 1970s by such migrants from southern Brazil. Today it is one of the most deforested Amazon states and a large beef producer, with soybean agriculture on the uptick.
Last year, Rondonia’s State Assembly voted unanimously 17 to 0 to reduce a protected area by 2,200 square kilometers (850 square miles), an area larger than greater London, to allow in illegal cattle ranchers and open rainforest to agribusiness. Governor Marcos Rocha, a staunch ally of Bolsonaro, signed the law. It was later ruled unconstitutional by a state court.