Fake news, misinformation and accusations of crimes against the homeland: that was how members of the Bolsonaro government reacted to campaigns and denunciations by civil society about deforestation and forest fires in the Amazon, Cerrado and Pantanal regions. President Bolsonaro set the tone of the reaction: in his weekly live broadcast on September 3, he compared NGOs working in defense of the Amazon to a “cancer”.
The president referred to the movement launched by Brazilian activists at the end of August with the motto “Defund Bolsonaro”, which angered government supporters. The campaign video says that Bolsonaro allows the destruction of the Amazon with the support of large companies and ends with the challenge: “Which side are you on? The Amazon or Bolsonaro?”. Civil society entities such as the Climate Observatory and the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil Network (APIB) helped to disseminate the material. There was an organized movement to bring down the initiative’s Instagram profile. According to a report in the newspaper O Globo, messages with instructions to report the campaign circulated in WhatsApp groups on September 6th.
On the 9th, the Minister of the Environment, Ricardo Salles, Vice President Hamilton Mourão and Federal Deputy Eduardo Bolsonaro shared a “video response” that declared that the Amazon was not burning, withheld data from National Space Research Institute (Inpe) and used images of the tamarin golden lion, an endangered species that lives only in the Atlantic Rainforest, thousands of miles away from the Amazon. The video had English narration and was signed by the ruralist association of Pará State. Part of the images that appear in the ruralist video were from the Greenpeace collection and, therefore, used without authorization. The NGO requested the takedown of the video for infringing copyrights and the piece ended up being removed from Twitter.
Actor Leonardo DiCaprio, meanwhile, retweeted the original “Defund Bolsonaro” video, generating a new wave of reactions. The government’s denialist speech was countered by NGOs and experts with data from Inpe who pointed out that the number of hot spots in the Amazon between January 1 and September 9, 2020, is the highest in the last ten years, with a 6% growth when compared to 2019.
On September 13, false posts on social networks accused NGOs of being responsible for the fires in the Amazon. The posts used a 2014 photo of indigenous people arresting illegal loggers as if the image was current and the detainees were members of NGOs. Several fact-checking agencies pointed to the posts as fake news.
The following week, it was the turn of General Augusto Heleno, chief minister of the Institutional Security Office (GSI) of the Presidency of the Republic, to attack Apib for supporting the Defund Bolsonaro campaign. In a post published on his social media profiles, Heleno accused Apib of being the organization behind the campaign website, whose objectives would be “to publish fake news against Brazil, to impute environmental crimes to the President of the Republic and to support a worldwide boycott against Brazilian products”. The general also affirmed that Sônia Bone Guajajara, coordinator of Apib, is linked to Leonardo DiCaprio, “a staunch critic of the country” and concluded by saying that “the Apib website is associated with several others who work 24 hours a day to tarnish our image on abroad and commit crimes against the homeland“.
In a note, Apib rejected the general’s statement, saying that “the biggest crime that harms our country is the government’s failure to curb the destruction of our biomes, aid protected areas, stop illegal fires, land grabbing, deforestation and the invasion of our lands and theft of our wealth. On the eve of the UN General Assembly, the whole world is witnessing this crime – too big to be concealed (…). The accusations, besides being frivolous and misleading, are irresponsible because they put at risk the personal safety of those mentioned. Apib will study the appropriate measures“.