Amazon and the International Order: From Promise to Peril

This Argument appears in vol. 75, no. 1, "Insecurities: The 75th Anniversary Issue, 1947-2022" (Fall/Winter 2022).

By Guilherme Casarões and Déborah Barros Leal Farias


The Amazon region sprawls across nine South American countries and is home to some 38 million inhabitants—28 million in Brazil alone. It encompasses the world’s largest rainforest, river basin, and aquifer, as well as massive mineral reserves and hundreds of indigenous groups. Amazonia, as we often refer to the region, is intertwined with some of the most pressing global challenges, from human rights to border security, from biodiversity to climate change. Yet, the place the Amazon occupies in multilateral discussions is still unclear. Given the sovereign logic of the current international order, debates over how to tap into the human, natural, and mineral resources of the Amazon are always intertwined with nationalist and territorial concerns of all kinds. This is particularly true in Brazil, home to almost two-thirds of rainforest’s massive area, which in turn constitutes an equivalent two-thirds of the Brazilian territory. There is no way of detaching forest and country: most of the Amazon is in Brazil and most of Brazil is in the Amazon.

The ongoing and increasing degradation of the Amazon is a source of insecurity for both the Amazonian nations and the rest of the world. Tensions between framing rainforests as a public commons and safeguarding national sovereignty over its resources represent the fundamental paradox of today’s international system. In Brazil, for example, fears of foreign powers willing to take control of the forest’s riches have been for decades a salient theme of political discussions. To many environmental activists and foreign governments, in turn, the fear is that predatory exploitation of the Amazon could lead to climate insecurity with the potential to affect the lives of people from across the globe. But the Amazon has only recently been placed at the forefront of the international order: the understanding of the links between the environment, human security, and economic development are relatively new and have evolved together with the normative and institutional framework of the current international system.

In 1992, as Brazil was preparing to host the world’s largest environmental summit of the century, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), one of the country’s leading scholars on the Amazon, Samuel Benchimol, summarized the Amazonian (and Brazilian) dilemma as an evolving two-pronged threat of internationalization and planetarization: while internationalization “is a process of transferring and alienating national political sovereignty” in favor of the interests (economic or otherwise) of a foreign power or supranational entity, planetarization is “a false currency defended by scientists according to which the world must maintain the virginity of the Amazon rainforest to safeguard the survival of the planet.”[1] The conflation of international greed and conservationist alarmism over the Amazon has caused great distress not only in Brazil and South America, but also in many global circles. This is a puzzle that the international community has yet to solve.

In this article, we investigate the place of the Amazon in the international system throughout history. We argue that, from a global perspective, the Amazon has moved from a source of prosperity to insecurity, while in Brazil the vast rainforest, once seen as a geographical liability, has been occupied, integrated, and developed precisely to allay common fears of losing sovereignty over the region. To this end, we undertake a historical descriptive analysis, seeking to reconstruct the global and national role of the Amazon vis-à-vis the development of the international system.

Our argument is divided into four parts. First, from the construction of the modern international order—based on sovereignty and great-power colonial disputes—until World War II, the rainforest was treated both as a terra incognita (uncharted land) and a terra nullius (no-man’s land). The second section looks at the rise of the first grand movement calling for some flexibility in sovereign control over the Amazon, albeit relatively timidly and more focused on scientific endeavors. The third focuses on the initial moments of rise of the environmental movement of the 1970s in the context of North-South and third world narratives of global power, which intersected with growing calls from developed countries’ proposals for internationalization of Brazil’s Amazon. Then, we discuss a more contemporary scenario, starting with Rio 92 and Brazil’s engagement with the international system over the Amazon and the domestic pushback against any external interference, followed closely by concerns (and conspiracy theories) over breaches in the country’s sovereignty. We finish the paper by looking briefly at the current scenario attentive to the “securitization” of climate change and spillovers of this approach upon the Amazon. In doing so, we provide an arch that spans from the discovery of the Amazon to modern day Brazil and an international system that has (re)framed it in a Janus-faced manner: as both a promise and a threat for mankind.

From Terra Incognita to Terra Nullius: the Amazon among Colonial Powers

The modern history of the Amazon begins with the colonial voyages made on behalf of the Spanish and Portuguese empires. Even though Portuguese explorers had probably sailed Amazon waters around 1498, official records suggest that Spaniard Vicente Pinzón was the first European to reach the Amazon River in 1500, naming it the Mar Dulce, or the freshwater sea.[2] Four decades later, a compatriot of his, Francisco de Orellana, sailed the river from close to its source in the Andes to the Atlantic. It was not until 1638, however, that the trip was made in the reverse direction by the Portuguese. A vast and inhospitable rainforest cut by massive rivers, Amazonia was seen by European colonizers of the 16th and 17th centuries as either an “Eldorado,” where they would find immeasurable riches, or a “Green Hell” that was simply impossible to tame.[3]

The Iberian kingdoms had the advantage of establishing the first settlements in the mouths of the Amazon River. Unable to explore its inlands, French, English, and Dutch explorers ended up colonizing the forest’s northern coastal fringe in what corresponds today to the Guyanas. In the meantime, the Portuguese bandeirantes—slavers, explorers, adventurers, and fortune hunters—based around São Paulo slowly moved north and westwards, taking over the vast areas of jungle and savannah left fallow by the absence of European settlements in what would have been Spanish domain under the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas.[4] In 1621, while Portugal was under Spanish control,[i] the State of Grão-Pará and Maranhão, encompassing the Portuguese Amazonian lands, was established as a separate entity from Brazil, later reincorporated into the colony in 1774.[5]

In 1750, following a series of de facto territorial rearrangements at the heart of South America, Spain and Portugal agreed to the Treaty of Madrid, which granted the Portuguese Empire almost the entirety of Brazil’s current borders, including some 60% of the total Amazonian territory. Five years later, then-Prime Minister of Portugal, the Marquis of Pombal, established the General Company of Grão-Pará and Maranhão, a trading company aimed at exploiting natural resources and spices, as well as cattle ranching. To defend the newly-acquired territory, military garrisons were stationed in strategic areas. Pombal also moved to change the region’s demographics, abolishing indigenous slavery in 1755, transforming religious villages into civil municipalities, and encouraging the miscegenation between whites and indigenous people in the region.

Over the next two centuries, Amazonia witnessed a period of relative calm. Brazil’s independence in 1822, with the Southern metropole of Rio de Janeiro as its capital, did not break the isolation of the Amazonian provinces or the long-standing policy of keeping the Amazonian heartland from foreign interference. At the height of the developments in the study of natural history in Europe, scientific expeditions dominated Western interest in the region. While some were genuine, others concealed ambitious economic interests on the part of Great Britain and the United States, to the chagrin of the Brazilian Empire.[6] After decades of British and American pressure, as well as their attempts to enter the Amazon through neighboring countries like Bolivia and Peru (at times through the expedient of chartered companies), Brazilian Emperor D. Pedro II reluctantly opened the Amazon River to international navigation in 1866.

One of the leading figures in inducing Brazil to “abandon the policy of seclusion and unlock the door of the Amazon to the world’s commerce”[7] was U.S. Navy Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury. Serving as Superintendent of the U.S. Observatory and Hydrographical Office, Maury threw the weight of his prestige to convince the U.S. government to force the Amazon open to international trade.[8] Among his arguments were the expansionist, Manifest Destiny-understanding of the Amazon River as a “natural” continuation of the Mississippi River valley and the chauvinistic view that “the execrable policy by which Brazil has kept shut up … from man’s—from Christian, civilized, enlightened man’s—use of the fairest portion of God’s earth, will be considered by the American people as a nuisance, not to say an outrage.”[9]

Given the precarity of international law of that time, Brazil’s sovereign interests were subdued by the power politics and imperialist leanings of the key industrial nations. The timing was convenient, as the world was going through a rubber boom, and predatory exploitation of the rainforest ensued. Until 1910, the port cities of Manaus and Belém experienced a surge of prosperity, only to be abandoned in favor of the more competitive plantations started by the British in Malaya and by the Dutch in Sumatra. Yet, during the period of international greed and local progress, tensions arose over ill-defined Amazonian boundaries. Between 1900 and 1904, territorial disputes involving Brazil and the French Guyana, the British Guyana, and Bolivia were settled through arbitration, agreements, and acquisition. The most remarkable bilateral arrangement was the Treaty of Petrópolis of 1903, whereby Brazil purchased a share of Bolivian territory,[ii] which became the Brazilian state of Acre.[10]

In the interwar period, international capital entered directly in the region with an ambitious—and completely unsuccessful—project led by Ford Motor Company in 1927. Not only did it set up two rubber plantations along the Tapajós river, but it established the city of Fordlândia, which in many ways tried to replicate a US midwestern city with little (if any) regard for the natural environment or native peoples.[11] A bit later, in 1933, Brazil’s new president Getúlio Vargas (1930-1945), who would become a dictator and lead the country throughout WWII, was the first to introduce a national project to incorporate the Amazon region into the country. His “Marcha para o Oeste” (“March to the West”) proposal incentivized migration from rural areas in the country to the Amazon region, with the federal government taking charge of modernizing the region and establishing proper channels for transportation. The Amazon was seen as empty and therefore needed to be occupied.[iii] For him, the ultimate goal was to transform the region “from a simple chapter in the Earth’s history … to a chapter in the history of civilization.”[12]

What unifies this extensive period conceptually is the relative lack of integration of the Amazon to any concept of international system. While there were specific economic interests in the region, demonstrated by some countries in some moments, the Amazon was not discussed as an “international” space, let alone to be managed by any sort of collective endeavor and/or environmental justification. The Amazon belonged to whomever had sovereign claim over it—only they were entitled to its riches, except for those non-nationals authorized by the government to reap some benefits.

Between Science and Sovereignty: UNESCO’s Hylean Amazon Initiative

The end of World War II brought significant changes to relations among states. Amid the transformations of the post-war international order, “development” became a key issue in the relationship between relatively rich and poor countries. As the threat of fascism was left behind, the realization of global-scale poverty in Asia, Africa, and Latin America became a major concern for intellectuals and policymakers, as it could drive postcolonial nations into instability and collapse. There was widespread belief that “advanced” societies, particularly the United States, could tap into their financial, institutional, and military capabilities to promote progress in societies that made up what became known as the Third World. The fate of all nations would be to eventually encounter development and modernity.[13] 

The establishment of the United Nations in 1945, as well as specialized agencies such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), would pave the way for the diffusion of scientific knowledge and development policies across the world, with global economic benefits. When Joseph Needham became the head of the Natural Sciences Section at UNESCO, in 1946, he proposed that scientific activities should be directed at Third World countries through international cooperation, in an effort to promote global development. The establishment of UNESCO’s Field Scientific Cooperation Offices and multinational laboratories were decisive steps toward bringing scholars and institutions from countries like Brazil, China, and India to the forefront of the scientific debate.[14]

Needham’s “periphery principle” existed at the core of the International Institute of the Hylean Amazon (IIHA) initiative. Proposed by Brazilian scientist Paulo Carneiro in 1946, it was originally aimed at providing material and scientific support to preserve the botanical, zoological, and ethnological collections at Brazil’s Emilio Goeldi Museum, located in the state of Pará, as well as helping to promote scientific cooperation between Amazonian countries. However, drawing on the support of Brazilian diplomacy and taking advantage of the post-war renewed multilateral impetus, Carneiro wanted to turn the institute into an overarching “human ecology” endeavor. In his own words, the IIHA was part of a broader global movement that brought together environmental and development concerns: “The extent and gravity of the perishing of the Earth, in an irreversible process, has caused global alarm. Today, a legion of scientists is mobilized around an international campaign to protect nature and its mineral, vegetable, and natural resources.”[15]

UNESCO’s first Director-General, English biologist Julian Huxley, saw the Hylean Amazon Institute as an opportunity to give visibility and political relevance to the organization’s work. By 1947, the IIHA had become one of UNESCO’s four priority projects. A few months after the first meetings on the viability of institute, the UN agency teamed up with the governments of Brazil and Peru to organize the Iquitos Conference, which agreed upon establishing an Interim Commission in Manaus, Brazil, before the nine founding members—Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, France, Holland, Italy, Peru, and Venezuela—each domestically ratified the convention creating the Institute.

Despite the multilateral enthusiasm for the establishment of the IIHA as part of a global scientific revolution, Brazilians received the project halfheartedly. President Dutra (1946-1951) was supportive to the initiative since it could bring much-needed international cooperation and foreign investments for developing the country’s economy. However, as Brazil experienced a post-war nationalist frenzy, debating who should be allowed to explore recently-discovered oil fields, all matters pertaining to national resources and sovereignty, including the Amazon, were viewed with great suspicion. The same coalition of politicians, military officers, intellectuals, journalists, and unionists who spearheaded the “O petróleo é nosso!” (“The oil is ours!”) campaign began mobilizing to prevent the Hylean Amazon Institute from coming into existence.[16] One of the leading figures against the IIHA was former president (1922-1926) and then-congressman Artur Bernardes, who made several speeches denouncing what he called the “internationalization of the Amazon:”

Under the pretext of creating an institute, South America is handing over all the vast Amazonian region, precisely at a time when the imperialist nations lose their colonies and, avid for resources, turn their eyes to the empty spaces of the planet…. Never before has such grave danger threatened our territorial integrity and national sovereignty.[17]

After two years of heated discussions in the Brazilian Congress and in the State Assembly of Amazonas (where the Institute was to be based), the project was shelved without even being put to a vote. By that time, Brazil had a new president with stronger nationalist leanings: Getúlio Vargas (1951-1954), a former dictator (1930-1945). His administration created a panoply of technical, development, and planning agencies, with included state oil company Petrobrás, the Superintendency for the Planning of the Economic Valorization of Amazonia (SPVEA), and the National Institute for Amazonian Research (INPA). They were all forms of promoting the Amazon’s economic and scientific development while simultaneously affirming Brazilian sovereignty over the region.[18]

This period marks a crucial transition in how the Amazon region was perceived by external actors. Albeit through an “apolitical” and technical-scientific lens, it was the first time the Amazon began to be discussed as an independent element in the international context. More than just a geographical part of Brazil and neighboring countries, not only did the Amazon exist as a unit, but it was itself worthy of international attention and study. While this interest has some positive resonance in Brazil, it would be mostly seen with caution and suspicion of external interests. The Amazon and its natural resources were starting to be framed within other ongoing discussions around developing countries’ national interests and foreign exploitation in the late 1940s and early 1950s, which would later explode in the following decades.

Occupying the Amazon, Developing the Third World

The dynamics of the Cold War curtailed the international community’s discussion of environmental issues as a global priority. Things started to change, albeit slowly, with the establishment of the Man and the Biosphere (MAB) program in 1971, sponsored by UNESCO. This new initiative was the outcome of the Biosphere Conference of 1968, which brought together other multilateral agencies, such as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Biological Program of the International Council of Scientific Unions, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.[iv] Among the core projects of MAB was the study of “ecological effects of increasing human activities on tropical and subtropical forest ecosystems.”[19]

Thanks to growing concerns about natural catastrophes and the risks to human, animal, and vegetation life posed by uncontrolled and predatory economic activity, the UN organized the Conference on the Human Environment in 1972. A direct follow-up to the discussions held at UNESCO, the Stockholm Conference was the first multilateral gathering to make the environment a global issue. Its final declaration stated that “the protection and improvement of the human environment is a major issue which affects the well-being of peoples and economic development throughout the world,” pointing out the shared responsibility of governments, citizens, and enterprises, as well as to the need for “cooperation among nations and action by international organizations in the common interest.”[20] Although the final documents approved by the 115 participating countries did not make any specific reference to the Amazon, it seemed clear that safeguarding the multinational rainforest would become a matter of increasing international engagement.

The 1972 Environmental Conference highlighted two trends that would develop in the coming decades. First, it represented the initial step towards establishing basic rules of international environmental law. The Stockholm Declaration reinforced a novel idea at the time: international law should operate beyond the state logic, bringing both individuals and international organizations into its framework and becoming an instrument of distributive justice.[21] The second trend was the deepening North-South divide in environmental discussions. When the Conference was called in 1970, “opinions among the developing nations ranged from an assumption that the problems relating to the environment were a concern for the highly-developed nations alone … to a belief that the developed nations were using environmental doomsday predictions as a racist device to keep the non-white third world at a relatively low level of development.”[22] To break the resistance across the developing world to embrace the environmental agenda, Maurice Strong, appointed Secretary-General of the upcoming Stockholm Conference, vowed to address the demands of third world countries. The result was the approval of UN General Assembly Resolution 2657, which reaffirmed that “environmental policies should be considered in the context of economic and social development, taking into account the special needs of development in developing countries.”[23]

By that time, Brazil was experiencing massive growth rates, which became known as Brazil’s “economic miracle.” The military regime that had taken over the country in 1964 saw economic development as a national imperative that should not meet any obstacles—social, political, environmental, or otherwise. As environmental discussions gained momentum at the turn of the decade, Brazil began to put pressure on Mr. Strong to drive the preparatory talks for the Stockholm Conference towards the interests of the developing world, in light of the emerging nexus between environment and development. Moreover, the Brazilian delegation vehemently rebuffed the thesis defended by advanced Western economies that the environment was a common good that had to be safeguarded by a kind of “world trust.” In a speech at the UN General Assembly prior to the Environmental Conference, Brazilian ambassador Miguel Ozório, one of the most prominent diplomats of his time, stated that “if resources are shared, in trust by all peoples, then economic power, industrial productivity and financial control should also be shared. Since the latter is unthinkable to developed countries, the former shall also be unthinkable by underdeveloped countries.”[24]

At Stockholm and beyond, Brazil was able to devise three theses that somehow became the consensus position of the developing world regarding environmental issues. The first referred to the prevalence of countries’ sovereign rights over the control, exploitation, and use of their natural and ecological resources. The second suggested that the main environmental responsibility belonged to developed countries, while developing countries should focus on overcoming their own economic stagnation. Third, and finally, was the notion that environment and development should be treated together, and that human welfare should be at the center of such concerns.[25]

Domestically, the Brazilian generals in power began setting in motion a national strategic plan centered on occupying, developing, and integrating the Amazon region into the country’s life. Influential geopolitical thinkers, such as Generals Golbery do Couto e Silva and Carlos de Meira Mattos, saw the rainforest as the core of the South American heartland and, therefore, the centerpiece of Brazil’s grand destiny as a world power.[26] This vision on the role and place of the Amazon was captured by the phrase “integrar para não entregar” (“integrate not to forfeit”). Brazil’s military regime swiftly established an all-powerful federal agency in the region, the Superintendency for the Development of the Amazon (SUDAM) and launched several plans and programs, such as Operation Amazonia in 1966 and the National Integration Plan in 1970. As a result, in the next two decades, the Brazilian government combined investments in roads, airports, telecommunications, and energy with fiscal and monetary incentives for private companies in mining, agriculture, and cattle ranching.[27] The upsurge in infrastructure projects and uncontrolled economic activities took a heavy toll on the forest, as the government changed the region’s patterns of land use and occupation.[28]

When it comes to the bigger picture of the international order, the Brazilian military regime adopted a defensive position regarding environmental issues. Moved by fears that Western powers could frame the rainforest as a global common good,[v] Brazil approached its Amazonian neighbors. In the mid-1970s, Brazil drafted a multilateral pact on the Amazon, aimed at defending the sovereignty of the region. Despite intense diplomatic efforts to persuade neighboring governments, the document raised old fears of Brazilian continental imperialism, as it echoed the views of Brazil’s geopolitical tradition. To allay these suspicions, Brazilian diplomats produced a new draft under a different rationale, now focused on environmental protection and shared development initiatives.[29] Signed by all eight Amazonian countries in July 1978, the Treaty of Amazon Cooperation was regarded as an evolution of multilateral cooperation around environmental and development issues, as unfettered national sovereignty was replaced by a regional approach in protecting the rainforest.[30]

The Eyes of the World Turn to the Lungs of the Earth

Successive multilateral negotiations and international reports, including the Stockholm Declaration and Action Plan, fell short of having any major effects on unequal world development and on environmental degradation. In 1983, the UN established the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) under the chairmanship of Gro Harlem Brundtland. After four years of collecting scientific evidence and conducting discussions with members of international agencies, governmental bodies, and NGOs, the WCED published the report Our Common Future in 1987. Among the document’s highlights was the new concept of sustainable development—one that meets the needs and aspirations of the present generation without destroying the resources needed for future generations to meet their needs. The concept revolves around two key ideas: first, meeting the needs (particularly of the world’s poor) through more equitable distribution of opportunities and resources; second, limiting growth and resource depletion imposed on the ability of the environment to meet future needs.[31]

The so-called Brundtland Report renewed international concerns over an impending ecological catastrophe. In 1988, two UN agencies, The UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), endorsed by the General Assembly, launched the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Its initial task was to prepare a comprehensive review of and recommendations on the science and socio-economic impacts of climate change, as well as potential response strategies by governments. The problem of pollution, which had been addressed by rich countries with relative success, was replaced by other issues such as global warming and loss of biodiversity.[32] The Amazon rainforest was once again poised to return to the global spotlight.

By 1988, Brazil had just completed a rocky journey to democratic transition. On the one hand, the new Brazilian democracy, inaugurated in 1985, was much more open to addressing and discussing multilateral issues as human rights, deforestation, and climate change. Brazil’s new constitution, adopted in October 1988, contained chapters on environmental protection and the demarcation of indigenous lands, which reflected the emergence of domestic environmentalist groups, including a politically-viable Green Party. At the same time, President José Sarney (1985-1990) created the Program for the Defense of the Ecosystem Complex of Legal Amazonia. Promoted under the moniker Our Nature, the program was mostly a nationalistic show at preserving the environment. It nonetheless contained some positive measures, such as the removal of fiscal incentives for farming and cattle raising in the Amazon, the strict regulation on the production and use of pesticides nationwide, and the creation of the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources.[33]

On the other hand, the combination of persisting military influence on government matters, which included Amazon policies such as the Calha Norte Project,[vi] and a particularly hostile international environment had the potential to transform Brazil into an ecological pariah. The rate of Amazon deforestation (in Brazil) had steadily accelerated since the mid-1970s, increasing from 0.6% in 1975 to 2.5% in 1980 all the way up to 12% in 1988, with a steep rise after re-democratization.[34] The staggering figures were met with alarmist coverage by the international media, such as the following New York Times report: “The destruction and burning of forest here is so vast, the scientists say, that it may account for at least one-tenth of the global man-made output of carbon dioxide, which is believed to be causing a warming of the earth through the greenhouse effect.”[35]

Representatives from advanced industrial economies—politicians, scholars, and activists alike—began searching for ways to stop Amazon deforestation. At that point, the rainforest was already being referred to as the “lungs of the world,” contributing large net amounts of oxygen to the global atmosphere, a myth that would take decades to be debunked.[36] The first suggestion came around in 1984, when US biologist Thomas Lovejoy, then vice-president for science at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), published an op-ed in the New York Times urging creditor nations or private banks to consider ameliorating the debt of poor countries, like Brazil, to help them invest in sound conservation policies. “Left untouched, the environmental problems of the third world inevitably will touch our lives by generating social and political unrest.”[37]

Within a few years, successful “debt-for-nature” swaps had taken place in Latin American countries like Bolivia and Costa Rica.[38] In Brazil, however, the project was met with generalized hostility. Politicians, military officials, and even members of civil society and scientific organizations viewed it as a gimmick for outside forces, specifically governments or multinational business interests, to undermine Brazilian sovereignty over the Amazon. President Sarney went as far as to call debt-for-nature “an intervention of foreign powers” to curb Brazil’s development using environmental concerns as an excuse.[39] Despite Brazil’s new democratic credentials, the combination of increasing environmental devastation; unprecedented violence against indigenous groups, small-scale settlers and activists; and a nationalist and apparently uncooperative government undermined the Brazilian reputation in the eyes of the developed world.[40]

Facing mounting international criticism, in 1988, Brazil made the decisive move of offering to host the next global environmental conference. It was set to take place in 1992, twenty years after Stockholm and tasked with addressing a much more ambitious environmental agenda. But Brazil’s long-awaited encounter with that environmental agenda was suddenly postponed by the tragic assassination of Amazonian activist Chico Mendes on December 22, 1988. By bringing together rubber tappers and the Yanomami Indians against the predatory interests of farmers, lumbermen, and wildcat gold miners, Mendes’ efforts to save the rainforest had caught the world’s attention and respect.[41] Mendes’s death turned him into an environmental martyr, exposing the incapacity of Brazilian authorities to protect the forest and the ones who fought for it. 

A few weeks later, a delegation of US congressmen and scientists flew to Brazil to meet with President Sarney and with local activists. Their message was clear: if the Brazilian government kept underestimating the environmental urgency, the rest of the world would have to act. A young Al Gore, who would be elected vice president three years later, told the press that “contrary to what Brazilians think, the Amazon is not their property, it belongs to all of us.”[42] French authorities went even further rhetorically. At the 1989 Hague Declaration on the Atmosphere, summoned by France, the Netherlands, and Norway, French Prime-Minister Rocard told the Brazilian delegation that Brazil was uncapable of safeguarding the Amazon, and President Mitterrand added that it was natural that third world countries surrendered their sovereignty over environmental protection issues.[43] Amazon as a

Threat to Global Security: Conspiracy or Reality?

The end of the Cold War and the rise of U.S. global hegemony coincided with a major political change in Brazilian politics. Presidents Fernando Collor de Mello (1990-1992) and Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995- 2002) struggled to adapt Brazil to the globalized international order, which involved taking up a leading role in multilateral environmental discussions. Not only did Brazil host the UN environmental conference, which became known as Rio-92, it also spearheaded the discussions that resulted in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. However, fears of internationalization of the Amazon still loomed large among Brazilian nationalists, on both the political left and right. On the far-right of the spectrum, ultranationalist Enéas Carneiro came in a surprising third place in the 1994 presidential elections, proposing, among other things, the development of nuclear arsenals to protect the Amazon riches from foreign interests. That perception was greatly amplified through conspiracy theories imported from Lyndon LaRouche’s Executive Intelligence Review and spread across the military establishment.[44]

The debate on the internationalization of the Amazon also spilled over to the public debate more broadly. In 1998, center-right Congressman Bernardo Cabral, from the state of Amazonas, made an alarmist speech to the House of Representatives, referring to the work of General Rubens Bayma Denis on the Amazon to denounce potential U.S. interference in the region. He called attention to a memorandum drafted in 1817, titled “Demobilization of the Colony of Brazil.” This document was said to have been written by U.S. Navy captain Matthew Fawry and revealed American plans to divide Brazil and establish a “Sovereign Amazonian State”. It turned out to be the first large-scale piece of fake news on the matter to spread in Brazil through the internet. Some time later, Brazil’s Military Commander of the Amazon, General Luiz Gonzaga Lessa, foresaw that foreign military interventions to protect the environment would become the “trend of the coming decade.” External interests, by way of environmental and humanitarian NGOs, had their eyes set upon the riches underneath the soil of the Amazon rainforest.

In 2000, a second piece of Amazonian fake news spread with even greater public impact. A claim was made that US school textbooks were (supposedly) referring to the Amazon as “an international territory.” Despite this being a poorly-made hoax, images were spread around the country, shared by the mainstream media and even by scientific associations. Amid these rumors, former governor of the Federal District, center-left Cristovam Buarque, published his thoughts on the internationalization of the Amazon, saying that, by the same token, the world’s oil, museums, and nuclear weapons should also be made international. He later noted: “But, as long as the world treats me as a Brazilian, I shall fight for the Amazon to remain ours. All ours.”[45]

Nevertheless, Brazil’s sound Amazon policies and active engagement with environmental issues since then have been able to allay both domestic insecurities and international anxiety on the future of the rainforest. Presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2010) and Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016) successfully slowed down the annual rates of Amazon deforestation from 27,000 km2 in 2004 to less than 5,000 km2 in 2014 while making bold multilateral commitments on reducing carbon emissions. Despite occasional criticism on Brazil’s indigenous policies and legislation on farming in protected areas, Brazil entered the 21st century bearing the status of an environmental power.[46] Although the tale of internationalization kept resurfacing once every few years—as in 2006, when the United Kingdom’s Environment Secretary David Milliband suggested privatizing the Amazon as a way of protecting it[47]—debates over the rainforest seemed to have finally shifted from external intervention to national commitments of protecting the Amazon in line with environmental standards and global expectations.

Things took a drastic turn as far-right President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019. Not only did he reframe Amazon policies under the military’s hard nationalistic stance of the 1960s and 1970s, he was also openly and unapologetically against recognizing the validity of any kind of foreign concern over the rainforest. To his administration, climate change was a hoax which belonged to an elaborate globalist conspiracy that used the environmental pretext to steal the Amazon’s rich natural resources. In line with populists elsewhere, Bolsonaro often accused Brazilians who criticized the government’s approach to the Amazon policies of being manipulated by, or conspiring with, foreign actors and their nefarious interests. Tapping into old fears of Amazon internationalization, President Bolsonaro found the leeway to undermine environmental agencies, relax legislation, and militarize the region at unprecedented levels.[48]

The short-term consequences of Bolsonaro’s Amazon stance were a steep rise in deforestation and widespread violence against indigenous and riverside populations. Images of forest fires in Amazonia in mid-2019 quickly spread on social media and caught the attention of international activists, scholars, and foreign governments. The situation only worsened when President Bolsonaro decided to dismiss the head of Brazil’s National Space Institute (INPE) for publishing a report that showed the increase in forest clearing. On social media, French President Emmanuel Macron and Swedish activist Greta Thunberg went head-to-head with Bolsonaro over the Amazon, which ended up reinforcing the Brazilian president’s popularity among supporters. Meanwhile, articles written in 2019 like Stephen Walt’s “Who Will Invade Brazil to Save the Amazon?”[49] (later renamed “Who Will Save the Amazon (and How)?” after protests) and Tyler Bellstrom’s 2019 “Brazil Is a Bigger Threat Than Iran or China”[50] became the face of the international public opinion against Bolsonaro’s inflammatory Amazon policies. However, rather than forcing the Brazilian administration to back down, global criticism only provided more ammunition for President Bolsonaro’s claims that Brazil was in fact under threat of foreign invasion. At the UN, he declared: “These sensationalist attacks we have suffered coming in large part from the international media … have aroused our patriotic sentiments…. Certain countries instead of helping embraced the media lies in a disrespectful manner and with a colonialist spirit. They even called into question that which we hold as most sacred value, our sovereignty!”[51]

Bolsonaro’s tenure has exposed the fundamental paradox regarding the relationship between Amazonia and the international order. The more intransigent the administration became regarding environmental policies and foreign interference in the rainforest, the more it fueled international concerns over the Amazon, making Brazilians and the international community ever more reactive, and so on. To break this loop, Western powers have given Brazil an ultimatum by evoking the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine over alleged crimes against the environment (“ecocide”) and humanity (“cultural genocide”) in the Amazon. International action to protect the rainforest has been justified, in different opportunities, by French President Macron (“There is an ecocide taking place in the Amazon”), by then-U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden (“If Brazil fails to protect the Amazon, it will suffer significant economic consequences”), and by former British Foreign Secretary William Hague (“The UK will need to use all of its diplomatic capacity to ensure that … natural environments are protected”).[52] Rather than forcing governments to embrace bolder environmental protection measures, opening up for the possibility of multilateral military intervention in the Amazon has only made the discussion more contentious, with unpredictable consequences.

Final Remarks

When President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won the 2022 elections for a third presidential term, the eyes of the world turned to Brazil with great expectations. After four years of Bolsonaro predatory policies against the rainforest and native communities (as it became clear in the recent Yanomami humanitarian crisis), Lula appointed some of Brazil’s most prestigious environmental and indigenous activists to his administration, such as Minister of Environment Marina Silva and Minister of Indigenous Peoples Sônia Guajajara. President Lula’s renewed commitment to sound Amazon policies was seen worldwide with great relief, as it signals the return to a positive and cooperative relationship between Brazil and the international community regarding climate change, biodiversity, and indigenous rights, among other interlinked issues. But even if Lula’s third administration (2023-2026) excels in promoting environmental policies and actions to protect the Amazon, it will not be able to change the intrinsically insecure nature of an issue that opposes national sovereignty and global interests. Things will likely become even more complex if securitization of climate change becomes a growing norm.

The case of the Amazon highlights the intersubjective conceptualization of spaces as “global” and “critical” in the context of the evolution of the international order—whereby the rainforest and its by-products (climate security and natural resources) are either framed as a global commons or as private, sovereign goods. One chapter of such tensions have already been settled: over the last 75 years, the Amazon’s objective boundaries have not been an object of contestation. Yet, this has not meant an absence of contestation over “subjective’” frontiers: should Brazil be the only one to have a legitimate voice over an area whose importance and impact extend beyond the lines drawn on a map? If others have a voice, what role should they have? Does that logic apply to other places in the world (eventually) deemed a possible “threat” to mankind, such as over fields of oil and coal extraction, or only to the Amazon? Perhaps in the next 75 years, we will find the answers.

[i] The Iberian Union was the dynastic union of the Kingdoms of Castille and Aragon (Spain) and the Kingdom of Portugal, which lasted from 1580 to 1640. It brought the entire Iberian Peninsula, as well as Portuguese and Spanish overseas possessions, under Spanish Hapsburg control.

[ii] Then controlled by the U.S.-controlled Bolivian Syndicate, a chartered company established in 1901 to colonize and exploit the Bolivian region of Alto Acre.

[iii] The 1940 national census indicated that only 7% of the population then lived in Brazil’s Northern (Amazon) region. See IBGE, Recenseamento geral do Brasil 1940: censo demográfico: censos econômicos (Rio de Janeiro: IBGE, 1940).

[iv] Officially launched in 1971, MAB reflected the climate of general awakening to environmental concerns of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which urged the creation of an intergovernmental and interdisciplinary research program. The program focused on the general functioning and structure of the biosphere, the changes brought about by human activity on the biosphere and its resources, and the effects of those changes on humankind. See Francesco di Castri, Malcolm Hadley, and Jeanne Damlamian, “MAB: The Man and the Biosphere Program as an Evolving System,” Ambio 10, no. 2/3 (1981): 52-57.

[v] A global common good is a public good either available or that could benefit all. It is non-excludable, in the sense that people are not restricted in their use of the good, and rivalrous, as the supply can ultimately be depleted by its predatory use by one or a few. This kind of public good is susceptible to what Hardin has dubbed the “Tragedy of the Commons.” See Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162, no. 3859 (1968): 1243-1248.

[vi] The Calha Norte (Northern Border) Project was launched in 1985, soon after the first civilian government took office following 21 years of military rule. It was essentially an Army-led military plan to occupy, populate, and extract resources along the 4,000-km northern border with Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guyana. Critics point out that, besides being devised by the military without taking Brazil’s blooming civil society into account, the plan took a massive toll on indigenous populations living in border areas, who were treated as liabilities to the country’s national security. See Eugenio Diniz, “O Projeto Calha Norte: Antecedentes Politicos,” (Master’s thesis, Universidade de São Paulo (USP), 1994).

[1] Samuel Benchimol, Amazônia: a guerra na floresta (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 1992), 228- 229.

[2] Kenneth Matthews, Brazilian Interior (London: Peter Davies, 1956).

[3] Georges Landau, “The Treaty for Amazonian Cooperation: a bold new instrument for development,” Georgia Journal of International and Comparative Law 10, issue 3 (1980): 463-489.

[4] Landau, “The Treaty for Amazonian Cooperation.”

[5] Hilgard O’Reilly Sternberg, “‘Manifest Destiny’ and the Brazilian Amazon: A Backdrop to Contemporary Security and Development Issues,” Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers Yearbook 13 (1987): 25-35.

[6] John Ure, Trespassers on the Amazon (London: Constable, 1986).

[7] Percy Alvin Martin, “The Influence Of The United States On The Opening Of The Amazon To The World’s Commerce,” Speech to the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association in Berkeley, California, 1917, of_the_United_States_on_the_Opening_of_the_Amazon*.html#note1.

[8] Sternberg, “‘Manifest Destiny’ and the Brazilian Amazon.”

[9] Apud Martin, “The Influence Of The United States On The Opening Of The Amazon To The World’s Commerce.”

[10] Landau, “The Treaty for Amazonian Cooperation.”

[11] See Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: the Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (New York: Macmillan, 2009).

[12] Apud María Verónica Secreto, “A ocupação dos ‘espaços vazios’ no governo Vargas: do ‘Discurso do rio Amazonas’ à saga dos soldados da borracha,” Estudos Históricos, no. 40 (2007): 120.

[13] Arturo Escobar, The Making and Unmaking Of The Third World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995).

[14] Rodrigo Magalhães and Marcos Chor Maio, “Desenvolvimento, ciência e política: o debate sobre a criação do Instituto Internacional da Hiléia Amazônica,” História, Ciências, Saúde – Manguinhos 14 (2007): 169-189.

[15] Apud Patrick Petitjean and Heloisa Domingues, “A Unesco, o Instituto Internacional da Hileia Amazonica e a antropologia do final dos anos 40,” in Conhecimento e Fronteira: história da Ciência na Amazônia, ed. Priscilla Faulhaber (Belém: Museu Paraense Emilio Goeldi, 2001), 1.

[16] Magalhães and Maio, “Desenvolvimento, ciência e política.”

[17] Artur Bernardes, “Internacionalização da Amazônia com o disfarce do Instituto Internacional da Hiléia,” Jornal do Commercio, June 27, 1951.

[18] Thomas Mougey, “Tracing the Origins of Brazil’s Great Acceleration: The SPVEA’s Primeiro Plano Quinquenal and the Technoscientific Recovery of Amazonia, 1945-1959,” Varia Historia 34, no. 65 (2018): 375-408.

[19] M. I. Dyer and M. M. Holland, “Unesco’s Man and the Biosphere Program,” BioScience 38, no. 9 (2008): 635-641.

[20] United Nations, “Report of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment,” 1972,

[21] Louis Sohn, “The Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment,” The Harvard International Law Journal 14, no. 3 (1973): 423-515.

[22] Wade Rowland, The Plot to Save the World (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin and Company Limited, 1973).

[23] United Nations, “General Assembly Resolution 2657,”

[24] Apud André Corrêa do Lago, Estocolmo, Rio, Joanesburgo: o Brasil e as três conferências ambientais das Nações Unidas (Brasília: FUNAG, 2006), 135-136.

[25] do Lago, Estocolmo, Rio, Joanesburgo.

[26] Ronald A. Foresta, “Amazonia and the Politics of Geopolitics,” Geographical Review 82, no. 2 (1992): 128-142.

[27] Pitou Van Dijck, “The Impact of Arco Norte on Northern Amazonia and the Guiana Shield: Methodological Reflections,” European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, no. 75 (2003): 101-108.

[28] Emilio Moran, “Deforestation and Land Use in the Brazilian Amazon,” Human Ecology 21, no. 1 (1993): 1-21.

[29] Foresta, “Amazonia and the Politics of Geopolitics.”

[30] Landau, “The Treaty for Amazonian Cooperation.”

[31] Brian Keeble, “The Brundtland Report: ‘Our Common Future,’” Medicine and War 4, no. 1 (1988): 17-25.

[32] do Lago, Estocolmo, Rio, Joanesburgo.

[33] Luiz C. Barbosa, “The World-System and the Destruction of the Brazilian Amazon Rain Forest” Fernand Braudel Center Review 16, no. 2 (1993): 215-240.

[34] Andrew Hurrell, “The Politics of Amazonian Deforestation,” Journal of Latin American Studies 23, no. 1 (1991): 197-215.

[35] Marlise Simons, “Vast Amazon Fires, Man-Made, Linked To Global Warming,” The New York Times, August 12, 1988,

[36] Moran, “Deforestation and Land Use in the Brazilian Amazon.”

[37] Thomas Lovejoy, “Aid Debtor Nations’ Ecology,” The New York Times, October 4, 1984, https://www.

[38] Hildegard Bedarff, Bernd Holznagel, and Cord Jakobeit, “Debt-for-Nature Swaps: Environmental Colonialism or a Way Out from the Debt Crisis that Makes Sense?” Law and Politics in Africa, Asia and Latin America 22, no. 4 (1989): 445-459.

[39] Apud Michael Trapasso, “Deforestation of the Amazon—A Brazilian Perspective,” GeoJournal 26, no. 3 (1992): 311-322.

[40] Patricia Feeney, “Environmental Reform in Brazil: Advances and Reversals,” Development in Practice 2, no. 1 (1992): 3-11.

[41] Trapasso, “Deforestation of the Amazon—A Brazilian Perspective.”

[42] Alexei Barrionuevo, “Whose Rain Forest Is This, Anyway?” The New York Times, May 18, 2008,

[43] Folha de São Paulo, “Por ambiente, países devem abrir mão da soberania, diz Mitterrand,” March 12, 1990, C-3.

[44] See, for example, Gelio Fregapani, Amazônia: A grande cobiça internacional (Brasilia: Thesaurus Editora, 2000).

[45] Cristovam Buarque, “I have a dream,” The Globalist, November 30, 2001, https://www.theglobalist. com/i-have-a-dream/.

[46] Kathryn Hochstetler and Cristina Inoue, “South-South relations and global environmental governance: Brazilian international development cooperation,” Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional 62, no. 2 (2019): 1-22.

[47] “Miliband promotes plan to buy rainforests,” The Telegraph, October 1, 2006.

[48] Adriana Ramos, “Amazônia sob Bolsonaro,” Aisthesis, no. 70 (2021): 287-310.

[49] Stephen Walt, “Who Will Save the Amazon (and How)?” Foreign Policy, August 5, 2019, https://

[50] Tyler Bellstrom, “Brazil is a bigger threat than either Iran or China,” The New Republic, July 26, 2019,

[51] Will Pavia, “Amazon rainforest belongs to Brazil not mankind, Bolsonaro tells UN,” The Times, September 15, 2019,

[52] Apud Gustavo Macedo, “Climate Security, the Amazon, and the Responsibility to Protect,” Brazilian Political Science Review 15, no. 3 (2021).