Brazil lost sovereignty over the Amazon in these four years, says João Moreira Salles


“Arrabalde”, a book that documentary filmmaker João Moreira Salles launches this Monday (12) through Companhia das Letras, was born out of two findings by the author. One, that it had its back to the Amazon, like most of the country. The other, the state of abandonment, contempt and criminality to which the region was relegated by the government of Jair Bolsonaro (PL) – and by the surrounding military.

“The military has always been obsessed with sovereignty. The great irony is that in these four years the Brazilian State has lost sovereignty over the Amazon,” said Salles in an interview with Sheetby video, on the morning of Friday (9).

For him, “we would become a dynastic autocracy” in the event of Bolsonaro’s re-election, defeated by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (PT) on October 30.

The book is the result of a period of six months in which the documentary filmmaker lived in Pará. Salles found that Amazonian cities also have their backs to the forest, and that income solutions for residents of the region must pass through these cities.

The director of “Entreatos”, “Santiago” and “No Intenso Agora” belongs to one of the richest families in Brazil. He is the founder of piauí magazine, where he published the articles that gave rise to the book. He and his brother Walter Salles, also a filmmaker –director of “Central do Brasil”–, left Itaú Unibanco’s shareholders in February this year. The stake was transferred to other shareholder brothers.

“I wanted to have more freedom to be able to act politically,” he said.

Below are the main excerpts from the interview.

In the book, you say that, before this incursion into Pará,to I hadn’t even been in the Amazon for four days. Have you already thought about the because? The book was written to answer that question. The most important asset that Brazil has was unknown to me. Brazil has its back to the Amazon. The Amazon is an outskirts of Brazil. People treat it as the outskirts of the country. As Luiz Braga, a great photographer from Belém, says, the Amazon is rest for Brazil.

The irony of this story is that the rest became the center. For the general concert of nations, Brazil is an almost irrelevant country, save for the Amazon nowadays. This has become clear to me over the years and particularly after Bolsonaro’s election. At the end of the first six months of the government, it was clear that the Amazon was abandoned, given over to crime.

The State simply abdicated its responsibility in relation to the Amazon. I really wanted to go there to find out what was going on.

You describe how outsiders don’t adapt to the forest, but try to make the forest adapt to them… The forest does not adapt. The complexity of life, the disorder and anarchy of a forest end up being replaced by the order of farming and pasture.

The book is dedicated to the history of the formation of cities in Pará and its characters. Because? The Amazon is essentially urban. People are in cities, which have very little connection to the forest. Jobs need to be generated in cities, and Amazonian cities are not thought of as a solution for the forest. We know the ills of Brazilian cities, and in the Amazon it is even worse.

🇧🇷Arrabalde” was completed in September, when Bolsonaro had a chance of being re-elected. You say that “the ongoing cycle of destruction can be reversed”. How would this be possible if the president won a new term? Maybe I didn’t want to think about the tragic alternative of re-election. If he were re-elected, we would have two agendas.

The first would be the strengthening of Brazilian civil society, which is robust in the Amazon. And there would be an outside agenda, which would be a conversation with Europe, the Americans, so that they start punishing Brazil for what it does in the Amazon. It’s an unpleasant but essential lobby. Thank goodness it will no longer be necessary.

We finally have a challenge worthy of a great nation. If we re-elected Bolsonaro, he would be judged for that, for entering the wrong side of history, he would stand in line with countries that at certain times made tragic choices. Lula’s election is our chance to live up to the responsibility we’ve been given.

From Bolsonaro’s agenda, what was worse for the Amazon? And why did he come so strong in the dispute, with massive support from the business environment? As for the worst, it depends who you ask. If you ask the indigenous people, it was the invasion of their lands, the death of their defenders, the devaluation of everything they are.

I spent the month of October in Rondônia. I was with an indigenous leader on the day of the first round, and the result was very frightening. At a certain point, she started talking to her partner: “People don’t understand what it means to live in a place where nobody wants you”.

It’s more than contempt, it’s their anthological denial. Illegal mining and the occupation of Brazilian public lands are a curious thing, if we take into account that this government is closely linked to military thinking. The military has always been obsessed with sovereignty. The great irony is that in these four years the Brazilian State lost sovereignty over the Amazon.

It is in the Amazon that factions dispute power. The mining tools and weapons are no longer dredgers that gnaw at the riverbanks. That’s it, more [fuzil] AR-15. You don’t go in anymore.

This is clear in Amazonian cities, including the co-option of indigenous peoples by factions. That’s what I call loss of sovereignty. One person asked me: “Have you put yourself in any risky situation?” I said no, that those who take the risk are activists, religious in Anapu [no Pará]🇧🇷

You arrive in cities like Itaituba and Novo Progresso and you feel clearly that you shouldn’t stay there longer than 48 hours.

Threats to kill indigenous leaders in their own communities are very frequent… It is a loss of sovereignty, I insist on that a lot. It’s a word that the military uses all the time to justify the disasters in the Amazon.

Well then, friends, you wanted to preserve the sovereignty of the Amazon. They lost. Today sovereignty belongs to crime.

Lula will have much more difficulty doing today what the Marina team [Silva] did [nos anos 2000]🇧🇷 The Amazon has become a territory of criminal anarchy.

Did you spend a month in Rondônia for a documentary? Yes, I am making a documentary about Txai Suruí [coordenadora da Juventude Indígena de Rondônia e colunista da Folha]🇧🇷

How do you see the possibility of documentaries in the Amazon, due to the extra difficulties to, for example, live with the characters? Not just documentaries, people need to make music about the Amazon, paint the Amazon, write poems, plays, books. Of course, much of this already exists. But the forest has not permeated our imagination, it is not part of our symbolic heritage. And I’m talking about us Brazilians who don’t live there.

Part of the Brazilian economic power behaves like an oligarchy. We were saved by those who earn less than two minimum wages. These people are the ones who desperately needed Auxílio Brasil. They received the money and did not allow themselves to be corrupted, unlike the upper floor, the oligarchy, which in exchange for its own privileges was sold and voted for Bolsonaro.

You directed “Entreatos”, about the backstage of Lula’s campaign in 2002. What parallels do you draw between the 2002 and 2022 campaigns? The 2002 campaign consolidated Brazilian democracy. We were coming from a period of full democracy, with Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a democrat. He, a sociologist, passed the banner to the worker leader, showing that the transition of power was possible.

There I had the feeling that our democracy was guaranteed. I was wrong.

The 2022 election saved democracy. Let’s see, for now it looks like it saved. So it’s very different. One consolidated, the other saved.

I have no doubt that if Bolsonaro were re-elected, we would be on the way to a Turkey or even a Russia. He was going to change the Supreme Court, centralize power, he and his family, his children and all. We were going to become a dynastic autocracy.

Bolsonaro is worse than the military regime. He is a throwback to the Middle Ages. That’s why I wanted to make this film. Once again an electoral process, the same candidate, in a very different situation, in a very degraded Brazil.

The decision to leave Itaú’s shareholders is related to andthose projects in the Amazon? And what does it say about Bolsonaro’s fixation on niobium in the Amazon, explored by CBMM [da família Moreira Salles] in Minas Gerais? Regarding niobium, it is yet another obsession of Bolsonaro’s magical thinking. Chloroquine, niobium, graphene, everything is very superficial, crossed by magical ideas, as if a single metal could solve a country’s problems. I wouldn’t take it too seriously, it’s just another symptom of this guy’s intellectual poverty.

Regarding the bank, I never had any formal, professional relationship. It’s strange to me. It didn’t make much sense for me to stay there.

The Amazon is one of the fields where I want to work. It is not on my horizon to enter party political life, but to support people who are, like [deputado Alessandro] Molon, [deputado Marcelo] Ash and many others. I’m tied up being a shareholder in the bank.

I wanted to have more freedom to be able to act politically without having to be accountable. My brothers and the other shareholders of the bank understood this.


Joao Moreira Salles, 60

He is a documentary filmmaker and film producer. He was founder of piauí magazine. Among the documentaries he has directed are “Nelson Freire” (2003), “Entreatos” (2004), “Santiago” (2006) and “No Intenso Agora” (2017).

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