An email with an alarming message about the Amazon went viral in Brazil in 2000, when the internet was still in its infancy. It claimed that the US and the UN had taken the forest from Brazilians and turned it into a protected area — a lie, but one that reflected a long-running conspiracy theory that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro continues to promote today.
The email mentioned a fictitious geography textbook used in “important American schools” that referred to the Amazon as a “international control zone.” A misspelled text next to a map stated that the forest was “surrounded by irresponsible, cruel, and authoritarian countries,” and that the US and UN, with the support of the “G23,” turned it into “an international park with very strict exploration rules.”
“The value of this area is unable to calcule,” it continued, “but the planet can be cert that The United States won’t let these Latin American countries explorate and destroy this real ownership of all humanity.”
Despite numerous signs that the textbook was a forgery — the writing was riddled with errors, the map appeared doctored, and the Amazon had not been declared an international reserve — the rumor struck a chord with Brazilians, spreading so widely that both the Brazilian and American embassies in Washington attempted to debunk it. According to news website G1, the American ambassador in Brazil, Anthony Harrington, said at the time, “The idea is so hilarious that I feel silly to have to talk about it.”
However, the viral image also depicts a widespread fear in Brazil, which has far-reaching implications for the forest.
When foreign leaders, indigenous groups, and environmental organizations express concern for the forest, demand more reservation areas, or denounce environmental destruction, President Bolsonaro has repeatedly invoked the idea that the Amazon is under threat from a foreign takeover.
President Bolsonaro alluded to the conspiracy theory during his presidential campaign in May 2018, saying, “The Amazon is not ours.” “I say that with a heavy heart, but it’s the truth.” He threatened to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement later that year, after being elected but before taking office, claiming that it weakened Brazilian control over the Amazon.
And, already in power, in April 2019, he spoke openly about a shady plot to steal Brazil’s forest, which included the creation of indigenous reserves. “If we don’t change our policies, we will lose the Amazon,” he said in a radio interview with Jovem Pan. “The United Nations has been discussing, for a while now, that through the auto-determination of indigenous peoples, you could have new countries here inside,” he added. “That could happen.”