The peace and love that generally abound during Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival festivities is threatened this year by a spat pitting a well-known parade troupe against Brazil’s powerful farmers because of development in the Amazon rainforest.
Imperatriz Leopoldinense, one of the samba schools that march in the glitzy Carnival processions that kick off Feb. 24, plans to honor the Amazon and its native tribes with a parade featuring six giant floats and 2,800 dancers, musicians and other costumed celebrants.
Part of the show, “The Clamor that Comes from the Forest,” highlights the longstanding tension between development and conservation in Brazil, particularly with regard to the world’s largest rainforest and the industrial agriculture that at times helps destroy it.
Marching to song lyrics lamenting the “bleeding heart of Brazil” and the “riches that greed destroys,” participants will don vests with skulls and crossbones and pretend to spray pesticide. Others will wield toy chainsaws and bundles of felled timber.
To a farming sector that bristles at any suggestion it destroys the environment, the imagery seems anything but celebratory — especially at a time when agriculture, responsible for as much as a quarter of Brazil’s economy, is one of the few vibrant activities in a country hobbled by recession.
“It’s gross and unfair,” said Marcelo Eduardo Luders, president of Ibrafe, an association of Brazilian bean growers. “Millions of people will see this and could think twice about buying our exports.”
Such is the ire that Ronaldo Caiado, a conservative senator from the farm-belt state of Goias, proposed Congress study “the defamation of a sector that should be praised.”
Fabelia Oliveira, a television presenter for a program about Brazilian agriculture, suggested that if native tribes wanted to be left alone they should go without modern medicines.
“They’ll have to die of malaria and tetanus and during childbirth,” she said, outraging indigenous communities and native rights activists.
In an interview, Oliveira said she was being argumentative and meant that modern and ancient cultures must learn to live together. “Rural workers are closer to nature than the urban Carioca types who criticize them,” she said, using the local term for residents of Rio.
For Imperatriz, the controversy was a shock, particularly because last year it feted “sertaneja” music and the farm culture from which it sprang.
“This is not about offending farmers,” says Cahe Rodrigues, the designer responsible for the parade. “This is about the threats that native people and the environment face.”
It’s not the first time a Carnival parade has sparked controversy.
Beija Flor, another big samba school, was accused of supporting Brazil’s military dictatorship in 1975 with an ode to federal tax programs. In 2012, another school finished last in the parade competition because judges deemed its song, a tribute to a sponsoring yogurt manufacturer, as too commercial.
“These contrasts, these controversies, are part of Carnival,” says Haroldo Costa, a cultural historian in Rio. “They reflect society here.”
Agriculture is nothing if not prevalent in Brazil.
One of the globe’s top producers of food, Brazil’s growers have become the world’s leading exporters of soybeans, beef, coffee and sugar. The sector generated over $400 billion in 2016.
Some of its growth indeed came from deforested lands.
But the rate of deforestation, despite recent upticks, is less than a fifth of what it was in 2004, when forest the size of Belgium was cleared. Deforestation continues, but most new agricultural production in Brazil comes from technological gains.
Carnival itself, broadcast to millions of viewers in Brazil and abroad, is big business.
Rio’s municipal government expects more than a million visitors and says the week of parades, tourism and related activities should generate almost $1 billion.
Groups such as Imperatriz, one in a league of 12 top samba schools, in recent years have enjoyed corporate sponsorships.
But the recession this year means it, and most others, will rely mostly on about $2 million each from television rights, parade tickets, music sales and a city subsidy.
That pays for the glitter, plastic foam, feathers and elbow grease workers are now using to prepare the spectacle. At the giant Rio warehouse where they are assembling parade floats, welders last week finished a fanged monster with horn-like ribs that symbolizes “avarice.”
“I don’t mind the controversy,” said Cris Machado, a seamstress who oversees a team of 16 people sewing costumes. “You can’t solve problems unless you talk about them.”
Rodrigues, the designer, in December traveled to the Xingu, an Amazon region named after a river whose shores are home to several tribes, including the Kayapo, whose culture inspired the theme.
Raoni, a well-known Kayapo elder, even agreed to parade.
“I wanted to make sure I got their clothing, their culture, just right,” said Rodrigues, explaining that he did not want to make a caricature of the natives.
Instead, farmers say, Imperatriz made a caricature of them.
“Indians, farmers, it doesn’t matter who you are talking about,” said Luders, of the bean association. “There may be a few bad actors, but most of us try to do what’s right.”