Commentary. Under the pretext of launching Starlink's satellite internet, the billionaire is thinking of Brazilian nickel.

Musk and Bolsonaro have plans for the Amazon, but it’s not Starlink

If one of the world’s least palatable presidents meets with the no-less-controversial richest man on the planet, there is certainly cause for concern. So, it is not surprising that in Brazil, Elon Musk’s top-secret meeting with Bolsonaro, at the invitation of Communications Minister Fabio Faria, was not well received in pro-democracy circles.

Certainly, no one was convinced by the public facade of the Tesla and SpaceX CEO coming to the country “super excited” to launch his Starlink satellite internet service “for 19,000 unconnected schools in rural areas & environmental monitoring of Amazon,” as the billionaire himself tweeted.

That version of events seriously clashes with both the cuts in education and the vicious destruction of the Amazon rainforest carried out tirelessly by Bolsonaro, who, in his weekly social media live outing, had alluded to the arrival of “a very important person” who “is coming to offer his help for our Amazon.” After Friday’s meeting, held at a luxury hotel in Porto Feliz in the state of São Paulo, Bolsonaro said he had spoken with the Tesla founder “about connectivity, investment, innovation, and the use of technology to strengthen the protection of our Amazon and for the economic development of Brazil.”

However, Brazil doesn’t need Musk’s satellites at all to monitor deforestation. As Márcio Astrini, executive secretary of Observatório do Clima, said, “We have monitoring, and quality monitoring at that. What we don’t have is a government.” In short, information is of little use if there is no one to take the appropriate measures.

And how little Bolsonaro cares about monitoring the Amazon is perfectly demonstrated by his policy toward the National Institute of Space Research (INPE), which has always performed that service superlatively – and whose funding was cut by 17% in 2020.

While INPE has faced budget cuts and even the dismissal of its director in 2019, the government, on the other hand, has gone to great lengths to press the National Telecommunications Agency to authorize the operation of Starlink satellites on Brazilian soil, which took place on January 28. The voluminous correspondence between the government and the company, published by Brasil de Fato, leaves no doubt in this regard, together with the involvement of the U.S. Embassy’s Department of Commerce in expediting the process.

Having secured the authorization, with which he was able to cast himself as the savior of the Amazon, Elon Musk seems to be aiming to get his hands on the mineral resources of the region. Not surprisingly, there is talk of a long-term deal with the Vale mining company for the supply of nickel. And one cannot help but recall the tweet posted by the billionaire in response to a user who, in a conversation thread about lithium, questioned him about the U.S. role in the coup in Bolivia in 2019: “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.”

It’s certain that, a few months before the Brazilian presidential elections, the visit by Musk – who is negotiating the purchase of Twitter, currently suspended – has also set off alarms with respect to possible electoral manipulation via social media: the billionaire, as Cristina Serra wrote in the Folha de S. Paulo, “has already said that freedom of expression should be placed above everything else. That’s music to the ears of the digital militias and a green light to pro-coup propaganda and hate speech.”

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