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Jair Bolsonaro's Hometown Divided On His Rise To Power


On Sunday, Brazilians elect a new president. Jair Bolsonaro is expected to win easily. He's a retired Army captain and Congressman from the far-right. Environmentalists see his policies as a threat to the Amazon. Bolsonaro grew up in a rainforest, in a community that is now deeply divided about his rise to power. NPR's Philip Reeves has more.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: This is the small country town in southeast Brazil where Jair Bolsonaro spent his childhood. Midday drinkers in a bar near the town square remember him well, including Francisco Giani (ph), a civil servant who's 58.

FRANCISCO GIANI: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Bolsonaro always said, one day I'll be president,'" says Giani. Giani's drinking beer with his brother Luiz Antonio (ph), who says he used to go fishing with Bolsonaro.

LUIZ ANTONIO GIANI: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "He's a son of this town," says Luiz Antonio Giani, "an ultra-conservative who stands up for family and religion and fights corruption." Local officials say about 60 percent of this community supports Bolsonaro. Luiz Antonio's proud that Bolsonaro grew up here. This place is called Eldorado. It's not as glamorous as the name suggests. This is a shabby town of 15,000 people. It makes a living growing bananas and from tourists who come to see nearby caves and waterfalls, for there are riches here just a few minutes' drive away.

They say, in the town, that they live in the middle of the Atlantic rainforest. And they're telling the truth because here we are, surrounded by forest.

The Atlantic rainforest once stretched along much of Brazil's huge coastline before the country was colonized and began building cities. Most of the forest's destroyed, but chunks remain. The chunk in this area covers nearly 20 times more land than Manhattan. The forest is one of the richest in the world in biodiversity. It has tens of thousands of species, many threatened. Lelis Ribeiro is an environmental activist and eco-tourist guide.

LELIS RIBEIRO: (Through interpreter) We have everything here - plants, animals, insects, micro-fauna - everything.

REEVES: The forest around here is under government protection, yet Bolsonaro talks of loosening Brazil's environmental licensing laws because he thinks they suffocate the economy. Brazil's powerful agri-business lobby, hungry for new land for farming and mining, is behind him, says Ribeiro. In the forest around Eldorado, there are about a dozen quilombolas. These are small, impoverished Afro-Brazilian communities, often established centuries ago by Africans who escaped slavery. These days, Bolsonaro says he sees all Brazilians as equal. Yet in the quilombolas, people haven't forgotten his past racist remarks about them, says Talia Moraes (ph), who lives in one.

TALIA MORAES: (Through interpreter) People say he's very prejudiced and that he does like blacks, so we feel really offended.

REEVES: Local officials say Bolsonaro lived in Eldorado from the age of 5 to 18. His father was the town dentist.

IRINEU PEDROSO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Irineu Pedroso (ph), vice principal of a local school, says he and Bolsonaro hung out as kids, swimming in the rivers, playing soccer and hunting birds. His mom was a washerwoman in the Bolsonaro household, he says. Pedroso's politically on the left and dreads Bolsonaro becoming president.

PEDROSO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "A president should unite people, not divide them like Bolsonaro," he argues. Night is creeping in across the rainforest. In a house on Eldorado's big town square, the mayor and his deputy are guests at an awards ceremony for locals who've completed fashion and bakery courses. These two officials belong to a centrist political party, yet they say they don't see Bolsonaro, from the far-right, as a threat.

DIONEL ROCHA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "If Bolsonaro becomes president, I'm sure he'll look kindly on the town," says Vice Mayor Dionel Rocha (ph). But what about the Atlantic rainforest all around?

DURVAL ADELIO DE MORAIS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "The forest is Eldorado's greatest treasure," says Mayor Durval de Morais, "and the lungs of the region." Yet, the town's broke - it needs income and jobs, he says. So it should profit from the forest, allowing in what he calls non-polluting industries, and protect it. "You can do both," says de Morais.

MORAIS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "And I believe Jair Bolsonaro knows that," he says. Lelis Ribeiro, the Eldorado eco-tourist guide, disagrees.

RIBEIRO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Bolsonaro doesn't have any conservation policies," says Ribiero. "So any form of threat to the Atlantic rainforest is terrible," he says, "because once you lose it, you'll never get it back." Philip Reeves, NPR News, Eldorado. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.