The Brazillian highway, BR-163, stretches nearly three-thousand miles through Amazonia, from the southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul to the ports of Pará in the North. The first section of the highway was paved in 1974; the Brazillian government has had its sights set on paving the rest of it since. In May 2015, BR-163 expanded yet again, three thousand miles north to the corner of College and Grove Street — to the Stephen A. Schwarzman Center, formerly known as Commons.
But, first: some context. While BR-163 was making its way to New Haven, it was still breaking ground in the Amazon. The route has existed for over four decades, and was once unpaved for hundreds of kilometers. The “Soy Highway” (as BR-163 is sometimes referenced), however, has been a central artery for soybean production, connecting major growing operations in Mato Grosso to the ports of Pará. What was the solution? Pave it. And that’s just what Jair Bolsonaro — Brazil’s authoritarian, dictatorship-praising, anti-democratic, sexist, homophobic, racist, anti-environment, climate-denying President — has done.
Bolsonaro, who assumed office earlier this year, has made his intentions for the rainforest, which provides 20% of the world’s oxygen, contains millions of endangered species and is a cornerstone of the global ecosystem, abundantly clear. On his first day in office, he signed an executive order stripping indigenous groups of their claims to the Amazon, arguing that the forest ought to be open to agribusiness developers (alongside a slew of other deregulatory measures). The message from Bolsonaro’s government was clear: the Amazon is up for grabs. Since then, Bolsonaro’s emboldening of both legal developments and extralegal land-grabbing in the Amazon has yielded disastrous results. Fires aimed at clearing the rainforest for agricultural or industrial use have spiked 80% in the last year, yielding a record 74,000 fires (and rising). Not content on stopping there, Bolsonaro fired a major government scientist for reporting that deforestation was 88% higher this June than it was last year. The facts are clear: the Amazon is not burning, it is being burned.
By now, you’re probably thinking, “What does all of this have to do with the new, totally awesome student center at the heart of Yale’s campus?” At first glance, the connection is hard to see, and that’s precisely the point. The Stephen A. Schwarzman Center, set to open next fall, is the product of a $150 million dollar gift from its titular Stephen A. Schwarzman ‘69, co-founder, CEO and Chairman of The Blackstone Group. At first glance, Schwarzman is just another totally cool Wall-Street-executive-turned-serial-philanthropist.
But that’s not the whole picture. The Blackstone group that Schwarzman co-founded in 1985 has now become the largest alternative investment firm in the world. In 2010, Blackstone’s financial fingers stretched southward to Brazil, purchasing a 40% stake in Pátria Investimentos, Brazil’s largest investment firm. The Pátria logo now, in every manifestation, includes the words “in partnership with Blackstone”.
In 2015, Blackstone also purchased a 9.3% stake in Hidrovias do Brasil, a major Brazillian logistics company. Pátria, which — as illustrated by The Intercept’s Ryan Grim — is heavily influenced by Blackstone, which owns a 55.8% stake. Hidrovias, owns a major shipping terminal in the city of Miritituba in Pará, a critical juncture in the global soybean trade. The stretch of BR-163 that leads to Miritituba, however, remains unpaved — that is, until Bolsonaro’s government announced that it would pave the road this year, far earlier than originally planned, despite major protests. This sudden advancement of agribusiness development that specifically benefits the interests of companies like Hidrovias, Patria and Blackstone is no coincidence. It should not come as a surprise that Blackstone’s portfolio company, Refinitiv, was a sponsor of Bolsonaro’s controversial New York gala naming him “person of the year,” and that, even as other companies retracted their support in the face of public scrutiny, Blackstone’s subsidiary did not waiver.
In the Amazon, all roads lead to roads, and BR-163 is no exception. Dissecting the Amazon with paved strips of asphalt is a disastrous environmental phenomenon. As a Yale e360 report uncovered, 95% of all fires and deforestation in Brazilian Amazonia occur within 50 kilometers of a highway. Paved highways also dramatically increase the profitability of neighboring rainforest, literally paving the way for further destruction while making slash-and-burn land grabs all the more possible. The current fires are particularly dangerous, both because of the carbon emitted by the current fires as well as compounding environmental losses — potentially pushing humanity over the edge towards climate disaster.
Blackstone and Schwarzman stand to gain by having portfolio companies work with whatever agriculture business takes over the land leftover from the destruction of what might be the world’s most precious ecological resource. But, hey, at least we’ll get a cool new student center, right?
Yale believes that if a dollar passes through enough hands, that that no one fingerprint on it is identifiable, that no one is therefore, culpable. If the source of these donations were delivered directly onto campus, however, would we be as content to accept them? Imagine thousands of acres of burnt Amazonia, all piled up in Beinecke Plaza. Imagine BR-163 paving its way through Cross Campus. Suddenly, Schwarzman’s gift seems less generous.
Yale has to act in the best interest of its community. It needs the best facilities, the best faculty, the best applicants, the best alumni. This is in the best interest of no one. It’s not in the interest of the dozens of faculty in EE&B, anthropology, EVST and beyond whose careers have been dedicated to the study of the Amazon. It’s not in the interest of the dozens more who have devoted their careers to combating climate change. It’s not in the interest of the University’s Office of Sustainability, unravelling the efforts they’ve put into heavily reducing Yale’s carbon footprint over the last fifteen years, fifteen years undone in an instant by this summer’s Amazon fires. It’s not in the interest of the “future generations” who, as Mr. Schwarzman himself hopes, “will utilize the Schwarzman Center in innumerable new ways,” who would also enjoy a livable climate and stable ecosystem.
I understand that $150 million is hard to refuse. I understand that we are all implicated in dizzying amounts of exploitation, but this is exceptional. Doing it in secret is not necessarily better, but courting and celebrating ecological blood money in public is certainly worse. For as long as a dollar is a dollar is a dollar — no matter how dirty — nothing will change.
We should be ashamed to be investing $150 million dollars into a single building while our world’s most important ecological resource burns and receives a pithy $40 million dollars in aid. No amount of private gain can outweigh the incalculable public loss borne by the destruction of the Amazon. No amount of “student cohesion, “collaborative learning,” or acoustically-treated subterranean jazz clubs can undo the destruction that will reverberate for decades to come.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that BR-163 is “largely unpaved” and that Blackstone was a “major sponsor” of Bolsonaro’s gala. The article has been corrected to mention that most of the highway has been paved, and that a company owned by Blackstone, Refinitiv, was a sponsor of the Gala. A previous version of this article also overstated Hidrovias’ role as a “partner” in the effort to pave BR-163. Language describing what Blackstone stands to gain from the destruction of the rainforest has also been revised for accuracy.
Eric Krebs is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column usually runs every other Monday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.