NEW YORK ― The American Museum of Natural History refused to say Friday whether it will cancel an event honoring Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right president of Brazil who has spent the opening days of his term stripping protections from the Amazon rainforest and the indigenous people who live in it.
The May 14 event will be a private gala organized by the Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce, a business group that plans to honor Bolsonaro as the Brazilian of the Year. The group organized and announced the event last month, but the museum’s decision to host it drew criticism this week from activists who said it “should be ashamed.”
The museum, which calls itself “one of the world’s preeminent scientific and cultural institutions,” responded to the criticism Thursday, saying on Twitter that the event had been booked before Bolsonaro was confirmed as a guest and that it was “deeply concerned” about his attendance.
“We are exploring our options,” it said in a tweet.
In a follow-up statement sent to HuffPost on Friday, the museum did not clarify whether those options included canceling the event honoring Bolsonaro. But it expanded on the Twitter post to say that the event does not reflect its stance on protecting the Amazon rainforest.
“We are deeply concerned, and the event does not in any way reflect the Museum’s position that there is an urgent need to conserve the Amazon Rainforest, which has such profound implications for biological diversity, indigenous communities, climate change, and the future health of our planet,” the statement said.
The museum reiterated that it was exploring its options on the event, which is sponsored by a host of multinational corporations and financial institutions, including Bank of America, UBS, HSBC, JPMorgan Chase and Santander.
During his 2018 campaign for president, Bolsonaro pledged to pull Brazil out of the Paris climate agreement and promised to open the Amazon up to mining and agricultural interests, in part by removing official protections from indigenous lands and other areas of the rainforest. As president, he has appointed a foreign minister who believes climate change is a “Marxist plot” and stripped key agencies that govern the Amazon of their power. One of his first acts as president was to move the bodies that oversee forest protections and indigenous land rights under the agricultural ministry, which is heavily influenced by Brazil’s strong agri-business and mining industries.
Bolsonaro this week floated plans to overhaul Brazil’s National Council of the Environment in a manner that could further reduce oversight of the Amazon and other parts of the environment.
Indigenous leaders have warned that his policies could lead to their genocide, while climate experts worldwide have said that Bolsonaro’s policies that threaten the Amazon could have global ramifications for the fight against climate change.
Alessandro Molon, the Brazilian opposition leader in the lower house of the legislature, said the event in New York “encouraged” the president’s “contempt for [the] value and richnesses of our nation” at home.
“It is quite ironic,” Molon told HuffPost via WhatsApp.
Twitter users bombarded the museum’s Thursday tweet with replies calling on it to cancel the event, and Brazilian activist groups in New York and Washington spent Friday afternoon drafting a petition that will similarly call on the museum to abandon plans to host Bolsonaro.
The petition reads in part:
Jair Bolsonaro and his government are enacting a strong anti-scientific agenda in Brazil, curtailing research funding, threatening public education, and reducing environmental regulations to an unprecedented level in Brazilian history. By accepting to host the event, AMNH contradicts its principles and its role as one of the world’s leading scientific institutions.
The event showed that the museum is suffering from a “detachment from reality” on the Amazon and Bolsonaro’s policies toward it, said Natalia Campos, an activist from the New York-based group Defend Democracy in Brazil.
While the museum’s leaders support environmentalism and climate change awareness “on paper and in exhibitions and statements,” Campos said, “they don’t really know what it means for the populations that are being affected.”
“Their statements are empty,” she said. “They’re not really engaging in the reality” of how Bolsonaro’s policies affect people’s lives.
Defend Democracy in Brazil and other activist groups plan to target the Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce and the businesses that agreed to sponsor this year’s event.
“All of this is destroying the economy and democracy of the largest South American country for nothing more than sheer profit,” Campos said. “It is destroying natural resources, and it is destroying lives.”
Bolsonaro is scheduled to attend the May event, which would mark his second visit to the United States since he took control of Brazil at the start of this year. In March, he met with President Donald Trump in Washington, where he also met with prominent Brazilian and American “anti-globalist” advisers, including one who has called climate change a hoax. Bolsonaro also has a long history of making racist, sexist and homophobic remarks, and has previously praised the murderous military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985.
Anthony Torres, an organizer for queer and climate issues in New York City, said Bolsonaro’s support for anti-LGBTQ violence and deforestation makes the event doubly egregious.
“There’s no place for an institution like the Natural History Museum to be showcasing an autocrat,” he said.
“They’ll accept anyone’s money, they don’t care what’s behind the money and they’ve been doing this with impunity for a while now.”
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose office makes him an ex-officio member of the museum’s board of trustees, did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the event. But de Blasio called Bolsonaro “a very dangerous human being” during an interview with WNYC radio on Friday.
“He’s dangerous not just because of his overt racism and homophobia, but because he is, unfortunately, the person with the most ability to be able to impact what happens in the Amazon going forward,” de Blasio said.
The Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the opposition to its event or the museum’s statement.
The American Museum of Natural History, founded in 1869, pitches itself as a cultural center meant to honor and protect the natural world and human interaction with it. But as the focus on climate change has intensified, so has scrutiny over the museum’s ties to prominent climate deniers, and the brouhaha over the gala honoring the homophobic, climate-denying Brazilian president came at a fortuitous time for one New York City grassroots group.
Revolting Lesbians, which last year led protests aimed at pressuring the museum to cut ties with billionaire Rebekah Mercer, had already planned a second annual rally on Saturday to demand again that the museum boot the Republican donor and climate denier from its board. Mercer has donated more than $4 million to the museum.
Now Anne Maguire, a spokeswoman for the group, said the protest will take aim at Bolsonaro, too.
“It’s outrageous,” she said. “But it’s a symptom of the museum’s leadership. They’ll accept anyone’s money, they don’t care what’s behind the money and they’ve been doing this with impunity for a while now.”
This was updated with comment from Molon.