Bolsonaro’s Environmental Policy: An Increasing Risk

Bolsonaro’s Environmental Policy: An Increasing Risk

President Jair Bolsonaro’s inauguration in January marked Brazil’s entry into the ranks of nations recently electing far-right leadership. In the first five months of his term, Bolsonaro has drawn particular ire for altering environmental policies. These moves will have devastating effects on Brazil’s environment, indigenous communities and ultimately, on Brazilian political stability. 

Bolsonaro off to rocky start

Following a controversial campaign, Jair Bolsonaro has been unambiguous about the direction he will lead Brazil. He has praised the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, while denigrating women, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and indigenous communities (who he has compared to ‘animals in a zoo’), indicating clear signs of democratic regression. On the other hand, Bolsonaro’s liberal economic stances initially received positive feedback and buoyed market confidence.

However, his policies surrounding deregulation and tax cuts to encourage FDI could have highly damaging consequences, particularly with respect to the environmental and indigenous communities. Indeed, one of Bolsonaro’s first policy moves involved relocating the authority to accredit indigenous reserves as protected territories from FUNAI (the National Indian Foundation) to the Ministry of Agriculture. The Ministry is lead by Tereza Cristina Dias, who has a record of favouring the farm lobby and supporting the interests of industries that demand greater access to protected land. The new measure met with heavy resistance from rights groups and indigenous leaders. Although Brazil’s national congress managed to revert the provisional measure on May 28 restoring FUNAI’s competencies to the Ministry of Justice, the President will have to endorse the newly approved text, which is highly unlikely.

Impact on the environment

As a recent transnational civil society report highlights, Bolsonaro’s policies have tremendous implications for the environment. In the first two months of 2019, Brazil saw a 54% increase in deforestation from the same period last year. On March 4th, the Mines and Energy Minister Admiral Bento Albuquerque commenced plans to permit mining activities on indigenous lands. With the new Agricultural Ministry’s tacit encouragement, indigenous communities have faced increasing waves of land grabs, violent attacks and occupations from armed bands called ‘grileiros’ who have tapped into a very profitable business, as the marketed land can increase its value up to 200 times.

Regardless of the illegitimacy of these activities (considering indigenous groups stand protected by the Brazilian constitution), these attacks, incentivized by government policy, have only risen. The situation has reached a point in which the Chamber of Indigenous Peoples and Traditional Communities has warned in a memo that several communities have now become endangered.

The freedom for private enterprise to exploit newly acquired indigenous land has further endangered the Amazonian forest. Several powerful firms including BlackRock, JP Morgan and Bunge, have reportedly done business with groups involved in the destruction of forest land, damaging the production of soybean, cattle and mining. This is causing further damage to vulnerable communities and the environment. 

Beyond Bolsonaro

The blame does not sit exclusively on Bolsonaro. Amazon’s exponentially accelerated deforestation in the last 50 years has come mainly from the agri-business industry,  causing irreversible changes to biodiversity and ecosystems. A study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found the two potential ‘tipping points’ after which the Amazon would reach a ‘large-scale savannization’ of the southern and eastern area of the forest. These were a temperature increase of 4°C or a 40% deforestation. Currently, the region has had a 1°C degree increase in temperature over the last 60 years and is rapidly reaching a 20% deforestation.

The consequences of reaching the established limits are grave. Considering that the Amazon contributes 20% of the world’s oxygen and has a decisive role in regulating worldwide temperatures, its continued degradation presents a global risk. Although droughts and floods are relatively common in the Amazon, the reduction of its forests will increase their intensity and frequencies, creating long term environmental effects on biodiversity and the climate. Some of these include altering the water cycle of the forest, affecting water supplies in large Brazilian cities and neighbouring countries, and creating artificial limitations to supply for basic needs. Ultimately, forest destruction increases greenhouse gas emissions, accelerating global warming’s impacts, including extreme environmental events.

The gravity of the risks

The current agri-business model of the Amazon, based on environment degradation, cannot be sustained. After 50 years of monitoring, the deforestation-based model i.e. substituting flora and fauna with agriculture, cattle and large-scale power generation, is leading to irreversible climate variations. While production of these products and services provide a benefit to the national economy (agribusiness represented 23.5% of Brazilian GDP in 2017, the highest level in 17 years), it has been at the cost of significant environmental and indigenous community degradation.

Since Bolsonaro’s controversial policies have come into force, thousands have protested, demanding the preservation of nature and their lands. This climate of political divide and unrest poses a threat to Brazilian political stability. International concern continues to grow not only towards Bolsonaro’s environment policies but towards human rights violations too. Amnesty International has recently begun its ‘Brazil for Everybody’ campaign with the objective of warning about his policy developments and urging Brazil’s government to change adopted measures that defy human rights.

Meanwhile, a letter sent to the European Council, Parliament and Commission signed by over 340 civil society organizations are currently expressing their concern and pushing the EU to use its influence to prevent the human rights and environmental situation of Brazil evidencing the controversy of the president’s policies.

The continuation of Bolsonaro’s regressive policies, environmental destruction and economic exploitation will likely continue to fuel increasing resistance to the government. This will ferment future disputes bethe tween government and civil societyFurthermore, the policies will likely accelerate the Amazon’s tipping points, causing irreversible deterioration of the environment and expulsion of traditional indigenous communities.

Categories: Environment, Latin America

About Author

Jaime Aznar Erasun

Jaime is a recent International Development graduate with a specialization in International Political Economy from the University of Kent. He has since been building experience in the field of international relations working for several organizations whose mission and values align with democracy support and human rights. He is highly motivated by critical analysis and has a main research interest in European and Latin American politics.