The inauguration of Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, has triggered fears that rates of deforestation in the Amazon will increase. There are indeed good reasons for concern about Bolsonaro’s administration but several factors, both domestic and transnational, could constrain its ability to wreak environmental havoc.
First, some bad news: Mr. Bolsonaro and his cabinet do seem to view environmental concerns as an obstacle to development. For instance, the new Environment Minister, Ricardo Salles, said that the debate over climate change was a “secondary issue” and he was recently convicted of fraudulently favoring mining companies when he was state secretary for the environment in São Paulo. Under Mr. Salles’ leadership, the ministry will probably suffer budget cuts, and it has already lost key departments.
Furthermore, Bolsonaro has said he wants to restrict the powers of forest protection agency Ibama, taking away its ability to fine individuals and companies that illegally deforest and pollute. And, while the rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon fell by roughly 75 percent overall between 2004 and 2017, it has gone back up again, even before Bolsonaro took office. Between August 2017 and July 2018, deforestation increased by an estimated 13.7 percent.
Mr. Bolsonaro also recently tweeted that he wants to free Brazilian agribusiness from its dependence on imported fertilizers (75 percent comes from abroad). However, mining the ingredients in Brazil could do further environmental damage. For example, the largest recently discovered potassium deposit (used to make fertilizers) is on the banks of the Madeira River in the Amazon.
The new president also appears to favor more dam-building (there are proposals to build 334 dams in the Amazon). He also backed away from the government’s prior commitment to host the next UN climate conference this year. And, on his first day in office, Mr. Bolsonaro signed a decree transferring the authority to demarcate indigenous lands from the Ministry of Justice to the Ministry of Agriculture, thereby making it highly likely that—as he promised during his campaign—no new indigenous reserves will be created during the Bolsonaro administration.
Brazil’s environmental movement
Mr. Bolsonaro does face some constraints. The new president speaks as if agribusiness and environmental protection are incompatible, and appears to want to sacrifice the environment in favor of farming, mining, and logging. But other voices will have a say, and at least some heed will be given to the view that sustainable agriculture, which preserves biodiversity, is better both for Brazil’s development prospects and for the world’s climate.
Before his inauguration, Mr. Bolsonaro said that he wanted to subordinate the Ministry of the Environment to the Ministry of Agriculture. He was persuaded to drop this idea, due in part to criticisms from environmental NGOs and federal civil servants in environmental agencies. Some agricultural interests even spoke out, because they fear that their international image and access to foreign markets (especially the European Union) could be damaged by being associated with deforestation.
Brazil also has an environmental movement that is as old as its counterparts in Europe and North America. It was the strength of this movement that ensured the country’s 1988 constitution includes several ecological safeguards, such as conservation areas, indigenous reserves, and the environmental licensing system. José Lutzenberger, an environmental pioneer and former environment minister, helped to organize the Eco 92 conference in Rio de Janeiro and demarcate the huge Yanomami indigenous reserve.
The Rio conference was part of a process that eventually led to the 2015 Paris Agreement, where Brazil’s participation was crucial. And, in his final days in office, outgoing president Michel Temer delivered a report to his successor that recommended Brazil stay in the Paris Agreement and pursue the goal of achieving a zero-carbon economy by 2060.
Pressure from overseas
External actors can also put pressure on the Bolsonaro administration. For example, the government of Norway has contributed 93 percent of the money disbursed by the Amazon Fund to 102 different projects, amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars. These funds provide incentives to enforce environmental laws and create sustainable livelihoods in the rainforest.
Norway’s contributions are tied to maintaining rates of deforestation to specified limits, a fact Mr. Temer was reminded of by his hosts during a visit to Oslo in June 2017.
Pay attention to facts on the ground
The Bolsonaro administration is likely to move quietly to achieve some of its objectives. In addition to weakening the Ministry of the Environment, it could make informal signals to state governors and congressional delegations that laws regarding deforestation will no longer be rigorously enforced. Observers, therefore, have to be attentive to facts on the ground. Civil society organizations and journalists in the Amazon working for publications such as InfoAmazonia and O Eco are particularly good sources of information. There is some transnational support for these journalists. For example, the Pulitzer Centre is administering a Rainforest Journalism Fund, financed by the Norwegian government, which gives grants to journalists reporting on deforestation.
Brazil’s Foreign Affairs Minister Ernesto Araújo claims that initiatives such as the 2015 Paris Agreement are liberal, “globalist” and part of a gigantic “cultural Marxist” propaganda machine. From this perspective, international NGOs and foreign states are violating Brazilian sovereignty by interfering in the Amazon.
But this is a smokescreen. In the Paris Agreement, the Brazilian government voluntarily committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 37 percent by 2025 and 43 percent by 2030, with 2005 as the baseline year. The Brazilian Climate Change Forum that produced this commitment had input from 340 different government entities, businesses, NGOs, and academics. And the country already has various advantages when it comes to making the transition to a low-carbon economy, including relatively clean energy and 60m hectares of degraded pasture land that could be reforested.
Preserving the Amazon rainforest is of fundamental importance to the planet, and there are many people in Brazil who want to do just that. They reject the notion that development and environmental protection are mutually exclusive, and support reorienting the Amazonian economy towards sustainable livelihoods. It remains to be seen whether their vision will prevail in the years to come.
Originally published on