Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency will likely represent a radical shift in Brazil’s environmental policies. Since Fernando Collor de Mello, the first elected president since the end of the dictatorship, the country has been trying (with mixed results) to become a world leader in preservation. Much of this prominence is due to the Amazon, the largest and most important rainforest in the world and an ecosystem that influences the climate of the entire planet.

Brazil managed to decrease levels of deforestation and approved legislation that has been recognized worldwide. One of the branches of the government’s action in the Amazon is the demarcation of indigenous reservations. They not only fulfill what the Constitution demands—that is, the recognition of native Brazilians’ rights to maintain their culture and way of life—but also provide safe spaces where loggers, miners, farmers, and cattle ranchers cannot reach (and therefore destroy).

The Raposa Serra do Sol reservation is one of the symbols of the fight to preserve the Amazon. Ratified in 2005, the reservation, located in the state of Roraima, spreads over an area of more than 1.7 million hectares, slightly smaller than Israel. It was listed as a possible reservation by the National Indigenous Foundation in the 1990s.

There have been disputes over the territory since the 1970s. Rice farmers wanted to be able to grow their crops inside the reservation. A legal battle ensued and, finally, in 2009, Brazil’s Supreme Court decided the farmers could not stay on the indigenous land. Currently, 20,000 native Brazilians from several nations live there.

Now, president Jair Bolsonaro wants to revert this process. His team intends to review the reservation through a presidential decree. Mr. Bolsonaro believes Raposa Serra do Sul is a “hindrance” to economic development. According to him, the area is the “richest in the world” and it “must be exploited rationally.”

Amazon rainforest under threat

This is a sign that under Mr. Bolsonaro’s rule, Brazil will allow for several activities considered harmful to the Amazon, such as mining and farming. Currently, Brazil’s mining agency has a line with 97 requests to exploit land in Raposa Serra do Sol. Bolsonaro also believes native Brazilians will benefit from the looser rules because they will receive royalties and be “integrated into society.”

During a speech made last year, the now president-elect promised that “not even a centimeter” would be given to new indigenous reservations or quilombo lands. So it makes perfect sense that his policy will attack old demarcations, though his government does not explain or list any proposals for the environment.

One of the problems with Mr. Bolsonaro’s intentions is that research shows that to maintain rainforests, the best strategy is to let indigenous populations “manage” it themselves. The wish to generate wealth might bulldoze the preservation of the Amazon. This is all part of a narrative the new government is trying to build, one that claims international treaties such as the Paris Agreement are a threat to Brazil’s sovereignty because they impose rules that constrain possible economic gains.

But the administration will have to face serious obstacles to its wishes of exploiting the Raposa Serra do Sol reservation. Legal specialists say it is impossible to change the status of a protected area by decree. The main barrier is the Constitution, that says indigenous land is “inalienable.” A possible loophole would be to regulate mining and other activities that already happen illegally.

Even if Bolsonaro does not get exactly what he wants, it is certain that indigenous communities and the health of the Amazon are at risk, more than ever before in Brazil’s recent history.

BY Diogo Rodriguez

Rodriguez is a social scientist and journalist based in São Paulo.