Why Brazil's Bolsonaro Is Giving Environmentalists Jitters

Why Brazil's Bolsonaro Is Giving Environmentalists Jitters

By Joe Leahy, Andres Schipani and Leslie Hook

Supporters of Brazilian right-wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro in São Paulo on Oct. 21, 2018.


From pulling out of the Paris climate accord to disarming environmental agents, the man who may be Brazil’s president is alarming environmentalists. 

By Joe Leahy, Andres Schipani and Leslie Hook

After far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro won the first round of Brazil’s presidential election earlier this month, he laid down the battle lines on a significant issue in Latin America’s biggest country — the environment. Promising farmers “legal certainty,” Bolsonaro said that if he became president after the election’s second round, on Oct. 28, he would curb “excessive” policing of the rural sector by the country’s environmental agency, Ibama, and the national parks service, ICMBio.

“We want an end to the industry of fines practiced by Ibama and ICMBio in the countryside,” said the former army captain, who counts two rural sector politicians among his closest advisers. 

The comments are among many from the pro-gun politician that have alarmed environmentalists. He has threatened to pull Brazil out of the Paris climate agreement, promised to open indigenous territories for farming or other uses, and said he would combine the ministries of agriculture and the environment. Environmentalists fear that a Bolsonaro presidency will signal open season in the Amazon for illegal loggers, miners and crooked ranchers in Brazil, home to 60 percent of the world’s largest rainforest.

“The implications of a Bolsonaro presidency for Amazonia are deeply troubling,” says Oliver Phillips, a tropical forest researcher and professor at the U.K.’s University of Leeds.

If Brazil did leave [the Paris climate agreement], it would absolutely be a bad development.

Todd Stern, chief U.S. negotiator for the Paris agreement

But in a country that has emerged as an agricultural superpower feeding China’s growing appetite for protein, many farmers relish the prospect of ending what they see as blatant interference in their sector by previous left-wing governments. Aside from the fines, they oppose invasions of their land by groups such as Movimento Sem Terra, a landless workers’ social movement allied with the leftist Workers’ Party, the PT. Its candidate, Fernando Haddad, is Bolsonaro’s rival in this month’s election runoff.

“We believe in candidate Bolsonaro because he has said that in his government there will no longer be disrespect for the right to property,” says Luiz Antônio Nabhan Garcia, president of the farmers’ group, União Democrática Ruralista, and a possible candidate for agriculture and environment minister under Bolsonaro. “Property is sacred.”

Although deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon remained at low levels compared with its historical peak, it increased ahead of the election, analysts said. In August, when official campaigning started, deforestation reached 210 square miles, up 199 percent compared with a year earlier, according to research group Imazon.


For international climate activists, the immediate concern of a Bolsonaro presidency would be his opposition to the Paris accord, in which more than 190 countries pledged to keep global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial levels.

The Amazon region, which has been 20 percent deforested, absorbs carbon dioxide from the air, thus reducing the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and slowing climate change, scientists say. Bolsonaro has said the Paris deal has compromised Brazil’s sovereignty over the Amazon. Under the pact, Brazil must lower its carbon emissions by 43 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels, mostly through reduced deforestation.

“If Brazil did leave, it would absolutely be a bad development,” says Todd Stern, the chief U.S. negotiator for the Paris agreement and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The Paris pact is already under pressure. The U.S. announced last year it planned to exit the accord. Other fossil-fuel-producing countries are struggling to implement decarbonization policies — Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was ousted in August over an emissions reduction bill.

Brazil’s withdrawal — which according to the agreement’s rules could not occur until November 2020 — might prompt other tropical developing countries to rethink their participation, Carlos Nobre, a leading climate scientist, says. “You might have this danger of contagion,” he warns.

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Jair Bolsonaro after casting his vote during general elections in Rio de Janeiro on Oct. 7, 2018.


But Garcia of the União Democrática Ruralista says other countries should pay if they want Brazilian producers not to deforest their land. His organization supported Brazil’s “forest code,” a law that allows deforestation on private land but only up to certain limits. These could be quite strict — in some parts of the Amazon region, only 20 percent of a property can be deforested — but did not stipulate zero deforestation as favored by the Paris agreement.

“What does Brazil get? Absolutely nothing,” Garcia says of the Paris agreement.

Some have warned that any push by Bolsonaro to favor the rural sector could backfire if he was seen to be easing environmental controls — since this could expose Brazil’s biggest rural exports, such as soybeans and beef, to international customer pressure over environmental issues. The soybean sector, for instance, has had a moratorium on deforestation for 10 years but still managed to significantly increase productivity and vies with the U.S. as the world’s biggest exporter of the commodity.

“If there is a change in the law, it doesn’t imply that we will change our practices,” says Valmor Schaffer, managing director of global asset management and Brazil for Cofco International, a food trader majority-owned by China. “Of course we comply with the law, but we also have other schemes which we follow.”

As for Bolsonaro, there is no love lost between him and Brazil’s environmental agencies. He was fined for fishing in a protected area near Rio de Janeiro in 2012. The following year, he introduced a bill in Congress proposing to disarm environmental agents, which would have left them more exposed to danger from illegal loggers and other criminal gangs in the Amazon. The fine was eventually blocked by the Supreme Court and he shelved the bill.

“He is a candidate who lives by going to the TV to say he will combat crime,” said Marcio Astrini, coordinator of public policies at Greenpeace Brazil. “Ibama combats crime but then he wants to diminish the powers of Ibama. How does that work?”

By Joe Leahy, Andres Schipani and Leslie Hook

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