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Bolsonaro is a threat to the Amazon

Sam Cowie Sao Paulo
October 29, 2018

Brazil's president-elect Jair Bolsonaro has threatened to close environment agencies and throw open indigenous territories to development. But he would stay in the Paris Agreement. What fate for the lungs of the Earth?

The Amazon
Image: Getty Images/M. Tama

Environmental experts have warned of the severe threat to the Amazon posed by Brazil's far-right president-elect Jair Bolsonaro.

The former army captain and avid supporter of Brazil's former military dictatorship has in the past spoken passionately of closing environmental agencies tasked with forest protection and opening up indigenous territories to mining and agribusiness.

Bolsonaro had also said he would pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate, following in the footsteps of US President Donald Trump — whom he admires deeply.

But last Thursday, Bolsonaro backpedaled on that pledge, likely adopting a more moderate tone ahead of the Sunday election which he won with 56 percent of the vote.

'Disaster' for the Amazon

"A Bolsonaro presidency would be an unmitigated disaster for the Amazon's forests and forest peoples," said Christian Poirier, program director at the nongovernmental organization Amazon Watch, which recently published a report on deforestation in the Amazon.

"His antagonism for the land rights of indigenous and traditional communities and disdain for environmental protections jeopardize vast tracts of preserved forests, which could fall victim to reckless industrial development such as agribusiness and mining," Poirier added.

Brazil is home to around 900,000 indigenous people, who mostly live in the country's Amazon states.

Men of the indigenous tribe Waiapi walk into the jungle
The Waiapi tribe has been fighting to defend their land against a massive mining projectImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Gomes

Empowering indigenous people is widely seen as among the most effective ways of combating deforestation and buffering the effects of climate change.

Read more: Granting indigenous land rights could save the climate — or not

At a 2017 event in Rio de Janeiro, Bolsonaro promised crowds that if elected, he would not give "one centimeter" of demarcated territory to indigenous people.

The Tuesday before the election, in a television interview in Brazil's north-eastern Piaui state — a new frontier for soybean production — he reiterated his antagonistic stance on indigenous land demarcation.

"You cannot wake up today and suddenly realize in the newspaper that your farm will be demarcated as indigenous land," he said.

Brazil's Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (Apib) and Indigenous Missionary Council (Cimi) released statements condemning the position.

"Cimi vehemently repudiates the slanderous, defamatory and vile accusations of the candidate Jair Bolsonaro against the indigenous peoples of Brazil, and expresses solidarity with them for the unjust offenses that they once again suffer," read part of the note from Cimi.

Brazil's indigenous population fights back

Indigenous under attack

In terms of environmental defenders killed in Brazil, 2017 was the bloodiest on record with 57 murders, making it the deadliest country in overall numbers according to a Global Witness report on worldwide murder of environmental activists.

Although indigenous people make up less than 1 percent of Brazil's population, a disproportionate number are being killed in land conflicts.

"Bolsonaro's authoritarian stance on crime and liberalized gun ownership could drive a brutal wave of rural conflicts benefitting powerful rural mafias vying for control over contested lands and resources," said Poirier.

Read more: The financial system killing environmental activists

Environmentalists were offered some brief relief on Thursday as press reports circulated claiming that Bolsonaro would not pull Brazil out of the Paris Climate Agreement if elected, something he had pledged to do in the past.

A burning forest is seen from above
In 2017, 4.5 million hectares of Brazil's rainforest were destroyed, mostly due to illegal logging and deforestationImage: Reuters/B. Kelly

In his governing program, Bolsonaro only mentions the environment once — when he proposes a single ministry for environment, agriculture, fishing and rural development. Currently, separate ministries manage these issues.

"We will preserve the environment, but we will not disturb the lives of those producers in Brazil," he told viewers via Facebook live on Wednesday night ahead of the election, referring to agricultural production.

Read more: Beef (and Burger King) still eating away at forests

This came just a week after Bolsonaro's likely new agriculture minister, Luiz Antonio Nabhan Garcia, president of the conservative Democratic Association of Ruralists, compared the Paris agreement to "toilet paper."

Meanwhile, Bolsonaro's likely transport minister, retired general Oswaldo Ferreira, has pledged to build more hydroelectric dams in the Amazon to tackle Brazil's power shortage issues — despite environmental concerns.

Powerful agribusiness backing

Bolsonaro also has the backing of Brazil's powerful agricultural caucus in congress.

In an official note, Congresswoman Tereza Cristina, president of the Agriculture Parliamentary Front (FPA), said the caucus was "attending to the call of the national productive sector, from individual entrepreneurs to small farmers and representatives of big business."

Last year, the agricultural caucus pushed for legislation to reduce forest protections, give amnesty to land-grabbers and reduce indigenous land demarcations.

"The same threats to the Amazon from congress will continue," said Marcio Astrini, public policy coordinator at Greenpeace Brazil.

"The difference is that they have an ally in the president," he added.

Brazil's Bolsonaro is greeted by supporters during an agribusiness fair in Rio Grande do Sul state
Bolsonaro is greeted by supporters during an agribusiness fair in the Rio Grande do Sul state in southern BrazilImage: Reuters/D. Vara

Some agribusiness companies are also concerned about Bolsonaro's environmental agenda.

Just before the presidential election, the Brazilian Coalition on Climate, Forests and Agriculture — including companies such as the biggest private soybean producer Amaggi and international food conglomerate Cargill — signed a public letter calling on the Brazilian government to protect the environment and stick to the Paris Agreement.

Brazil's agricultural sector depends on stable climatic conditions, which can only be ensured by conserving the rainforest, they said. 

According to Carlos Nobre, a Brazilian scientist and senior member of the World Resources Institute, a tipping point for the Amazon forest to become savannah is closer than expected, due to climate change and forest fires.

"He would be much worse for Brazil than Trump in the United States," said Nobre of Bolsonaro.

Brazil's turn to the right