Brazil’s newly elected president, Jair Bolsonaro, is internationally known for his threats to upend civil liberties, but the environmental threats his presidency poses are just as serious. A former army captain under Brazil’s military autocratic rule (1964-1985)—during which the regime committed horrific acts of kidnapping, torturing, and secret executions–he has eulogized the regime’s abuses and even called for a return to military rule. Furthermore, during his campaign, Bolsonaro has pledged to close down Congress and made derogatory comments toward women and members of the LGBTQ community. As irrational as these statements seem, they could very well become normalized under his presidency.
Those threats to Brazil’s democracy, LGBTQ communities, and women’s rights extend also to the Amazon. The Amazon Rainforest is the world’s largest tropical forest and serves as a carbon sink for excessive carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, absorbing approximately 2.2 billion tons of CO2 in a typical year. Yet, Bolsonaro has claimed Brazil’s environmental policy is “suffocating the country” and wants to open the forest to more economic extractive activities. Just as the Amazon is crucial to the planet serving as a huge carbon sink, it also possesses many economic opportunities. Opening the Amazon could be highly profitable for extractive companies that are vying to access its natural resources. Already there is a powerful coalition of agriculture, business, and landowners in Brazil’s Senate and Chamber of deputies, called “ruralistas,” who are notorious for their backsliding environmental agenda and desire to use the Amazon for cattle ranching, soy plantations, and mining. Nonetheless, engaging in these economic opportunities comes at a hefty price: the destruction of the Amazon.
Bolsonaro has not only stated that he plans on eliminating the Environmental Ministry, but he has also dismissed the idea of setting aside forest land for indigenous Brazilians who would be largely affected by Bolsonaro’s proposed policies. As the president elect said, “where there is indigenous land, there is wealth underneath it.” Already, multiple indigenous communities have spoken out against Bolsonaro’s rhetoric. Before the election, Bolsonaro promised that “there won’t be a square centimeter demarcated as an indigenous reserve” if he was elected. Currently 13 percent of Brazil’s territory is designated as an indigenous reserve, and the Amazon makes up a large amount of this territory. If Bolsonaro follows through on his promise, that land will be opened up for extractive activities. Recent studies show that indigenous communities are critical in protecting land against deforestation. The increased exploitation of the environment through mining and logging and relaxed environmental law enforcement will only make the situation worse for indigenous communities who could possible be displaced from their homes.
Brazil has been a global leader regarding climate change since, hosting the Earth Summit in 1992. But during his campaign, Bolsonaro pledged to join President Trump and withdraw Brazil from the Paris Climate agreement. Although he has since gone back on this promise, Brazil’s commitment to protecting the environment had already been wavering.
In 2017, President Michel Temer attempted to deregulate the Reneca Reserve, a portion of the Amazon the size of Denmark, to mining companies, but the attempt was later blocked by a Brazilian court. Past environmental rollbacks and noncompliance with the Paris Agreement goals could worsen under Bolsonaro’s presidency.
Not opposed to attacking his critics, Bolsonaro’s threat to assault his political rivals sheds a light on how he might interact with environmental activists. In a country where being an environmental defender is extremely dangerous, the situation for environmentalists and indigenous rights activists is most likely to worsen.
The rhetoric Bolsonaro possess regarding the environment also has some analysts concerned of a possible authoritarian rule. Bolsonaro’s running mate, Antônio Mourão, a recently retired general raised the possibility that Bolsonaro could issue a self-coup. Already having a recently retired military general as a running-mate makes the likelihood of a creeping self-coup easier and likelier. This would allow a Bolsonaro presidency to avoid the checks and balances, which usually reside within a democracy, that limit the power of the executive branch, thus, providing himself with superior and unchallenged executive powers to exploit the Amazon. Not just Brazil’s democracy but a global environmental resource hang in the balance.