Note: This article originally appeared in Spanish on our partner website esglobal. Click here to read the original article.
The Amazon rainforest, dominated by Brazil (60 percent of the country’s territory is within the jungle), faces four crucial years. After a decade of tangible progress in reducing deforestation caused by illegal logging, mining activities and, above all, the expansion of areas for industrial agriculture—primarily soybeans and cattle—the rise of Jair Bolsonaro to the Brazilian presidency portends a turn toward the unpredictable for the most biodiverse place on the planet and, by extension, the global fight against climate change.
Bolsonaro, who during the election campaign said that he would not demarcate “an inch more” of indigenous reserves in the Amazon, which he called “human zoos”, has quickly established the most neoliberal Brazilian government since re-democratization. After winning the 2018 election with 55 percent of votes, Bolsonaro promised to merge the ministries of Agriculture and Environment, which meant that the Amazon would no longer have a government ministry charged with protecting the 5.2 million square kilometers of the forest encompassed by Brazilian territory.
Advised by the agricultural lobby, which feared a reaction from partners such as the European Union in the form of trade sanctions on the more than $1 billion in annual agricultural exports, Bolsonaro has walked back the proposed merger. For the time being, he has also retracted his proposal to withdraw Brazil, the seventh largest global emitter of C02, from the Paris Agreement.
Elsewhere, Bolsonaro has proven more decisive, including when it came to dismissing Luciano Evaristo, who had been head of IBAMA’s environmental protection department—the Brazilian Institute of the Environment—for a decade. Evaristo, one of the most important figures in the fight against the organized crime that profits from the destruction of the Amazon and the illegal appropriation of lands, was fired on January 11.
“Today there is a party in the south of [the Amazonian state of] Pará: Bolsonaro has fired Luciano Evaristo, chief of enforcement at IBAMA for nine years, hated by loggers and illegal miners of the Amazon,” criticized the organization Observatoria do Clima, a network that reports on groups who work on environmental protection in Brazil.
The first available data on deforestation confirm the Bolsonaro effect in the country; in November 2018—the month after Bolsonaro’s victory—deforestation increased 400 percent compared to November 2017, and in December it increased by 37 percent compared to December 2017. Satellite indicators show what has been known for years: indigenous lands are ecological bastions against the advance of agro-industry and land speculators who are enriched through the opening of new tracts of “public” forest, which they subsequently burn and trade illegally.
The “poison muse” and a rural lobbyist
While Bolsonaro faces a series of scandals stemming from inconsistencies in his party’s financial reports and the revelation of a supposed scheme of corruption by one of his sons, his ministers are the ones who have been in charge of making the new government’s policy priorities clear. At the forefront of its trademark economic strategy—unleashing a new wave of development in the Amazon through the exploitation of natural resources—are the Minister of Agriculture, Tereza Cristina, and the Minister of the Environment, Ricardo Salles.
Salles, a lawyer who was Secretary of the Environment for the state of São Paulo before he had to resign after being linked to illegal payments from mining companies, has cut funding to non-governmental organizations operating in the region, which are vital because they promote sustainable economic activities and monitor the jungle. “They are eco-Shiites,” Salles said, in inflammatory language that he has often used to criticize environmental groups and equate them with extremists. Weeks later, he described Chico Mendes, an activist murdered in 1988, as an irrelevant figure, despite the fact that he’s the namesake of the organization charged with protecting the Amazon.
Salles, who was formally the legal director of the Brazilian Rural Society, one of the conservative agricultural organizations most critical of the laws that limit agro-industrial activity in the Amazon and a large recipient of donations from agricultural groups, said he wants to end the “fine industry” that IBAMA and other governmental bodies apply to the environment. Salles’ assertion is of dubious truthfulness, as most fines go unpaid. (The mining company Vale was fined $100 million for the failure of the Mariana dam in 2015, the biggest ecological accident in Brazilian history, but has yet to pay the fine).
Although in Bolsonaro’s first year in charge, the ultra-conservative president will likely focus much of his energy on trying to approve a reform of the country’s unpopular pension system, his ministers are hard at work chipping away at environmental protections. Cristina and Salles have already indicated that they want to open indigenous reserves, which occupy 13 percent of the Brazilian Amazon, to industrial agriculture, including the possible production of transgenic soybeans in the heart of the jungle. During his first ever trip to the region, Salles traveled to the land of a protected indigenous group in Mato Grosso that illegally leases 8,700 hectares to soy producers. Cristina, known in Brazil as the “poison muse” for her campaign to increase the list of pesticides and insecticides allowed in agriculture (54 new chemicals have already been approved in just two months), also participated in Salles’ trip, and promised changes in Brazilian law to encourage such leasing by indigenous groups.
A billion-dollar business at risk
Brazil, a country that exports agro-industrial goods to more than 150 countries and that in 2018 exceeded the United States as the world’s largest soybean producer, could put the lucrative agricultural industry at risk if it backs out from the Paris Agreement. Even the outgoing Minister of the Environment, Edson Duarte, has issued a warning to Bolsonaro: “The national economy would suffer, particularly agribusiness, in the face of possible retaliation by importing countries.” Brazil currently controls no less than 7 percent of the global food trade and aims to reach 10 percent in the near future.
In the framework of the Paris Agreement, Brazil committed to a reduction of greenhouse gas emission by 37 percent by 2025, compared to 2005 rates. This reduction is centered on the fight against destruction of the Amazon; the country promised to end illegal deforestation in the Amazon by 2030. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, warned that he would block the Free Trade Agreement between the European Union and Mercosur, whose negations are in their final phase after two decades of dialogue, if the Bolsonaro government scales back Brazil’s promises.
“We cannot ask French farmers and workers to change their production habits to lead the ecological transition and at the same time sign trade agreements with countries that do not do the same,” explained Macron at the November 2018 G-20 Summit in Buenos Aires.
In the region, indigenous groups and civil society have organized to counter Bolsonaro’s policies. One of the key partners in this battle is the Catholic Church, which in the Amazon is a major actor in the defense of the poor, the environment and the fight against climate change—a reflection of the legacy of liberation theology. Pope Francis, who visited the region in January 2018, has convened an Amazon Synod for October 2019 that aims to give visibility to the region’s problems.
In an indicative example of the shift ushered in by the Bolsonaro administration, one of the new president’s top security officials admitted that the secret services are monitoring the work of the Catholic Church in the Amazon, due to concerns that the Synod may have a negative impact on Bolsonaro’s popularity. The maneuver is reminiscent of the vigilance of priests and missionaries during the military dictatorship (1964-1985), precisely the period during which the largest deforestation of the Amazon to date was carried out through the construction of thousands of kilometers of roads, mines, railways and hydroelectric dams. That pattern of chaotic and disorderly destruction of the Amazon, the Earth’s greatest ecological treasure, laid the foundations for the multiple social and ecological conflicts that the great jungle is now facing anew.