Newly elected Jair Bolsonaro, an authoritarian nationalist sometimes called the “tropical Trump,” has staked out an environmental agenda that would open the Amazon to widespread development, putting at risk a region that plays a vital role in stabilizing the global climate.
An indigenous woman protests against then-candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who has promised to ban the creation of new protected areas or indigenous territories, in Sao Paulo in October. NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
For people concerned about the environment and climate change, U.S. President Donald Trump has proven to be as bad, or worse, than feared. He is in the process of pulling the United States out of the Paris Agreement, continues to flatly dismiss the science of human-caused global warming, and has worked ceaselessly to undo environmental regulations and weaken environmental agencies.
Brazil’s president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, has pledged to dismantle the country’s environmental regulations. MIGUEL SCHINCARIOL/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Now, however, a new leader has emerged on the world stage who is poised to do even more global environmental damage than Trump. He is Jair Bolsonaro, the recently elected president of Brazil, and his extreme views on the environment, coupled with his control of nearly all the country’s levers of power, means that he is now in a position to do unprecedented harm to the Amazon and the international battle to slow climate change.
Not for nothing is Bolsonaro known as the “tropical Trump.” The parallels are many, including their embrace of the far right and their inflammatory rhetoric. And among their similarities is the way that a constant barrage of outrageous comments diverts discussion from the environmental damage that their policies portend.
A 63-year-old retired army captain who had served as an undistinguished member of the lower house of Brazil’s National Congress, Bolsonaro won the October 28 presidential runoff. Marshaling an unprecedented social media effort, Bolsonaro’s campaign reflected his nationalist, authoritarian, racist, misogynistic, anti-press views. The vote represented a widespread rejection of the Workers’ Party, which had ruled Brazil for 13 years and was characterized by massive corruption scandals and an economic collapse. Brazil’s high crime rate made personal security a paramount issue, and Bolsonaro’s tough image appealed to many voters.
With Bolsonaro’s ascension, Brazil — home to the largest rainforest in the world — is facing an “Apocalypse Now” moment for the Amazon. When he takes office on January 1, Bolsonaro — with deep support in Brazil’s Congress, military, and agribusiness sector — has vowed sweeping changes. These include an effective end to environmental licensing for infrastructure projects, which would open up vast areas of the already beleaguered Amazon to development, and a ban on creating new protected areas or indigenous territories. If these scenarios play out, the deforestation rate in the Amazon — already on the rise in recent years — could nearly triple, according to a recent study. This environmental disaster would unfold at a time when climate change and diminishing rainfall already pose a serious threat to the Amazon, whose vast stores of carbon could be released to the atmosphere.
Unfortunately, Brazil’s election results showed that the environment was an insignificant issue for most voters. Indeed, public concern with environmental issues has been declining in Brazil for some time. Since 2014, this decline has been palpable. For example, the vote for former environment minister Marina Silva in the first round of the presidential election fell from 21 percent in 2014 to 1 percent in 2018. Polls commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 2014 and 2018 showed that “the environment and natural wealth” fell from 58 percent to 39 percent as a point of national pride during this period. A poll in April 2018 found that 75 percent of the population fears that Brazil is at risk of being invaded by a rich country because of its immense natural wealth. This adds appeal to Bolsonaro’s portrayal of environmental concerns as threats to national sovereignty.
Given the wave of conservative victories in this year’s elections for the National Congress, constitutional impediments to parts of Bolsonaro’s agenda could be removed with ease. Amending the constitution in Brazil is much easier than in most countries; the current constitution has been amended 99 times since it came into effect in 1988. The newly elected conservative deputies and senators could accelerate approval of a series of proposed laws and constitutional amendments now advancing through the legislative process that would effectively eliminate environmental licensing, as well any new protected areas or indigenous lands. One of Bolsonaro’s campaign promises was to not allow demarcation of “a single centimeter more of indigenous land.”…