Bolsonaro spells ecological disaster for Brazil – and the world

Last month, a divided Brazil voted to elect its next president. Faced with a choice between Fernando Haddad of the leftist Workers’ Party and the right-wing extremist Jair Bolsonaro, Brazilians chose the extremist — an outcome that will have far-reaching consequences for the environment, among other matters.

With solid backing from the wealthiest 5% of Brazilians and rural landowners, Bolsonaro secured broader popular support by playing on people’s prejudices and fears. In his campaign, he targeted vulnerable groups and pledged to reduce or eliminate protections for minorities, women and the poor.

He intends to loosen Brazil’s restrictive gun laws, claiming that allowing average citizens to arm themselves will stem rising crime.

As for the environment, Bolso­naro’s plans can be summed up in one word: exploitation.

For starters, he wants to reduce or eliminate environmental protections in the Amazon, the world’s largest tropical rainforest. And he intends to make substantial reductions to the protection of indigenous lands belonging to the descendants of the Amazon’s original inhabitants. He will ease environmental restrictions on the use of pesticides and on licensing for infrastructure development.

“Where there is indigenous land,” Bolsonaro once said, “there is wealth underneath it.” With that in mind, he has declared that no more indigenous reserves will be demarcated, and existing reserves will be opened up to mining.

Bolsonaro’s agenda will hasten environmental degradation dramatically. Imazon, a Brazilian nongovernmental organisation, reported that 444km2 of forest had been cleared this past September, a 84% increase over September last year. The 12-month total amounts to 4 859km2, the highest level since July 2008. Brazil’s national space research agency, INPE, also reports an uptick in deforestation — about 50% year-on-year in September.

As it stands, many farmers or loggers who exploit the Amazon do so illegally, risking fines or sanctions. The expectation that the new government will not enforce laws prohibiting such activities is probably already emboldening them. Once those laws are weakened or abolished, deforestation can be expected to accelerate. The government’s apparent inclination to boost activities such as gold mining in the Amazon will make matters worse.

There is little reason to believe Bolsonaro will not be able to follow through on his agenda. After all, far-right representatives allied with business dominate Brazil’s new congress.

To make destroying the environment even easier, Bolsonaro pledged to merge the environment and agriculture ministries, though he has since backtracked on this. He is looking for an environment minister allied with the ruralistas (large landowners), and has appointed a minister of agriculture who wants to lift restrictions on dangerous chemicals in agriculture.

Bolsonaro promised during the election campaign to withdraw Brazil from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. Though he has since backed away from that, he has appointed a climate-change-denying, anti-science diplomat as foreign minister. That will present difficulties for Brazil’s bid to host the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP25) in 2019.

Beyond increasing the vulnerability of Brazil’s natural resources to commercial exploitation, cuts to the environmental budget under Bolsonaro’s leadership will undermine the country’s ability to respond to disasters. Brazil has already had an increase in forest fires — and fire-related destruction — owing to the expansion of agriculture, weaker oversight and surveillance and the dismantling of fire brigades. Bolsonaro’s plans will exacerbate the problem.

Socioeconomic inequality will also increase. As the government hands more power over the rainforest to large business owners, citizens — including smallholder farmers and poor urban dwellers — will suffer.

But Brazil’s ecosystems matter for more than just that country — it is the guardian of the planet’s largest tropical rainforest, a repository of ecological services for the world, where most of the Earth’s biodiversity is concentrated. The Amazon is home to more species of plants and animals than any other terrestrial ecosystem, and its rivers feed much of South America. Its billions of trees store massive amounts of carbon.

Over the past 100 years, Brazil has reduced the Atlantic Forest by more than 90%, and cleared 50% of the Cerrado and almost 20% of the Amazon.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is warning we need to make urgent progress in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, but Bolsonaro’s plans will achieve the opposite. — © Project Syndicate

Paulo Artaxo is professor of environmental physics and head of the department of applied physics at the University of São Paulo

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