By Jackson K. ’21
“I think we are headed for a very dark period in the history of Brazil.” These are the words of Paulo Artaxo, a climate-change researcher at the University of Sao Paulo, about a week before the runoff election predictably ended in a landslide victory for far-right Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro has a controversial reputation, as he is widely known as making offensive comments about women, being intolerant and degrading of native populations in the rainforests, and raising concerns about his environmental politics. For example, he pledged to pull out of the Paris climate accord and relax mining and foresting regulations in the Amazon. In addition, his extreme right antics are radical, as he promises heavy tax cuts, tariffs, and other conservative policies; Scott Mainwaring, a professor at Harvard, said that he “can’t think of a more extremist leader in the history of democratic elections in Latin America.” However, Bolsonaro has been able to retain his popularity due to his extremely popular hard-line agenda on crime, which is a badly needed breath of fresh air for many of the citizens of Brazil, as it has been ravaged by crime, violence, and flourishing illegal trades, especially over the last three years. Brazil’s new president promised reform of the justice and prison systems, including increasing police funding and the legalization of torture in prisons. These tough policies, along with committing to additional hydroelectric plants on the Amazon River and the promised expansion of Brazil’s booming agricultural sector into the Amazon, were enough to convince many Brazilians to look past his more questionable traits, leading Bolsonaro to a landslide victory.
The election of Bolsonaro was met with immediate backlash, especially from environmentalists and indigenous peoples, who see his plans to dissolve Brazil’s environmental ministry and force native “minorities” to “fit or just disappear” as a major step back in terms of both environmental and human rights protections. Even more worrisome to many human rights activists, Bolsonaro’s solution to violence between native Amazonian peoples and farmers, who are constantly pushing the borders of the rainforest westwards, is to react with more violence, as, in a speech last year, he proclaimed that, “I will not have money for NGOs. If it depends on me, every citizen will have a firearm at home [to defend their property, and] there won’t be one centimeter demarcated for indigenous reserves.” The newly elected president’s seemingly aggressive anti-native policy is an extreme concern to many, as he threatens an already discriminated and fading minority of peoples, whose forest-oriented culture and art is a topic of interest all around the world. However, despite the obviously critical situation, the rights and security of the natives seems to be lost on the majority of the Brazilian population, an ignorance with will only be amplified when Bolsonaro comes to office. However, despite the lack of knowledge and appreciation of the indigenous people, a large portion of the Brazilian population seems to be increasingly worried about the fate of the Amazon rainforest, and rightly so. The Amazon is a major tourist attraction, and provider of clean water, energy, and air, and therefore many want Brazil to remain as the guardian of the world’s largest rainforest. However, these soft voices of opposition are largely drowned out by the loud economic potential that the exploitation of the forest promises. Bolsonaro’s promises to cut down on environmental safeguards, which will open up tens of thousands of acres of forest to deforestation and farming, are no doubt destined to give a massive boost to the Brazilian economy. In fact, the results are already being felt, as the value of the Brazilian currency, the real, experienced a spike after his victory in the first round of the election. Despite environmentalists saying that the country has only twelve years to significantly regrow the forest or face extreme and irreversible damage, Bolsonaro seems poised to cut down millions more in an effort to increase mining and farming activities. Brazil’s deforestation rates are already the highest they’ve been in over ten years, and those numbers are only expected to drastically rise under Bolsonaro. These new plans to fully exploit the Amazon is also worrisome because the massive forest serves as one of the world’s most effective carbon dioxide sponges. Despite this, Bolsonaro will most definitely go through with his plans to reopen the forest to exploitation, and significantly cut support from foundations and programs protecting the forest, which could result in the loss of over seven and a half million acres of the Amazon in 2019.
Brazil’s deforestation problems have been steadily fixed with the signing of various climate agreements, but Bolsonaro plans to pull out of them and double down on exploiting the Amazon.
In all, Jair Bolsonaro is definitely a controversial figure, to say the least. Yet, despite his allogations of sexism and rasict remarks towards native Amazonian peoples, he was elected president of Brazil, a nation which is the guardian of over 60 percent of the world’s largest rainforest, and has absolutely zero intentions of protecting it in any way. Whether you support his right-leaning ideals and populist hard-line views on justice and the criminal system, or find his views on women, minorities, and gun laws to be offensive or dangerous, the effect that Bolsonaro’s election will have on the Amazon is undeniable. Over the next four years, he will undoubtedly bring economic prosperity to the nation, in the form of new profits from gold mining, lumbering, and more real estate, yet it will come at the expense at the rapidly dissipating rainforest. But will it be worth it? Only time will tell. The new president will surely usher in a period of economic explosiveness, but it will truly be judged on how much of the rainforest he destroys in the process. If he’s able to expand mining and farming significantly without too much deforestation of indigenous discrimination and deportation, he will be hailed as an excellent leader, able to please all parties. However, if he cuts down too much, and makes the destruction truly irreversible and dangerous, he will fulfill the prophecy that Paulo Artaxo laid out for him, as “the worst thing that could happen for the environment.”