At the end of October, Brazil became the latest country to move to the far-right, electing the ultra-conservative Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency. Dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics” and notorious for his attacks on women, the LGBTQ community, black people, and other marginalized groups, Bolsonaro represents a hard right turn for the South American country. Bolsonaro’s election is the result of a toxic cocktail of massive corruption scandals and a historic recession which discredited the Brazilian political establishment, ultimately propelling the self-described “political outsider” to power. Bolsonaro’s political agenda includes the militarization of police, relaxed gun control, and a crackdown on political education. Yet in spite of the possible repercussions of these actions, Bolsonaro’s most potentially ruinous and long-lasting policy is his ongoing assault on Brazil’s beating heart, the Amazon rainforest.
Within one week of his election, Bolsonaro announced plans to merge the country’s agricultural and environmental agencies. This move, part of Bolsonaro’s broader scheme to bring Brazil out of recession, will place short-term business interests before everything else and subvert the country’s environmental protection needs to those of agriculture. Bolsonaro, firmly allied with Brazil’s powerful agribusiness lobby, has declared his support for the logging industry, promising to support deforestation and prioritize “production over protection” in terms of the environment. Bolsonaro has indicated that he intends to expel international NGOs like Greenpeace and WWF from the country, open up new areas of the Amazon for logging, and accelerate deforestation in the world’s largest rainforest, threatening not only the lives of thousands of Brazilians but also the world at large.
Spanning eight countries, the Amazon Basin plays a special role in the Earth’s environment. As the world’s largest terrestrial carbon sink, the Amazon absorbs “hundreds of millions more tons of carbon every year in tree growth than it loses,” according to Oliver Phillips, a professor at the University of Leeds. The Amazon alone holds 17 percent of the globe’s terrestrial vegetation carbon stock. As the world’s largest tropical forest, the Amazon also contains unparalleled biodiversity—1 in 10 species worldwide call the place home. Additionally, the Amazon regulates global weather patterns and pumps water into the important cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. With near-unanimous scientific agreement that humans are causing carbon-led global warming, including unprecedented droughts and weather patterns, and a new mass extinction, the Amazon clearly plays an outsized role in the Earth’s biological future.
Accelerated deforestation of the Amazon could prove to be an insurmountable setback in the fight against climate change. The deforestation rate, currently an alarming 52,000 km-squared per year, already threatens to expose the rest of the world to new climate extremes. If Bolsonaro keeps his campaign promises to abrogate protected land and accelerate mining and dam construction, he will push the rate of deforestation toward the point of no return. In an interview with NPR, Boston University professor of earth and environment Rachel Garett put the situation bluntly, stating that “there is no way we can prevent the most catastrophic forms of climate change if we lose the tropical forests. The Amazon is the largest remaining contiguous forest in the world. If it’s not protected, and if rates of reforestation go down as well, then then we’re definitely heading in the direction of more severe climate change.”
Even before his policies take effect, Bolsonaro has already emboldened the cadre of illegal loggers, miners, and land-grabbers eager to see environmental legislation abolished. Imazon, a non-profit dedicated to the Amazon’s conservation, recorded an 84% rise in illegal logging during Bolsonaro’s campaign when compared to the same period last year. Overall, deforestation of the Amazon rose by 48.8%.
The increase in illegal logging poses a particularly lethal threat to indigenous populations; during the 1970s and 1980s, loggers and ranchers exterminated thousands of indigenous people in land-grabs that have been described as “genocidal.” Similar attacks by powerful logging mafias against indigenous people continue to this day and are almost a weekly occurrence. In April 2017, for example, a group of armed ranchers attacked a settlement of over 400 families from the Gamela tribe, wounding over 30 people. Tribes across the Amazon are besieged by the very miners and loggers Bolsonaro supports.
Beyond threatening the environment, Bolsonaro’s policies would mark a new wave of assault against Brazil’s large indigenous populations. The 900,000-strong indigenous people in Brazil have often found themselves the target of Bolsonaro’s most acerbic rhetoric. He once went on record to say, “it’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry wasn’t as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated their Indians.” Another quote has him comparing indigenous reservations to spots of chickenpox.
These reservations, which make up 13% of Brazil’s total land area, are where indigenous people stand to lose the most under Bolsonaro. He has declared the recognition of indigenous land to be an “obstacle to agribusiness,” and has vowed to abolish these reserves in order to open up new tracts of forest to logging and mining until “there will not be one centimeter of indigenous land.” Such policies will have tremendous implications for the first peoples of Brazil who have subsisted in the Amazon for thousands of years. By opening up the Amazon to agribusiness, Bolsonaro would threaten the very existence of Brazil’s over 100 uncontacted tribes.
Unfortunately, Bolsonaro’s attacks on the Amazon rest firmly within the realm of domestic politics, limiting the ways in which the international community can respond. However, the most effective way to take Bolsonaro to task would be to target Brazilian exports. For example, European NGOs have suggested that the European Union require companies importing agricultural products to perform risk assessments and account for any social and environmental damage within their supply chain. This legislation would force Brazilian exporters to meet more stringent environmental and human rights standards to maintain their current level of trade with Europe. Given the adverse consequences of increasing the Amazon’s deforestation rate, exporters would have to reevaluate their production practices or risk losing business with the EU, Brazil’s second-largest trading partner.
However, if Bolsonaro and his cabal of ranchers continue to pursue the expansion of agriculture and the displacement of indigenous people, the aftershocks will be felt for generations. Beyond the loss of human life and culture, removing indigenous people from their land would be removing the best environmentalists alive today. A mounting body of evidence continues to demonstrate that properly enforced indigenous land rights is the most effective and cheapest means of conservation. According to a 2008 study by the World Bank, “creating a sustainable future for biodiversity conservation worldwide will critically depend on the active and effective engagement of Indigenous Peoples.”
Bolsonaro’s push for increased logging is thus a fundamentally global threat. Rather than rescuing Brazil’s economy, cutting down the Amazon will plunge the Earth further down the rabbit hole of climate change. At the same time, it will reinforce oppression and violence against indigenous populations, the long-standing stewards of perhaps the most important ecosystem in the world. As the Guarani people said in a recent condemnation of the new president, “If indigenous peoples become extinct and dead, the lives of all are threatened, for we are the guardians of nature. Without forest, without water, without rivers, there is no life, there is no way for any Brazilian to survive.”