- During his campaign, presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro repeatedly called for the merger of Brazil’s Ministry of Environment (MMA) and Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply (MAPA). Bolsonaro strongly backs agribusiness, while seeing the work of environmentalists as undermining the Brazilian economy.
- However, the president elect was met in recent days by a firestorm of resistance against the merger from environmentalists, NGOs, scientists, academics, the environmental ministry itself, and from eight former environmental ministers.
- Even the bancada ruralista agribusiness lobby has come out against the proposal, calling it unworkable, noting that the two ministries have different, incompatible missions and agendas that would be compromised by a merger. Others note that a spirited dialogue between the two ministries is politically healthy for the nation.
- Bolsonaro, in response to criticism, said he will reconsider his plan, making a final decision on the merger known after taking office in January. Despite being close during the campaign to extreme right ruralists (mostly cattle ranchers), Bolsonaro has selected Tereza Cristina, a somewhat less radical ruralist, as new agriculture minister.
Throughout his campaign, now victorious presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro pledged that he would abolish Brazil’s Ministry of Environment (MMA) and fold its functions into the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply (MAPA) – a very controversial position.
Two days after winning the race, the former army captain announced the fusion of the two ministries as part of a plan to reduce Brazil’s current 29 cabinet posts by half.
His explanation, given in a March interview, seemed to be based on his blame of the environmental ministry for economic harm: “The MMA manages to do damage to what should not be done,” he declared. In comparison, Bolsonaro sees agribusiness as paramount to Brazil’s wellbeing, as seen in an October speech: “We need a president who will not get in the way of the rural producer. We will not have any more conflicts in that area.”
Bolsonaro’s reasoning is supported by an outspoken and extreme group within the ruralist agribusiness faction – mostly cattle ranchers – represented by Luiz Antonio Nabhan Garcia, president of the Ruralista Democratic Union (UDR). Garcia was a frequent figure seen alongside the candidate during Bolsonaro’s campaign and also in the first round of official acts as president in Brasilia last week. Garcia has strongly criticized the limits put by Brazilian environmental regulations on Amazon deforestation, and also the Paris Agreement.
In talks with other ruralistas, Garcia stated without offering evidence that “the world wants to take over the Brazilian Amazon,” threatening Brazil’s sovereignty. He has also referred to the Paris Agreement as toilet paper, and asked: “What benefits does the Paris Agreement bring to Brazil and us Brazilian [land]owners? Nothing!”
Bolsonaro reverses himself
Opposition to the ministry merger was swift, coming from environmentalists, NGOs, scientists, academics and the environmental ministry itself.
Eight former environment ministers – Marina Silva, José Sarney Filho, Izabella Teixeira, Carlos Minc, Gustavo Krause, José Carlos Carvalho, Rubens Ricupero and José Goldemberg – published a joint article in defense of maintaining the Ministry of Environment, along with Brazil’s continued participation in the Paris Agreement. Bolsonaro proposed withdrawing from the accord during his campaign, a position from which he has since somewhat distanced himself.
Perhaps surprisingly, another group within Brazilian society – primarily representing soy, sugarcane, paper pulp and other crop growers, but not cattlemen – came out strongly against fusing the ministries. Just after the first-round election in early October, 40 representatives from the bancada ruralista agribusiness lobby in Congress met with the then candidate, who was awaiting the runoff election, and urged him not to combine the ministries.
After that meeting, Garcia, a big defender of the merger, told the press that Bolsonaro would review the issue.
Not a practicable idea
The reason many ruralists balked: the unworkability and inconsistency of the proposal – MMA and MAPA have different charters and responsibilities, they said, and often take antagonistic positions.
Even Blairo Maggi, Minister of Agriculture under current President Michel Temer and one of the largest soybean producers in Brazil, opposed the change: “How can a MAPA minister remark on an oil field or mineral exploration? [which are among MMA activities]. The fusion will bring losses to Brazilian agribusiness, due to demands made by European countries [for the nation’s farmers] to play a role in environmental preservation.”
Tereza Cristina, president of the bancada ruralista and House deputy re-elected by Mato Grosso do Sul, also showed her doubts: “I will not say if I am for or against it, but it raises a concern to bring a ministry of that size and complexity to Agriculture.” Since making that statement, Bolsonaro selected Cristina to run the agriculture ministry, replacing Maggi. Cristina’s views in favor of agribusiness and against environmental regulation – especially in favor of the relaxation of pesticide rules – are seen as conservative by analysts, but less radical than those expressed by Garcia.
The Ministry of Environment, posted a note on its official website, explaining problems with the proposed merger: “The two bodies are of immense national and international relevance and have their own agendas, which overlap only in a small fraction of their competencies. An example is that of the 2,782 licensing processes currently being carried out by IBAMA [the federal environmental regulatory agency], only 29 are related to agriculture… Undermining the authority represented by the Ministry of Environment, at a time when concern about the climate crisis intensifies, would be risky. The world, more than ever, expects Brazil to maintain its environmental leadership. ”
Contacted by Mongabay, the environmental ministry declined to discuss the merger further.
Comings and goings
Despite the objections raised, Bolsonaro announced he would join the two ministries less than two days after his victory. But only two days later he stepped back from his decision, though in an ambiguous way. In his first press conference as president elect, he declared: “I have two months to decide, but it looks like [the ministries] will be separate.… But Jair Bolsonaro will be the one to choose the Minister of Environment. And [that appointee] will not be [nominated] by pressure from NGOs or a radical in defense of the environment.”
Defending his reasoning for the merger, he said: “There has always been a struggle between the Ministry of Agriculture and Environment, and [I] had to pacify it. In some countries they are only one ministry.”
Others dispute Bolsonaro’s contention. According to data gathered by the Climate Observatory (OC), a network of civil society organizations that disseminates climate change data, “no major commodity producer or country” has ever advocated for this kind of ministry “junction or annexation. In the United States, India, China, Canada, Mexico, Argentina and Spain, [and elsewhere] the departments or ministries are separated.”
Contacted by Mongabay by email and by phone, the headquarters of Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party (PSL) did not respond to queries for this story.
Bad for business and the country
Criticism of the merger has continued unabated. The potential combination of the ministries “will bring serious damage to Brazil and will pass on to consumers abroad the idea that all Brazilian agribusiness survives thanks to the destruction of forests, attracting the fury of non-tariff barriers to the disadvantage of all,” said former environmental minister and 2018 presidential candidate Marina Silva on Twitter.
Alessandro Molon, a federal House deputy for Rio de Janeiro, told Mongabay that the subordination of the environmental agenda to agribusiness interests is an obsolete vision. “Not even the most expressive part of the bancada ruralista, both in terms of number of representatives and in business values, is in favor of this terrible idea.”
The fusion, instead of facilitating agribusiness, as Bolsonaro believes, would be equivalent to shooting oneself in the foot, said Carlos Rittl, executive secretary of Climate Observatory. “When [agribusiness] producers go to Brussels [the EU political center], they will hear demands for sustainability requirements and will not escape from them.”
Rittl told Mongabay that if the two ministries are fused, the Brazilian economy, which depends heavily on agribusiness, could face setbacks. “The country is still struggling to get out of recession, and [that] recovery [requires] the support of good agribusiness practices. We would only gain from it – the country, the science, the economy, business and the image of Brazil.”
According to Angelo Costa Gurgel, professor of economics at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV), the merger would create difficulties for the progress of both agendas: “A ministry that accumulates the responsibility of supervising programs, activities, and developments of both agribusiness and environment would have too many [widely divergent] challenges, making it difficult to be well managed under the coordination of one single ministry and minister. Who would be the [possible] ministers and secretaries with the profile, knowledge and experience to handle so many agendas?”
The controversy sparked by the potential fusion shows just how vital the Ministry of Environment is to Brazil, said OC’s Rittl, who added that: “If Bolsonaro realizes this fact, he can make decisions that will benefit the country.”
In addition, Rittl noted that Brazilian ministers of agriculture and of the environment, though they may not agree, have long enjoyed a spirited and productive dialogue: “The new president talks about having less ‘ideology,’ but even ruralistas like Kátia Abreu, for instance, with all her bias, was willing to dialogue [with environmentalists] once she sat in the chair of the [Agriculture] ministry.”
Brazil has the opportunity to become the largest agricultural and environmental power in the world, said Gurgel, but for that to happen, a consonance of goals is needed: “That harmony will only occur through a long-term alignment of the two agendas, respecting the competencies of each [and] of both and seeking solutions to potential conflicts.”
It is worth noting, Gurgel added, that a significant portion of Brazilian agribusiness already recognizes the need to ensure an environmentally sustainable and socially fair production system. And likewise, a considerable part of the nation’s environmental movement is allied with the agribusiness sector to improve best practices and the image of the country.
“In short, the commitment of the two agendas through a discussion founded on science and knowledge, and for the sake of sustainable development in Brazil, seems a better alternative than the fusion of the two ministries,” said Gurgel.
However, environmentalists, ruralists and the Brazilian public will need to wait until January for Bolsonaro’s ascent to power, before learning his final decision on the matter.
Banner image: Jair Bolsonaro. Fábio Rodrigues Pozzebom/Agência Brasil.
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