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Bolsonaro pledges government shakeup, deregulation, Amazon development

  • Events are unfolding rapidly in Brazil, as president elect Jair Bolsonaro selects members of his administration and continues to propose what many analysts see as sweeping and draconian changes to the Brazilian government and environmental regulations.
  • Bolsonaro, while stepping back from plans for a merger of the Environment Ministry with the Agriculture Ministry, still plans major government reorganization. Paulo Guedes, his chief economic advisor, for example, could lead a super ministry merging duties of the Finance, Planning, Industry and Foreign Trade ministries.
  • During the presidential campaign, Amazon deforestation rates rose by nearly 50 percent, possibly as Bolsonaro supporters and land grabbers anticipate government retreat from environmental protections. Analysts worry Bolsonaro will criminalize social movements and end the demarcation of indigenous reserves assured by the 1988 Constitution.
  • Bolsonaro also chose Tereza Cristina as Agriculture Minister. She is known for her intense support of pesticide deregulation, and for backing a bill to fast track socio-environmental licensing of large infrastructure projects such as dams, railways, roads, industrial waterways, and mines – a position Bolsonaro also supports.
Jair Bolsonaro. Image by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / Agência Brasil.

Jair Bolsonaro, who won the Brazilian election in late October, does not take office until 1 January 2019. However, the extreme right populist politician has already signaled that he intends a radical reorganization of the Brazilian state, along with a drastic rollback in environmental, social, indigenous and labor advances gained in more than a century of struggle.

Whether he will be able to achieve these goals remains to be seen. The following update attempts to capture some of the sweep of events overtaking Brazil since Bolsonaro’s victory.

Wide-ranging administrative reorganization

Bolsonaro has appointed Paulo Guedes his chief economic advisor. Guedes is a staunch advocate of the radical free market policies advanced by the so-called Chicago Boys during the brutal dictatorship of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet – policies that include high levels of government privatization, deregulation and tax reform popular with foreign investors; that’s potentially bad news for the environment, social movements and indigenous groups.

Guedes recently confirmed that he plans far-reaching change: “The reform of the state is a natural and age-old movement, which is long overdue [in Brazil],” he said. Guedes continued by asserting that Bolsonaro has promised to create “a new axis of governability” through “an alliance of the center-right in support of the market economy.”

In a meeting with politicians, Guedes spelt out his vision for the kind of shock treatment that transformed the Chilean economy in the 1970s: “We are prisoners of social democracy and have been for 30 years … If you support the measures for reforming the state, it is a year and a half of harsh sacrifice and it’s over. If you don’t support them, it’s slow.”

Under Bolsonaro’s proposed administrative shake up, Guedes would oversee a vast economic empire, and be in charge of a huge swathe of economic activities, which today are delegated to the Finance, Planning, Industry and Foreign Trade Ministries.

Future head of Brazil’s Ministry of the Economy, Paulo Guedes. Image by REPÓRTER NBR licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

The scale of the restructuring and consolidation – which needn’t be approved by the legislature – has startled some analysts. Vinicius Torres Freire, a Folha de S. Paulo newspaper commentator writes: “This is just the first step in a profound alteration in the Brazilian state, which will lead to massive changes in macroeconomic policies, industrial policy, social welfare, tax collection and foreign trade.”

He went on: “The general direction of the earthquake is to prepare the way for change on a scale rarely encountered in Brazil’s history. It’ll be comparable with the transformation carried out by President Getúlio Vargas [who ruled from 1930 to 1945 and introduced Brazil’s social welfare system] … except in the other direction.”

Many corporations and investors, particularly in the United States are excited about these prospects, and are expected to bid for the assets of big Brazilian state companies as privatization gets under way. An indication of the new team’s wish to foster closer relations with Washington came from Bolsonaro’s choice of new Foreign Minister – Ernesto Araújo, a career diplomat and currently head of the Department of the United States, Canada and Inter-American Affairs in Brazil’s foreign ministry. He has never headed an embassy abroad and writes an extreme right blog.

The Bolsonaro presidential transition team did not respond as of the time of publication to Mongabay’s request for comment for this story.

The 2015 Climate Agreement negotiated in Paris gave the world new hope, but since then President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the accord, and in recent months presidential candidate Bolsonaro threatened to withdraw Brazil as well. Photo credit: y.caradec on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-SA

Flip-flopping on ministry merger, Paris

In the face of widespread protest inside Brazil and abroad, Bolsonaro may be rethinking his earlier plan to merge the Environment Ministry with the Agriculture Ministry (which critics say would doom federal environmental regulation).

Bolsonaro may also be having second thoughts regarding the Paris Climate Agreement. At first he said that the accord was a threat to Brazil’s “national sovereignty,” and proposed withdrawing from the agreement, following the example of a man he idolizes, Donald Trump.

But then Bolsonaro appeared to rethink, saying that he might keep Brazil in the agreement, provided it didn’t promote the so-called Triple A initiative – a plan to create the world’s largest ecological corridor, linking the Andes, the Amazon and the Atlantic. Like many of his military backers, Bolsonaro fears that this speculative project could lead to the long-feared “internationalization of the Amazon,” though there is little evidence to back that assertion.

Mongabay asked Bolsonaro and his transition team for clarification regarding the Paris Agreement, but did not receive a response.

While Brazil set an example for the world in curbing deforestation earlier in the 21st Century, deforestation rates are rising again and expected to go much higher if Bolsonaro follows through with his proposed Amazon development policies. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

Deforestation on the rise during election

The president elect has repeatedly made clear in his statements that he plans to scale back Brazil’s ecosystem protections and enforcement. And his supporters in the Amazon may already be responding to his rise to power with unbridled enthusiasm.

One of the most dramatic indications of what could lie ahead came with the publication of Amazon deforestation figures for the three months during the electoral campaign (end-July to end-October). These showed a dramatic increase of 48.8 percent in the amount of Amazon deforestation. Over these three months, 1,674 square kilometres (646 square miles) of forest, an area more than twice that of New York City was cut down.

The figures come from Deter B, a project run by INPE (the National Institute of Space Research), which records deforestation in almost real time to assist the government’s environment agency, IBAMA, in its monitoring work. These are not the official figures, announced annually by the government, which are also produced by INPE, but using the PRODES system, which records deforestation in higher resolution. However, there are generally few significant differences between the two sets of statistics.

The biggest increases in illegal deforestation occurred near the border of Acre and Amazonas states in the extreme west of Brazil, along the BR-364 highway area of influence, which runs diagonally across Brazil from São Paulo state to the Peru border. Acre and Amazonas recorded increases in deforestation over the three-month election period of 273 percent and 114 percent, respectively. Most of the illegally forest conversion was done for cattle ranchers, among Bolsonaro’s biggest supporters.

Existential threat to indigenous reserves

Deforestation generally increases in Amazonia during electoral periods, largely due to promises made by politicians to help land grabbers get illegally-occupied land registered and legitimized. Because ruralists have managed under previous administrations to occupy a lot of available public land and eventually gain title to it, they appear to now be eying indigenous territory and quilombos – the 3,000+ settlements in Brazil that are home to runaway slave descendants.

Bolsonaro often declared during his electoral campaign that indigenous people should be “emancipated,” by which he means that they should lose their collective right to occupy indigenous reserves and instead be treated as individuals, each with a right to own their personal plot of land. Indigenous individuals would then be free to sell or rent these plots.

The candidate explained: “North American Indians live, to a large extent, on royalties from casinos. You [Brazil’s Indians] could live off royalties not only from mining, but also from the exploration of biodiversity and the construction of hydroelectric dams on your land.” This is a policy that ruralists have long actively promoted, possibly seeing it as a way to get their hands on Brazil’s indigenous territories.

Brazilian cattle ranchers are among Bolsonaro’s staunchest supporters. They’re also responsible for much of the upswing in Amazon deforestation seen in recent years. Image © Erik Lopes courtesy of The Nature Conservancy.

Agribusiness over environment

This year, land grabbers were further encouraged by Bolsonaro’s repeated criticisms of IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency, with a false claim that it had created “an industry of fines,” and his repeated assertion that Brazil has too many protected areas and indigenous territories. (In truth, the fines IBAMA charges are rarely paid, or are forgiven, while Brazil has enough degraded land to support agribusiness without further deforestation.)

Bolsonaro himself was fined in 2012 for fishing in a protected area. But he denies the facts, despite overwhelming evidence of his guilt. Even though he was photographed by the inspectors who caught him, he has said defiantly: “I was massacred as a federal deputy for a crime I didn’t commit.” Bolsonaro has promised that it will be different in his government: “Imagine [the injustice] of a rural producer being submitted to the whim of IBAMA,” he said.

A photo of Jair Bolsonaro taken as evidence of his illegal fishing by an environmental inspector within the Tamois Ecological Station in Rio de Janeiro in January 2012. Despite the picture and other evidence, Bolsonaro has denied the charge. Photo courtesy of IBAMA.

During the campaign, the candidate claimed to be responding to “the clamors of the national productive sector – from small [agricultural] producers to big business.” In their turn, the ruralists expressed their appreciation for the help Bolsonaro offered them with “the environmental question,” and pledged assistance in getting him elected: “We are going to put our structure at his service so he wins, and wins by a large margin,” producers said.

Electorally, Bolsonaro’s strategy of appealing to rural producers appeared to work. An investigation by ecologist Ricardo Machado at the University of Brasilia, revealed a clear connection between higher rates of deforestation and pro-Bolsonaro votes. His research showed that municipal districts in Amazonia where a majority of voters opted for Bolsonaro had a rate of deforestation two-and-a-half times higher than those municipal districts where a majority of voters chose the opposition candidate, Fernando Haddad.

Tereza Cristina, leader of Bolsonaro’s Liberal Social Party (PSL), and head of the Agricultural Parliamentary Front (FPA) known as the bancada ruralista in Congress. In January, she takes up a position as Brazil’s Agriculture Minister. Image courtesy of Agencia Brasil.

Agriculture minister named, deregulation likely

Bolsonaro’s choice for Agriculture Minister Is another signal of the new administration’s direction. The person appointed, Tereza Cristina, is the leader of Bolsonaro’s Liberal Social Party (PSL). She also heads the Agricultural Parliamentary Front (FPA), known as the bancada ruralista, which brings together over 200 members of the federal legislature linked to agribusiness and mining. She owns numerous cattle ranches and maintains close contact with the JBS group, one of the world’s largest food processing companies. JBS was at the center of two of Brazil’s most serious corruption scandals, with Brazilian President Michel Temer also implicated.

Cristina is a strong backer of Brazil’s 3729/2004 bill that would streamline the nation’s environmental licensing process for new projects, including dams, roads, railways, industrial waterways, mines and other proposed infrastructure that would greatly benefit agribusiness and other commodities interests, along with international investors.

Bolsonaro has likewise indicated his support for fast-tracking the infrastructure licensing process, suggesting that socio-environmental assessments be cut to as little as 90 days, an inadequate period for such studies, say scientists. Retired general Oswaldo Ferreira, in charge of infrastructure planning for Bolsonaro’s campaign, recently suggested reopening feasibility studies for the São Luiz do Tapajós mega-dam, in Pará, shelved in 2016, and a resumption of analyses for proposed Amazon hydropower dams with large reservoirs.

Tereza Cristina has also been dubbed by critics (with more than a pinch of sexism), as “the muse of poison,” because of her enthusiastic backing for PL 6299/2002, which abolishes key regulations governing the regulation of pesticides in Brazil. A special commission has approved the bill and it will shortly go to the Chamber of Deputies plenary.

The agronomist Leonardo Melgarejo has pointed out, that even before the bill’s final approval, Brazilians may already be consuming up to 5,000 times more glyphosate in their food than Europeans, because permitted residues are so much higher in the Latin American nation. Glyphosate is the controversial active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. Cristina has told the press that she has hopes of reducing pesticide regulations even further once in office.

Deforested plain in the Brazilian Amazon, now used for cattle. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

Criminalization of social movements

The MST (Landless Workers Movement) has noted an alarming increase in violence since the Bolsonaro election. Kelli Maffort, from MST’s national leadership, reported to a UN InterAmerican Commission of Human Rights mission that is currently visiting Brazil, that the movement has seen a rise in “direct violence, persecution, [and] assassination.” She also said MST is in receipt of information that the new government plans “a massive closure” of schools in MST settlements, as these are considered centers of “guerrilla indoctrination.”

However, Bolsonaro’s characterization of activists seeking housing and agrarian reform as terrorists, doesn’t necessarily portend a draconian government crackdown. Although the candidate frequently said during the campaign he intended to criminalize social movements, his decision to appoint Sérgio Moro as his Justice Minister could signal a more lenient approach. Moro has said that he is against the criminalization of social movements.

Moro, the driving force behind the sweeping Lava Jato (Car Wash) corruption investigation was instrumental in Bolsonaro’s election. He was the federal judge who ordered the arrest of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on corruption charges, even though Lula was the clear front-runner in the election. This opened the way for Bolsonaro, who was then second in the opinion polls.

Indigenous leader Reinaldo Silva Pataxó was recently assassinated in the village of Catarina Caramuru Paraguassú in the rural district of Pau Brasil in Bahia state. Image courtesy of the Blog Paulo José.

Indigenous groups under attack

Targeted by Jair Bolsonaro’s inflammatory rhetoric during his electoral campaign, Brazil’s indigenous groups are bracing for an onslaught on their land rights and public safety.

Valéria Paye, representing the Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), an advocacy group, says the bancada ruralista agribusiness lobby is moving with great speed: “With the election of Bolsonaro, what was once a threat is fast becoming a reality.”

The agribusiness lobby is moving quickly to pass PL 490/2007 before Bolsonaro even takes office. This bill would change the Statute of the Indian, transferring the authority to demarcate indigenous land from the Executive to the Legislative branch, where ruralists hold sway.

Although the president elect denies he is encouraging violence against indigenous groups, he has continued his tough talk. In October, he told TV Bandeirantes, “I have said – and I repeat it – if it depended on me there would be no more indigenous demarcations.” The demarcation of indigenous preserves is guaranteed under the 1988 Brazilian Constitution.

Bolsonaro went on: “After all, we have an area larger than the whole of the Southeast [one of Brazil’s five regions], which has been marked out as indigenous land. And how does this leave a farmer’s security? He may wake up one day and find that he is going to lose his land through a government decree.”

This oft repeated message appears to have reassured landowners that they will soon have a president who unequivocally takes their side. And perhaps because of this, there has been a noticeable uptick in rural violence against indigenous communities since Bolsonaro’s rise. It is likely that more attacks, carried out in remote areas, have occurred but not been reported in the media, but this is selection of some which have been documented:

Ava-Guarani indian, Donecildo Agueiro, in hospital after being shot. Indigenous groups are deeply concerned that the Bolsonaro administration will deprive them of their territories. Image courtesy of Cimi.

Abolition or absorption of Labor Ministry?

As part of the government reorganization, Bolsonaro first said he planned to abolish the Labor Ministry, but in the face of widespread protests, he seems to have stepped back from that position, saying the Labor Ministry would continue to exist. But he added, in somewhat mystifying fashion: “All that is happening is that it’s being absorbed by another ministry.”

Analysts believe any reduction in the Labor Ministry’s autonomy would have a profound impact on urban and rural workers. The ministry decided in June 2018 that a substantial sum – R$81 billion (US$22 billion) – would be made available in 2019 to pay public benefits, including sums for Brazil’s unemployed. If in the new administration, there’s no autonomous ministry defending the rights of workers, these benefits could be eroded. During his electoral campaign, Bolsonaro repeatedly said: “Workers must decide if they want fewer rights and a job, or every right and unemployment.”

The announcement of Labor Ministry abolishment was received with consternation by leading commentators, including those writing for the conservative press.

Míriam Leitão, a commentator in O Globo newspaper, writes: “Brazil is going through the most serious unemployment crisis in its history. This is not the moment to put an end to the Labor Ministry without making clear who will take over its policies … There are 12.5 million unemployed people in Brazil, along with another 4.4 million who have simply given up looking for a job.”

The Labor Ministry also carries out key tasks, including the combatting of slave labor. According to the United Nations, 369,000 workers were held in conditions analogous to slavery in Brazil during 2016.

But in 2017, the budget for the ministry’s work in combatting slavery was cut by more than 50 percent, severely reducing the number of operations that the unit was able to carry out – raids on illegal Amazon timber operations, rural farms and ranches, for example.

Even before the ministry abolition was announced, the National Union of Labor Inspectors published a letter warning of possible impacts: “Without monitoring, the labor market reverts to barbarity. It sets up a vicious circle of precariousness, poverty, exploitation and lack of conditions for consumption that affects the national productive system with a harmful impact on the country’s social and economic development.”

A jaguar (Panthera onca). In all of Bolsonaro’s statements about Amazon policy, the region’s extraordinary biodiversity and the threat posed by agribusiness and mining to the environment was not discussed. Photo credit: nickathanas on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

“The Norwegians have to learn from the Brazilians”

The atmosphere in Brazil is expected to become chillier for International organizations, particularly those working in the environmental sector, though this remains uncertain.

On 12 November, federal deputy Onyx Lorenzini, who heads Bolsonaro’s transition team and is expected to be his top aide, stated that his figures showed that Brazilian and international NGOs had pocketed 40 percent of the RS$14 billion (US$3.7 billion) that environmental agencies had charged in fines. He was referring to the fact that those guilty of environmental crimes can receive a discount of 60 percent in the value of the fine provided they use this money to finance projects of environmental recuperation. Among those to have benefited are WWF Brasil and Caritas linked to the Catholic Church. The Bolsonaro government has now said it will stop this program.

Lorenzini said the new government would be investigating this and other activities carried out by foreign NGOs. He also compared the amount of forest that Europe destroyed throughout history with Brazil’s record, and said: “It’s not acceptable for an NGO to come from Norway or Holland and tell us what to do … The Norwegians have to learn from the Brazilians, not us learn from them.“

The president elect won a mandate in the Brazilian election, but indigenous groups, quilombos, and social movements fear for their autonomy and safety under a Bolsonaro administration. Image courtesy of Congresso em Foco.

End of the “New Republic”?

Indications are that Bolsonaro – an Army captain during Brazil’s military dictatorship – is intent on ending the nation’s “New Republic,” a period of democratic government and important social and environmental advances that began at the end of military rule in 1985.

Maud Chirio, a French historian and specialist in the Brazilian right, comments: Bolsonaro “represents a segment that has always rejected the Republic that emerged from the 1988 Constitution and its defense of ethnic, religious diversity and pluralism.” While no one can say what will happen, Chirio doesn’t believe Bolsonaro will soften his views once he moves into the Presidential Palace.

She also doubts that the Legislative and Judiciary branches and the press will be strong enough to act as a brake to Bolsonaro’s retrogressive policies. She sees a close parallel between the way the president elect thinks and the ideology of Brazil’s military government (1964-1985). “A great part of his discourse is dominated by the [idea of] violent repression and opposition to the left, with his mention of forced exile and even the definitive elimination of opponents … It is thus possible to characterize as non-democratic the regime that will come to power in January 2019.”

Still, many Brazilians doubt Bolsonaro has the capacity to carry out his plans. “He promises to ‘put right’ the country but he has never been efficient. In the Chamber of Deputies since 1990, he only got one bill through Congress,” writes one commentator. “He has feet of clay.”

And so, Brazil waits.

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Bolsonaro’s pro-agribusiness and anti-environmental policies, if implemented, may trigger an unexpected butterfly effect: rampant deforestation combined with global climate change risks a tipping point, with drought rapidly becoming the new climate normal for the Amazon, triggering vast swathes of rainforest converted to savanna, and a collapse of Brazil’s freshwater aquifers. This plausible sequence of events poses an existential threat to agribusiness, urban populations and Brazil’s national economy. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.