- Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro offered up Amazon conservation promises during the April 22 virtual Climate Leaders Summit hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden and attended by heads of state from more than forty nations.
- That same day, Bolsonaro approved Brazil’s 2021 budget that includes a R$240 million ($44 million) annual reduction for the Ministry of the Environment. Conservationists say that the cuts will be utterly devastating for the nation’s deforestation monitoring program.
- The reductions will also impact the monitoring of pollution levels, pesticide contamination (Brazil under Bolsonaro is the biggest user of pesticides in the world), illegal mining, and wildlife trafficking. ICMbio, which oversees 334 of Brazil’s protected areas, also saw cuts.
- While environmentalists were enraged by the slashed ministry budget, the agricultural sector remains largely happy with Bolsonaro whose policies continue to benefit them. However, if Brazil continues along an anti-environmental path, it risks global boycotts of its commodities.
On Earth Day, 22 April, the same day Jair Bolsonaro made his speech at President Joseph Biden’s Climate Leaders Summit (during which the Brazilian president promised to strengthen the country’s environmental bodies “duplicating the funds for environmental monitoring”), he also signed off on the nation’s 2021 budget. Published the following day in the official federal gazette, it included a cut of almost R$240 million ($44 million) for the Ministry of the Environment.
The government had earlier indicated it would be reducing expenditure on environmental monitoring this year, slashing it to two-thirds of the 2019 level, (a budget approved the year before Bolsonaro came to office). The new cut is a further blow. It reduces environmental monitoring expenditures to R$83 million ($15 million), regarded as “absolutely insufficient” by Suely Araujo, a specialist in public policy at the Observatório do Clima (a consortium of NGOs), and a former president of IBAMA, the government’s environmental agency.
The Bolsonaro administration’s action immediately triggered the wrath of environmentalists, at home and abroad. The young Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, commented on her Twitter account: “Oops… it’s almost as if our ‘climate leaders’ aren’t taking this seriously.”
Araujo says that at least R$110 million ($20 million) is needed to prevent Brazil’s environmental monitoring program from collapsing. The ministry’s inspectors combat illegal deforestation, while also monitoring pollution levels, pesticide contamination, illegal mining, wildlife trafficking and other activities.
The Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMbio), responsible for 334 of Brazil’s protected areas covering 9.3% of the nation’s territory, and 20% of Brazilian waterways, also suffered further cuts. It has been allocated just R$101 million ($18 million).
“For ICMBio to be able to manage properly all the areas it is responsible for, it needs three times more money than it has been given,” Araujo said.
Environmental experts believe that the harm done will be even greater than the stark budget numbers suggest: “Under previous governments, we relied on money that came into Brazil as non-reimbursable funds [from Norway, Germany and other nations]. And this money made the work of the environmental organs viable insofar as it provided the structure for inspection and surveillance,” said Elisabeth Uema, Executive-Secretary of Ascema Nacional (the National Association of Environment Specialists).
But, she adds, these international grants have rigid rules. They require, for example, commitments, criteria for monitoring expenditure, and close scrutiny. “By abolishing or weakening the councils that monitored the projects benefiting from these resources, Bolsonaro has made it unviable to use this money. Nobody is stupid enough to give money to Brazil [for environmental protection] and not be able to monitor how it is spent.”
While conservationists have repeatedly been angered by administration policies, others view the Bolsonaro government much more positively. Brazilian agribusiness is booming. The government has given the go-ahead to many more pesticides, with almost a third of the more than 3,000 pesticides authorized for use in Brazil being approved under Bolsonaro. Many of these authorizations are for generic agrochemicals, making the products cheaper and available to more farmers.
The soy harvest is well underway, with yields this year expected to reach 135.5 million tons, a further 8.6% increase on last year’s record figure. With high prices for soy on the world market, and the Brazilian real remaining weak on the currency market, Brazilian farmers, who are paid in dollars, are reportedly feeling happy. Agribusiness may have more to celebrate soon — controversial Bolsonaro-backed bills are wending through Congress to make it easier for agricultural expansion in the Amazon at the expense of protected rainforest and Indigenous and traditional peoples.
However, trouble may lay ahead for Brazilian agribusiness if Bolsonaro refuses to heed international warnings to stem Amazon deforestation and better sequester carbon, policies seen as essential to curbing global climate change. Later this year, if Amazon fires are as bad or worse than in 2019 and 2020, Brazilian agricultural exports could face an EU and international boycott, which might hurt sales, though no one yet knows how China, Brazil’s largest commodities customer, and chief Brazilian soy buyer, will respond.
Banner image: A Brazilian soy plantation being sprayed with pesticides. Image courtesy of Agencia Publica.
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