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Bolsonaro trails in polls, but his base in Congress looks likely to persist

Jair Bolsonaro

Jair Bolsonaro on his way to the airport in June, 2022. Image by Alan Santos/PR via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

  • With Brazil’s presidential election scheduled for Oct. 2, environmental activists have expressed hope that a turning point in favor of nature could be just weeks away if Jair Bolsonaro loses.
  • But two-thirds of the current lower house of Congress voted for anti-environmental bills, and experts predict that the profile of the lawmakers will remain right-wing and pro-agribusiness.
  • Deforestation in the Amazon rose to its highest levels in 10 years under Bolsonaro, who vowed to open up the rainforest to agriculture and mining.
  • However, experts say a greener agenda could be possible depending on who is appointed the next lower and upper house presidents, a decision that will be made early next year.

Brazilians will go to the polls in October to vote in presidential and congressional elections that many consider a critical moment for the fate of the environment in Brazil. Activists say they’re hopeful the outcome could offer the country a chance to restore environmental protections slashed under the current administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, and forge greener policies.

“This year’s elections are highly relevant because they will define the future of the environment and climate agenda of the country,” Mariana Mota, public policy coordinator at Greenpeace Brasil, told Mongabay by phone.

Under Bolsonaro, who took office at the start of 2019 and is running for reelection, the government has curtailed the powers of the federal environmental protection agency, IBAMA, and pledged to open up the Amazon region to agriculture and mining. Critics say this has contributed to record levels of deforestation in the Amazon and encouraged illegal land grabs and mining in Indigenous territories.

“What is needed is for the next elected government to reverse these current policies and replace them with strong environmental protection and climate crisis-fighting strategies,” Mota said.

Illegal logging in the state of Pará, home to vast swaths of Amazon rainforest. Experts estimate that up to 90% of deforestation in this Brazilian biome is illegal. Image © Fábio Nascimento/Greenpeace.

The Oct. 2 election will also see Brazilians vote for members of Congress, who will play a central role in determining Brazil’s environmental policies. Current opinion polls indicate a greener outlook, with more than three-quarters of Brazilians favoring a government that prioritizes the environment, according to a survey conducted in July by PowerData. The poll showed 62% would more likely vote for a candidate who presented a specific plan to protect the Amazon.

Natalie Unterstell, president of the Talanoa Institute, a climate policy think tank, said other opinion polls in recent years also showed that the Amazon has become a key issue in elections.

“Brazilians want a government that is pro-Amazon Rainforest, that ultimately helps us to develop that region in a sustainable way,” she told Mongabay by phone.

The current profile of Congress, however, appears to favor agricultural and mining development at the expense of environmental conservation.

“In the last four years, Congress has seen a change to an extreme right-wing policy,” Pedro Rapozo, a sociology professor at Amazonas State University, told Mongabay by phone. The upper house of Congress, the Senate, has 81 members, while the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, has 513 lawmakers. Nearly half of all current senators and deputies are associated with Brazil’s congressional “ruralist” lobby, which caters to the country’s powerful, Bolsonaro-supporting, agribusiness sector.

This ruralist caucus, as it’s known, has backed a series of bills that environmental activists have dubbed the “death package” because of the unbridled devastation they say it threatens to unleash on the Amazon and on human rights if passed into law. Some of the more controversial provisions in the bills would pave the way for land grabbers and illegal loggers, loosen environmental licensing, and open up Indigenous territories to mining.

Illegal mining within the Yanomami Indigenous Territory in the state of Roraima. In March this year, Congress agreed to fast-track a bill allowing mining inside protected Indigenous lands. Image © Christian Braga/Greenpeace.

Since Bolsonaro took office, more than two-thirds of deputies (351 out of 513) voted for measures and bills considered detrimental to the environment, to Indigenous peoples, and to rural workers, according to the Ruralômetro, a tool developed by nonprofit news outlet Repórter Brasil. It also found that at least 16 deputies were hit with a total of 1 million reais ($192,000) in environmental fines by IBAMA since 2018, for violations including illegal deforestation, hunting and fishing, as well as unauthorized construction in areas designated for preservations.

The Senate also has several prominent members pushing an anti-environment agenda, including Zequinha Marinho, representing the Amazonian state of Pará. According to a report by Agência Publica, a nonprofit investigative news agency, Marinho is notorious for defending land grabbers and loggers, and advocates removing land use restrictions in the Ituna-Itatá Indigenous Territory, a 142,000-hectare (350,900-acre) protected reserve that’s home to isolated communities. During his stint as president of the government’s Climate Change Joint Committee (CMMC), which monitors actions related to climate change issues in Brazil, Marinho downplayed the role of human activity in global warming, saying in a 2019 interview that “there’s a lot of folklore in the issue of climate change.”

But even congressional candidates who espouse views that go against the popular concern for the environment stand a chance of getting elected, according to Fabricio Pereira, a professor of political science at the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro (UNIRIO). Pereira said the large number of candidates — 27,095 running in federal, state and district legislatures — dilutes voting power, allowing candidates to win with a minority vote.

“Voting for president is very different from voting for deputies. It means that the elected Congress does not necessarily reflect population trends,” Pereira told Mongabay by phone.

“The deputies elected have votes from a small minority of the population. Also, a good part of the population ends up not voting for anyone or for someone who the pastor, their family, or a friend recommended, or someone connected to the militia that controls the community.

“Economic power is very important as well,” he added. “Only deputies with a lot of money or famous deputies who have access to the media or celebrities are elected.”

In an emailed statement to Mongabay, the Chamber of Deputies said its deliberations are “a collective negotiation process, which takes place by agreement between party leaders.” It did not comment on specific questions about the profile or outlook of Congress.

The 2022 elections could be a turning point for Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest, which has witnessed the highest levels of deforestation in a decade under the Bolsonaro administration. Image © Victor Moriyama/Greenpeace.

Change unlikely in Congress

Despite polls currently predicting a defeat for Bolsonaro to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a popular former president, experts say it’s unlikely that the incumbent’s base of support in Congress will change.

“The trend is for this current profile to continue in Congress, both in the Chamber and the Senate,” Pereira said. “I believe there is a small increase in the left, but the correlation of forces in Congress will not change much. The ruralist caucus will continue to be incredibly strong.”

Mota said the number of candidates seeking reelection this time around is one of the highest, and “we don’t expect the profile to change much,” even as more candidates from traditionally marginalized groups, such as from Indigenous and quilombola (rural Afro-Brazilian) communities, mount a challenge this year.

“Though we do hope there will be some names that can raise a stronger environmental agenda. We have a lot more Indigenous, quilombola, and green candidates in this election,” Mota said. “We don’t know if voters will vote for them and if they will win. But it’s more likely since we have more candidates.”

This election features a record number of Indigenous candidates, with at least 178 registered, an increase of 37% from 2018 and double the number from the 2014 elections. Yet this still represents less than 1% of all candidates running this year. One of the strongest Indigenous candidates is Joenia Wapichana, the only Indigenous representative currently in Congress. Another popular candidate is Sonia Guajajara, who ran for vice president in 2018 and is now seeking one of São Paulo state’s 70 seats in the federal Chamber.

“We have the highest number of Indigenous people vying for federal positions, such as federal deputy, state deputy and even for senator,” Nícolas Nascimento, a lawyer at the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI), an advocacy group affiliated with the Catholic Church, told Mongabay by phone. “This can cause an expansion of the left-wing and the Indigenous caucus in Congress that today has just Wapichana.”

Rodrigo Pacheco was elected president of the Senate at the start of 2021 after being endorsed by President Jair Bolsonaro. Image © Wilson Dias/Agência Brasil.

Congressional leadership plays a central role in determining the agenda in Congress, said Unterstell from the Talanoa Institute. “In the first two years of this current political cycle, the president of the Chamber and of the Senate only voted on matters that had consensus, and this ended up pushing through many of the agendas that were against the environment and pro-agriculture,” she said.

The respective presidents of the Chamber and the Senate since the start of 2021 have been Arthur Lira and Rodrigo Pacheco — both of them aligned with the ruralist caucus. Their role in helming the congressional agenda helped win backing for Bolsonaro’s policies and saw anti-environment bills being fast-tracked for approval, Mota said.

“In previous years, these bills had less potential to make progress,” she said. “With the current government, however, and especially with Lira as the president of the Chamber, the bills gained ground and could advance.”

For now, the question of who will be appointed as the next presidents of the Chamber and Senate remains uncertain, with the announcement only expected early next year. “We still have to see what the status of power will be in the elections and if these current presidents of the houses will be reelected,” Mota said.

Arthur Lira celebrates and is embraced by members of Congress upon being elected the president of the Chamber of Deputies at the start of 2021. Image © Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil.

Agribusiness influence intensifies

While the anti-environment agenda intensified after Bolsonaro became president, catering to agribusiness interests has been a legislative priority since 2014, after then-president Dilma Rousseff, a Lula protégé, was impeached, said CIMI’s Nascimento (supporters of Rousseff and Lula insist the impeachment was essentially a coup.) CIMI identified 40 deputies and 10 senators who had supported anti-Indigenous bills between 2015 and 2017, during the presidency of Michel Temer, who succeeded Rousseff. Thirty-nine of these legislators were affiliated with the agricultural lobby. In 2017 alone, 848 anti-Indigenous bills were filed, according to CIMI, many of them supported by the ruralist caucus because they would facilitate agribusiness.

While the ruralist caucus will likely continue to yield political influence in Congress regardless of who wins the presidency, a new government would probably support some environmental progress, according to Pereira at UNIRIO.

“There is a strong public opinion to fight deforestation, to resume more [law enforcement] control in the Amazon, and to invest in autonomy in IBAMA,” he said. “This did not exist 20 years ago, there was no such ecological concern in Brazil. Now this theme is popular, and it’s fundamental for Brazil’s global image to fight climate crime. I’m moderately optimistic for these changes.”

Several candidates are running for president, foremost among them Lula, Brazil’s leftist leader from 2003 to 2010. He currently leads polls with 44%, followed by Bolsonaro with 36%, according to PowerData. If no candidate gets more than half of the valid votes in the Oct. 2 ballot, which appears likely, a runoff will take place on Oct. 30, which polls indicate Lula would win.

Environmentalists say a possible defeat for Bolsonaro could mean a greener outlook for Brazil. But critics suggest caution.

“It is easy for us to imagine that when the current president leaves and any president of the opposition enters, it will be good for the environment,” Unterstell said. “I think Lula opposed Jair Bolsonaro and this opposition manifested itself into votes for the environment. But if we look at the history of [Lula’s] Workers’ Party, it’s not green. We cannot say the Workers’ Party is a party for the environment.”

President Jair Bolsonaro is currently trailing in the polls to former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva ahead of the Oct. 2 election. Critics say his defeat would give Brazil a chance to reverse policies blamed for record rates of deforestation and land invasions in Indigenous territories. Image by Alan Santos/PR via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

During Lula’s tenure, he was praised for reducing deforestation in the Amazon, but was also criticized for supporting the Belo Monte dam mega project. Pereira said Lula’s candidacy this time around shows more concern for the environment than before.

“The progressive sectors of the Brazilian left have changed a lot in the last 20 years,” Pereira said. “This includes PT [the Workers’ Party] and Lula himself.”

In April, Lula vowed to tackle crime in the Amazon by cracking down on the thousands of illegal gold miners who have invaded Indigenous territories since Bolsonaro took office, and to create a ministry for Indigenous people.

“A new ministry can provide policies that are truly aligned with the Indigenous peoples and opens the possibility of listening to them,” Nascimento said of the plan. “They themselves can create policies that they believe are good for them. It’s a promise we hope will be fulfilled.”

But the current issues of inflation and the economy have taken precedence during the candidates’ debates, and the environment remains “presented in a superficial way,” Mota said.

“What we need is clear goals from the next government that show it’s really committed to an environmental agenda, an Indigenous protection agenda, and a commitment to the climate confrontation,” she said. “At the moment, there are still a number of uncertainties.”

Banner image: Jair Bolsonaro on his way to the airport in June, 2022. Image by Alan Santos/PR via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

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