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Conservatives tighten grip on Brazil Congress, hampering environmental agenda

  • Brazilians elected a more conservative Congress in the Oct. 2 ballot, with supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro and the agribusiness lobby winning seats in both the lower and upper houses.
  • Experts say that if former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva wins the runoff presidential vote on Oct. 30, he could curtail some of the pressure from the agribusiness caucus and reverse the past four years of destructive policies for the Amazon.
  • Two Indigenous women and former environment minister Marina Silva are expected to lead the opposition against the agribusiness, mining and logging agenda in Congress, after winning seats in the lower house.

As the rest of the world closely watched Brazil’s presidential election on Oct. 2, the country’s conservative bloc made significant gains in a Congress that it already dominates. This could prove a key stumbling block to any future efforts to rein in the deforestation and environmental destruction that’s become a signature of the Jair Bolsonaro administration.

Bolsonaro fared far better in the election than polls had predicted, winning 43% of the vote to favorite and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s 48%, and forcing a runoff vote between the pair on Oct. 30. Pollsters had given Lula a lead of 10 points or more, and as the international media contemplated his “victory that smacked of defeat,” Bolsonaro’s supporters in the lower and upper houses of Congress were also exceeding expectations.

In the lower house, known as the Chamber of Deputies, where all 513 seats were up for grabs, the incumbents won resoundingly, with 294, or 57%, securing reelection — the highest rate since 1998. The agribusiness caucus in particular, known as the Bancada Ruralista, saw 56% of its members win reelection. In addition, new candidates associated with the Bolsonaro-supporting agribusiness sector won seats in both the Chamber and the upper house, the Senate, where 27 of the 81 seats were at stake. Among them is Ricardo Salles, Bolsonaro’s former environment minister, whose resignation last year amid an ongoing illegal logging investigation didn’t stop him winning one of the highest vote totals of any legislative candidate in the country.

Salles joins a Chamber that is already staunchly conservative and pro-Bolsonaro: in a recent analysis, 351 out of the 513 current members scored unfavorably on socioenvironmental issues. That means that even if Lula wins the runoff at the end of the month — which appears likely, though by no means guaranteed, given Bolsonaro’s surprise showing in the first round — he would face an even more conservative Congress, with many of its members pushing an anti-environment agenda and climate change denialism. Environmental activists say this makes it all the more important that Lula win to undo the four years of environmentally destructive policies championed by Bolsonaro.

The election wasn’t all bad news for environmental defenders: several deputies with a pro-environment agenda also won reelection, while the number of Indigenous deputies will double to two, after just one Indigenous candidate was elected to the Chamber in 2018. A notable winner is Marina Silva, who was the minister of environment under Lula.

The number of members in the lower house who were reelected, 294 out of 513, was the highest since 1998. Image courtesy of Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil.

At the same time, Bolsonaro’s right-wing Liberal Party (PL) increased its share of seats in the Chamber by 30%, going from 76 to 99 seats, while right-leaning parties allied with the incumbent won control of 36% of the Chamber, with 187 deputies. Candidates allied with Lula won 108 seats (21%). But in a fragmented assembly, with some 20 political parties elected by proportional representation, the center-right Centrão caucus, which allies with whoever is in power, still dominates, bringing together a constellation of parties seen as opportunistic and ideologically devoid.

“This means that there are many deputies [with whom] the new commander-in-chief will have to negotiate the environmental agenda,” Natalie Unterstell, president of the Talanoa Institute, a climate policy think tank, told Mongabay by phone. She said the greatest concern lies in the Senate, since some of the new senators-elect are strong anti-environmental figures with an “unreasonable agenda.”

In the Senate, which has often served as a check against the more aggressive proposals for environmental deregulation from the lower house, Bolsonaro’s PL won 14 of the 27 seats up for grabs, becoming the largest party in the upper house. Lula’s left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) won eight seats.

Among the Bolsonaro loyalists elected to the Senate is Tereza Cristina, whose stint as agriculture minister until this past March saw her deregulate a record 1,654 pesticides for use in the country.

Unterstell said the pro-Bolsonaro domination of the Senate could see it usher through the anti-environmental legislation already passed by the Chamber in recent years. This includes a slate of bills known as the “death package” that would, among other things, allow mining in Indigenous territories, weaken environmental protections, and legitimize land grabs.

“Currently, much of the ‘death package’ has been approved by the Chamber and is awaiting a vote in the Senate,” Unterstell said. “This could happen next year.”

Former environment minister Ricardo Salles, who stepped down while under investigation for alleged collusion with illegal logging, was elected to the lower house with 641,000 votes — the fifth-highest total of any legislative candidate in the country. Image by Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil.

‘Destroyers were rewarded’

Prominent environmental defenders didn’t fare as well in the election. Ricardo Galvão, former director of INPE, the Brazilian space agency, which monitors the ongoing destruction of the Amazon and other biomes, lost his bid for a seat in the Chamber. INPE’s publication of deforestation figures, deemed unfavorable to the government, saw Galvão initially criticized by Bolsonaro, before being fired by the president.

“None of the public agents identified with [pushing back against] illegal activities in the Amazon were elected,” Leonardo Barros Soares, a political scientist at the Federal University of Viçosa and member of the Electoral Observatory at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), told Mongabay by phone. “At the same time, the environment’s destroyers were rewarded and elected.”

But while Congress as a whole became even more conservative, there was also increased diversity in the left wing. Two trans candidates were elected to Congress for the first time in history, alongside Indigenous candidates Sônia Guajajara, named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” earlier this year, and Célia Xakriabá, an educator and activist from the Xakriabá people. Both Indigenous candidates ran under the progressive PSOL party.

Joênia Wapichana, who in 2018 became the first ever Indigenous woman elected to Congress, failed to retain her seat in the Chamber this year. But the two new Indigenous representatives following in her footsteps will find an ally in Marina Silva, the respected former presidential candidate and environmentalist activist who recently announced her support for Lula after a long breakup. Another prominent activist, Guilherme Boulos, seen as a future leader of the left, also won a seat in the Chamber.

The Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) candidate Sônia Guajajara, an internationally recognized environmental activist, was elected as the first federal Indigenous lawmaker from the state of São Paulo. Image by Pablo Valadares/Chamber of Deputies.

A vote for the Amazon

Environmental experts say the Oct. 30 runoff between Bolsonaro and Lula will be the most crucial election in decades, not only for the fate of the Amazon but also for the planet’s future. Since 2019, the Bolsonaro administration has curtailed the powers of the federal environmental protection agency, IBAMA, and pledged to open up the Amazon region to agriculture and mining. His policies have driven decade-high deforestation rates and fires in the Amazon. Lula, however, was praised for reducing deforestation in the Amazon during his two terms (2003-2011), but was also criticized for supporting the Belo Monte dam mega project.

“Presidential election in Brazil will be decisive for the environmental agenda,” Carlos Rittl, a Brazilian senior policy adviser at the Rainforest Foundation Norway, told Mongabay in an email. “If Bolsonaro wins, Congress will accelerate voting on anti-indigenous laws, for example, with far more devastating effects. If Lula returns to the presidency, he will probably try to forge alliances in Congress between center-right and center-left to avoid major setbacks and might even resurrect laws that are the basis of our environment and climate policies.”

Polls show Lula would win the runoff. Even so, as president he would face the most conservative Congress since Brazil emerged from military dictatorship in the 1980s, and would need to pursue coalitions with the center-right to govern and pass laws. An analysis from Carbon Brief estimates that victory for Lula could avoid 75,960 square kilometers (29,330 square miles) of the Amazon being lost by 2030 — an area the size of Panama. Researchers say forest destruction could fall by 90% over the next decade with Bolsonaro out of power.

Lula will have a lot of sway over Congress to protect the environment, according to Suely Araújo, a senior public policy specialist at the Climate Observatory (OC), a coalition of 73 Brazilian civil society organizations, and former head of IBAMA, the environmental protection agency.

“Our legislature has little concern for climate and the environment,” she told Mongabay by phone. “But Lula’s election will bring significant changes to this situation. The center-right Centrão coalition leans toward where the power is. In this case, they will not become environmentalists, but there will certainly be room for negotiations with the executive branch. And Lula has made important commitments on the environmental agenda, especially after the rapprochement with Marina Silva.”


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Brazil faces two contrasting legacies for the Amazon in October’s elections


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