Marcelo Aguilar (Brecha)Main photo: Chieftainess Juma Xipaia at the COP 26 of Glasgow , 2021. COPCOLLAB26, OLIVER
Just like democracy, the environmental future of the most biodiverse country in the world is at stake in this Sunday’s ballot. The dispute between Lula and Bolsonaro confronts antagonistic visions and discourses on the environment.
“I am certain that the Amazon cannot withstand four more years of Bolsonaro, it will enter a point of no return. It would be terrible for the whole world, not just for Brazil,» Luciana Gatti, coordinator of the Greenhouse Gas Laboratory at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), told Brecha categorically. The environmental issue is one of the weak points of Jair Bolsonaro’s government, and one of those that has worn him down most internationally.
«You didn’t have the slightest respect for the Amazon. You are playing at cutting down trees. We are going to win the election to take care of the Amazon and not allow invasions of indigenous lands, nor illegal mining, and much less people who want to plant corn, soy, or some other product in places where it cannot be planted,» former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva told the president during the presidential debate on Sunday 16 on Bandeirantes television. Bolsonaro’s response was to suggest to the audience that they Google the annual deforestation figures, which, taken in isolation and in absolute terms, were higher at the immediate beginning of Lula’s government. But the difference is in the trend: during the Workers’ Party (PT) governments, deforestation was in gradual decline; today, it is on the rise.
The NGO Climate Observatory, based on INPE data, denied the president almost in real time via Twitter: «Bolsonaro lies about deforestation in Lula’s government. The PT took over 25,000 square kilometres and reduced it to 4,500 square kilometres. Bolsonaro grabbed it with 7,500 square kilometres and took it to 13,000 square kilometres». According to INPE reports, the rate of land clearing increased 73 percent in the first three years of Bolsonaro’s government. The figure of 13,000 in the first three years of Bolsonaro’s government corresponds to 2021, the date of the latest survey. This is the highest figure since 2006. However, Bolsonaro said during the debate that «Brazil protects the Amazon, two-thirds is with native vegetation that is exactly as it was when the country was discovered in 1500. More than 80 percent of the forest remains untouched.
BOLSONARO AND LAISSEZ-FAIRE
Scientists, activists and international observers agree that the current government’s practice has ranged from omission to promotion of environmental crimes. There have been multiple signs of support for nature-destroying activities and attempts to discredit environmental watchdogs. In July 2019, the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) – an autonomous body linked to the Ministry of Environment – was monitoring illegal logging on indigenous lands in the state of Rondonia. In response, a group of loggers set fire to a truck supplying the IBAMA helicopter. The then environment minister, the far-right Ricardo Salles, instead of backing the federal agency linked to his portfolio, visited the loggers behind the attack to give them his support and said that what the government was doing was «bringing the legal side closer to the real world of what is happening all over the country, from north to south».
Salles, who embodied the government’s anti-environmental fight like no other, is perhaps the person who has best summed up the Bolsonarista line on the issue. In a famous ministerial meeting on 22 April 2020, the full minutes of which were revealed by the Supreme Federal Court, he stated: «At this moment, when the attention of the press is focused almost exclusively on covid, and when it is giving us some breathing space on other issues, we have the opportunity to approve the infra-legal reforms of deregulation, simplification, all the reforms that have been demanded of us». In this «moment of calm», Salles added, it was necessary to hurry to «passar a boiada» («get the cattle through») and «change all the regulations».
This is what the government did in the months that followed: it cut the budget of oversight bodies such as IBAMA and the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Preservation, reduced the weight of civil society representatives in the National Environmental Council, increasing the relative weight of government and business delegates, and repealed several protection and guarantee norms for the environment. In this «moment of tranquillity», Salles added, it was necessary to rush to «passar a boiada» («get the cattle through») and «change all the regulations».
This is what the government did in the months that followed: it cut the budget of oversight bodies such as IBAMA and the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Preservation, reduced the weight of civil society representatives in the National Environmental Council, increasing the relative weight of government and business delegates, and repealed several protection and guarantee norms for the exploitation of protected areas (see «Marcado a fuego«, Brecha, 2-X-20). The government had been grappling with reality long before that, when Bolsonaro sacked Ricardo Galvão from his post as director of INPE, the institute that monitors deforestation, because he did not like reports indicating an increase in deforestation. The president suggested that the data was a lie and that Galvão «could be in the service of some NGO», without providing data to back up his claims (see «Corte raso», Brecha, 23-VIII-19).
In May 2021, Salles was investigated for complicity with illegal loggers. Suely Araújo, who chaired IBAMA from 2016 to January 2019, told Brasil de Fato in an interview this year: «There has never been an environment portfolio whose mission was to destroy itself, which is precisely what is happening in the Bolsonaro government. I don’t think it exists in any other country in the world».
Marcela Vecchione, professor at the Núcleo de Altos Estudios Amazónicos at the Federal University of Pará, tells Brecha that «the last four years were very destructive for the environmental public policy process as a whole. The government cut the budget and, together with the entire bloc that supports it in Congress, approved or put under discussion an avalanche of bills that aim to dismantle environmental policy, measures that modify the general environmental licensing law, change the way public lands are handed over, and seek to revise the Forestry Code. Vecchione sees in the public messages sent by the government a point that is reiterated: «Bolsonaro has said hundreds of times that it is possible to log even more in the Amazon because there is still a lot of inactive forest. This is a hallmark of this government: there is nothing crazy about it, it is a deliberate policy of producing false information. Its entire discourse seeks to relativise the importance of environmental protection, of control».
In the papers of the president’s campaign team, however, none of this appears. Bolsonaro’s programme for this election stresses that the federal government «has made enormous efforts to curb the practices of deforestation and burning, which cause enormous damage to the country», and states that a new government under the current president will increase controls and oversight. It also mentions the concepts of green economy, carbon credits and mission reduction, and expresses an unlikely official commitment to UN agendas on the matter.
«It is in the colonising front that advances on the Amazon, on the indigenous people, on traditional communities, where Bolsonaro finds the most votes. The sectors linked to illegal mining, illegal deforestation and the usurpation of public lands are with him because for them he represents profit, even if the other side of that profit is the destruction of the forest: killing our goose that lays the golden eggs,» Josep Iborra, of the Pastoral Land Commission, a body attached to the Brazilian Episcopal Conference, tells Brecha. He adds: «It’s as if we were cutting open the hen with a knife to take out the eggs. Instead of waiting and harvesting the fruits that the forest can give us in a sustainable way as the communities have done for so many years, we are destroying it».
The identification with Bolsonaro of the sectors mentioned by Iborra is evident in the electoral geography. A map drawn up by forestry engineer Newton Monteiro, from the Federal University of Paraná, at the request of the newspaper Brasil de Fato, crosses the data of the areas with the highest number of deforestation alerts according to INPE’s DETER system, and the votes for the ruling party in the first round on 2 October: they overlap almost completely. In other words, in the areas with the greatest environmental pressure, many of them with economies dominated by agricultural activities linked to deforestation and burning, the electoral victory clearly went to Bolsonaro.
«If Bolsonaro wins again, things tend to get worse; the tendency is for the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) to be completely dismantled, for mining to be authorised within indigenous areas, and for conservation units to be attacked in places where there are potential minerals,» says Iborra. Vecchione agrees:
«If Bolsonaro wins again, things tend to get worse; the tendency is for the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) to be completely dismantled, for mining to be authorised within indigenous areas, and for conservation units to be attacked in places where there are potential minerals,» says Iborra. Vecchione agrees: «If he is re-elected, that’s the end of the relative moderation that Bolsonaro has tried to show during the elections. Granting him a second mandate gives a very strong sense of legitimisation to the way in which the government has been governing, and what has that way been in the case of Bolsonaro: the production of disinformation and constant crises. And this method not only has discursive effects, but is reproduced with great force by his grassroots co-religionists».
A study carried out by a group of researchers led by the former director of INPE, Gilberto Câmara, at the request of Folha de São Paulo, concluded that in an eventual new term of office for the current president, and with a linear growth that maintains the same rate of deforestation, in 2024 the annual deforested area could reach 20,000 square kilometres, which would imply a return to the worst values recorded since the count began in 1988. In an interview with Jornal Nacional in August this year, Bolsonaro defended himself by saying that «it is a lie that we are destroyers of the Amazon». And he questioned: «When we talk about the Amazon, why don’t we also talk about France? It has been on fire for more than 30 days, as have Spain and Portugal». In the same interview he said that there are abuses by IBAMA in environmental oversight, a discourse he has repeated since the 2018 campaign, when he said he would end the «environmental fine industry».
The fines did not end completely, but in January this year, at an event with rural businessmen, the far-right leader celebrated their reduction by 80 per cent: «We stopped having big problems with the environmental issue, especially in terms of fines». On the same occasion, he also celebrated the liberalisation of the carrying of weapons for farm owners and the fact that the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST) has been «practically annulled». Iborra points out: «Lately, in terms of disputes over land ownership, what we have registered most are not occupations of large estates or land claimed for agrarian reform, but invasions of indigenous lands, parks or areas of traditional workers, such as the seringueiros (rubber sap collectors)».
Bolsonaro has kept one of his campaign promises: «Not one centimetre more of land for the indigenous people». The spearhead of this process is the militarisation of FUNAI, which is responsible for protecting and assisting indigenous peoples, and which today operates against them. A clear example of this is that of Bruno Pereira, an indigenous activist murdered in June this year in the Javari Valley region of Amazonas state, along with the English journalist Dom Phillips. Pereira was working with local indigenous organisations on leave, doing the work he was unable to do within FUNAI after being removed from the position of coordinator specialising in isolated and recent contact indigenous peoples. Career FUNAI officials have reported persecution and harassment since the current government took office. The president of FUNAI, appointed by the government, Marcelo Xavier, a federal police officer whose agenda has only five days of activity so far in October, is in favour of mining and agricultural exploitation on indigenous lands and, according to officials, has been the main spearhead for the dismantling of the institution.
LULA AND WHAT WORKED
On environmental issues, Lula’s government plan has as some of its main objectives reducing deforestation, combating illegal mining and preventing land theft in the Amazon. According to the document, «it is imperative to defend this region from the policy of devastation implemented by the current government». It also reads: «We will combat environmental crime promoted by militias, land-grabbers, loggers and any economic organisation that acts outside the law. Our commitment is to relentlessly combat illegal deforestation. Another aspect proposed by Lula is the creation of a Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, which would be headed by an indigenous person. But, in addition, according to the candidate, «all ministries will have obligations with respect to the climate issue».
One of the strong names in Lula’s campaign with respect to these issues is Marina Silva, the former environment minister during his first years in office, between 2003 and 2008. Silva’s return to Lula’s entourage is highly symbolic: a prominent member and leader of the PT since 1985, she had left the government in 2008 – and, later, the party – because of insurmountable disputes between her portfolio and the government’s development plans. The tense political relationship after her exit came to a head during the 2014 campaign, in which Dilma Rousseff and Marina Silva contested the first round of the presidential election, and Silva was the victim of an aggressive PT campaign against her.
The current leader of the Rede (Net) party claims to return without rancour to an alliance with the PT. This week, in an interview published by Sumaúma, she recalled: «There is a way [of protecting the Amazon] that had been working and had managed to reduce deforestation by 83 per cent between 2004 and 2012, and was responsible for 80 per cent of the protected areas created in the world between 2003 and 2008, while Bolsonaro is already responsible for a third of the virgin forests destroyed on the planet». She added: «There is no one better than Lula to make this rescue, because this protection happened under his government. The former minister recently presented a document with a set of proposals to be incorporated into the plan of an eventual Lula government, which includes the institutional, budgetary and technical restructuring of the Ministry of Environment and other environmental control bodies.
GOING OFF PAPER
An eventual government of the PT and its allies will not have an easy time in any sense, and the reconstruction of environmental policy in the country will be no exception. «We have a difficult scenario, especially because of the way Congress is made up. Whatever the result on Sunday, the parliamentary dispute will be a fundamental and decisive front for the environmental issue», Vecchione points out, and qualifies: «Of course, the actions of the Executive, the message it gives and how it organises the public budget will greatly influence environmental policies, and, in this sense, a Lula government can generate transformations».
Iborra says: «There won’t be an overnight change, but the prospects are that state control will increase again. There are many economic projects underway in the Amazon that will continue in the event of a Lula victory, but we hope that at least there will be more environmental compensation, that this issue will be dealt with much more carefully and that the aim will be to distribute the wealth». The member of the Pastoral Land Commission adds: «Lula defended a developmentalist project, he is a city worker, and does not have a personal environmental and ecological mentality and concern. But now it is time to stand together in defence of democracy, and against the worst».
The coordinator of INPE’s Greenhouse Gas Laboratory believes that a Lula victory could be very important to stop the process of environmental degradation in the country, and is confident in the experience of his governments. «The PT already has experience in combating deforestation, is responsible for the biggest reduction we know of on that front and knows how to do it. It has had time to learn and work with these issues,» says Gatti.
For Vecchione, Lula will have some challenges. Firstly, attacking one of the points most emphasised in Bolsonaro’s speech: that his government was the one that distributed the most land and that this gives rural producers security. The academic stresses that this policy adopted by the executive branch «removes collective land policy from the sphere of agrarian reform to give way to a process of individualisation of land ownership, which often legalises processes of occupation that were illegal, carried out through land clearing or degradation, turning an environmental liability into a legal asset». For her, this sends a message «that it is worth invading, that businessmen can appropriate whatever they want because it will later be regularised».
On the other hand, the professor from the Núcleo de Altos Estudios Amazónicos of the Federal University of Pará refers to «the great increase in violence in the region and the relationship of this violence with environmental and drug trafficking-related criminal activities, which the murder of Bruno and Dom clearly illustrates». And what worries him about a new Bolsonaro government also worries him about a new Lula government: «Criminals have become very empowered during this time, with the messages sent by the government and by the public policies built and destroyed during these four years. More worrying than Bolsonaro himself are his followers, who are very violent, especially in the interior of the Amazon».