Brazil's new leader promised to exploit the Amazon—but can he?

President-elect Jair Bolsonaro wants to harvest the rain forest’s riches, raising fears among environmentalists and indigenous communities. Are they justified?

By Scott Wallace
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:38 BST

The victory of hard-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s presidential election Sunday has set off alarm bells among indigenous communities and environmentalists over the fate of the Amazon rain forest. Activists and native leaders are particularly concerned by Bolsonaro’s campaign pledges to rollback protections of the rain forest and indigenous rights. Yet some experts say there are limits to how far Bolsonaro will be able to go on his promises, perhaps suggesting a more moderate future.

“We are very worried, based on what the president-elect has stated,” said Beto Marubo, a native leader from the Javari Valley Indigenous Land in Brazil’s far-western borderlands. “If what he has promised comes to pass, there will be chaos and upheaval in the Amazon.”

Reports are circulating that Balsonaro’s victory has already bolstered a sense of impunity among criminal groups that traffic in timber, exotic species, and other riches pilfered from indigenous land. “Many brothers tell us there are invasions, people entering the territories with no regard for the rules and no fear of the authorities,” Beto Marubo told National Geographic in a WhatsApp message from Brasília.

The two federal agencies at the forefront of protecting the Amazon are the indigenous affairs agency, known by its acronym FUNAI, and the Ministry of Environment’s enforcement arm, widely known as IBAMA. The fate of both organizations remains uncertain. What seems certain is that their budgets, already severely slashed under the outgoing government, will suffer further—perhaps crippling—reductions under Bolsonaro.

“Bolsonaro has a very strong anti-environmental discourse, and I have zero doubt that his discourse will direct policy,” says Scott Mainwaring, a Brazil expert at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. “I don’t see that this government is going to want to tell landowners not to chop down this part of the forest because it’s on indigenous land. It doesn’t seem there will be any major effort to protect the Amazon.”

Governing via coalition

Not all environmental experts view Bolsonaro’s victory as an outright catastrophe. “It’s important to differentiate between the campaign rhetoric Bolsonaro directed at his base and agreements he must make with his coalition in congress,” says Eduardo Viola, professor of international relations at the Universidade de Brasília and co-author of Brazil and Climate Change. Viola says it would be “practically impossible” for the new president to make good on his campaign pledge to pull Brazil out of the Paris climate accord. “Unlike in the United States, the Paris agreement was ratified by the Brazilian congress, almost unanimously.”

Whether a Bolsonaro government will comply with Paris commitments to reduce deforestation and limit greenhouse gas emissions is another matter. Deforestation rates in Brazil have been on the upswing in the past five years. Brazil would need to cut its current annual deforestation rate of roughly 2,700 square miles (7,000 square kilometers) by two-thirds to comply with its Paris obligations.

That’s clearly not going to happen, Viola says. Still, he believes that international pressure will help keep the rate of forest loss from climbing any higher. Brazilian producers of agricultural products, such as beef and soy, “understand that a negative image of Brazil in regards to the Amazon and climate change will hurt Brazilian exports.”

Indigenous concerns

That’s small comfort for indigenous rights activists. They fear Bolsonaro’s avowed plan to wring riches from the Amazon—whether from expanding agriculture into indigenous lands, building roads and other infrastructure projects, or allowing mining on public lands—will unleash a tide of violence and environmental devastation.

“All indigenous communities are afraid right now,” says Felipe Milanez, professor of humanities at the Universidade Federal de Bahia. “There is a risk of brutal, violent attack.” Milanez fears that indigenous efforts to patrol and protect their own lands from outsiders, such as the Forest Guardians recently covered in National Geographic magazine, will be banned and persecuted.

“His economic project is to destroy the Amazon, to transform the Amazon into commodities for export,” Milanez says.

Human rights activists are concerned that a surge in violent land conflicts will accompany an increase in environmentally destructive development in the Amazon. "There is no doubt that devastation will spread in the region," says Diogo Cabral, an attorney with the Sociedade Maranhense de Direitos Humanos. "At the same time, he aims to extinguish policies that protect human rights defenders in Brazil. Under Bolsonaro, human life will have no value."

It’s a prospect that leaves Brazil’s indigenous populations with a sense of foreboding. “Scientists have shown that the lands where indigenous people live have the most intact, protected forests,” says indigenous leader Marubo. “That’s because for us the land is life. Our land is not for sale. It’s not for rent. Without the land, there is no life.”

Scott Wallace wrote about the Amazon’s indigenous people in the October 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.
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