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Damage to Amazon difficult to reverse, even if Bolsonaro is voted out

Outgoing president has prepared the Brazilian rainforests for greater exploitation

When Brazilians go to the polls to elect a new president on October 2nd much more than the future direction of Latin America’s largest country is in play.

Geography has for better or worse handed Brazil a critical role in the global fight against global warming. It is home to most of the Amazon, the planet’s largest rainforest which acts as a key climate regulator as well as one of mankind’s most crucial “carbon sinks” which removes more of the greenhouse gases driving climate change from the atmosphere than it emits.

For decades Brazilian policymakers have struggled in their role as custodians of the rainforest. But under far-right president Jair Bolsonaro attempts at preserving it have been all but abandoned and the region declared open for exploitation by loggers, miners and agribusiness. Should he win re-election next month, the already dimming prospects for the jungle’s future risk sputtering out altogether.

That is the conclusion one is left with after reading Legal Amazon and the Future of Brazil: An X-ray of the 9 states in the region between 2018 and 2022, a recent report published by Smoke Signal, an environmental monitoring organisation in Brazil. “We have regressed 30 years in the last three and a half,” says Rebeca Lerer, Smoke Signal’s co-ordinator who authored the report. “Everything that has been achieved in the environmental sphere since 1988 [when Brazil’s democratic constitution was approved] has been targeted by this government and they have destroyed as much as they could.”


The dismantling of the country’s environmental protection regime under President Bolsonaro and the illegal free-for-all this provoked in the Amazon has been well publicised. It was this policy of neglect that caused the huge increase in fires across the rainforest in recent years which in turn provoked an international outcry. But the Smoke Signal report highlights how this policy of malicious — and unconstitutional — neglect is only one track of the Bolsonaro administration’s approach. It also goes hand in hand with its twin track that has seen the government and its allies at the state level aggressively pursue a series of invasive public policies designed to ready the nine states that make up the Brazilian Amazon for greater exploitation, especially by two key elements in Bolsonaro’s coalition — the agribusiness sector and the mining industry.

Sweeping changes to land use to favour ranching and mining interests, approval of new roads in some of the forest’s remotest regions, railroads and new ports to facilitate the export of commodities when viewed as a whole constitute in Smoke Signal’s words “a package of destruction”. “Many people say Bolsonaro is incompetent and lazy but if you look at how he has enabled a new cycle of commodities in the Amazon, he delivered. He was very efficient,” says Lerer.

She says the report, as well as raising awareness of the radical changes the Bolsonaro administration has undertaken in the Amazon since coming into office in 2019, is an attempt to hold those responsible for violating constitutionally mandated environmental protections accountable. But even if Bolsonaro loses his bid for re-election to former left-wing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, as polls show is likely, reversing the damage will be challenging.

Many politicians who embraced his anti-environmental policies are likely to do well in down-ticket contests and remain in office. The most emblematic example is his former environmental minister Ricardo Salles. He was forced to resign last year after US authorities passed information to their Brazilian colleagues indicating the minister was working for a criminal network involved in illegal logging. Salles is now running for a seat in congress that should he win provide him with parliamentary immunity that would shield him from the investigation into his activities as minister.

More generally the rural caucus in congress that supports his approach in the Amazon has used President Bolsonaro’s political weakness to extract control over swathes of the federal budget as the price for protecting him from impeachment. Having used this to financially irrigate their constituencies they head into congressional elections with a huge advantage against opponents. This means many of them will still be sitting in congress ready to defend the gains made under Bolsonaro when the new presidential term starts.

“Even if Lula wins it is going to be very hard,” warns Lerer.