Since taking office in 2019, far-right Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro has presided over record levels of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. He loosened laws and regulations meant to protect the forest from landgrabbers, miners and loggers who’ve declared open season on the Amazon and the Indigenous peoples who live within it. He pursued a ruthless policy of extraction and demolition. He made Brazil a pariah on the world stage, earned the title as the planet’s most dangerous climate change denier, and generated charges that he is guilty of crimes against humanity.
That predictable record of destruction put the future of the Amazon rainforest on the ballot in Brazil’s looming October presidential election, in which Bolsonaro is seeking a second term.
The stakes for the forest and the planet could not be higher. Bolsonaro is currently trailing leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in early election polls, fueling hopes among environmentalists, Indigenous leaders and his opponents that the world’s largest rainforest — the preservation of which is vital to stave off global climate catastrophe — may soon get a chance to breathe and even begin to recover.
The nightmare scenario, though, is a Bolsonaro victory that could unleash four more years of destruction that the Amazon simply cannot withstand.
“If Bolsonaro remains in the power of presidency, it’s hopeless in terms of the environment,” said Marcio Astrini, the executive secretary of the Climate Observatory, a São Paulo-based environmental organization. “There will be more deforestation. The Amazon will fast forward to its collapse point.”
For as much global attention as they receive, climate and the fate of the Amazon have not traditionally served as salient subjects in Brazilian presidential elections. A host of other issues, including rising rates of inflation and Brazil’s continued economic malaise, will likely dominate this campaign.
But da Silva, in particular, has already begun to seize on Bolsonaro’s record of deforestation and mistreatment of Indigenous peoples early in the race, and “the next election will be the one in which the environment counts the most, compared to previous elections,” said congressman Alessandro Molon, a leftist who leads the opposition coalition in Brazil’s lower legislative chamber.
That’s in part because the record levels of deforestation that occurred under Bolsonaro have only intensified in the closing stages of his first term. Deforestation rates, which had already reached a 15-year high in 2021, rose 64% over the first three months of 2022 from the same time last year, according to data released this month by Brazil’s national space agency.
The Amazon is now approaching the point of no return even faster than scientists previously feared, according to new research released in March. Large swaths of the forest are now recovering far more slowly than they once could, and on the current trajectory, the Amazon could lose its ability to regenerate naturally as soon as this century.
Past that point, significant portions of the Amazon could transition from lush, tropical rainforest into less resilient forestland or even arid savanna. That would have dramatic consequences for the global climate, shifting rainfall and weather patterns and turning the Amazon from a vast sink that absorbs harmful greenhouse gasses into a net emitter of carbon.
“This is an early warning signal, and it isn’t too late to do something about it,” said Chris Boulton, a professor at the University of Exeter in England and the lead author of the new study.
But it’s also clear that the Amazon cannot continue on the path Bolsonaro has plotted much longer.
“Given the uncertainty and how drastic the impacts of a large-scale dieback from rainforest to savanna would be, deforestation should be stopped immediately,” said Niklas Boers, a professor at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and another of the study’s authors. “Currently, the Brazilian government is really just playing with fire while sitting in a hay barn.”
An Accelerated Path To Destruction
After sharp declines over the first decade of the 21st century, rates of Amazonian deforestation began to rise even before Bolsonaro won the 2018 election. But the ardent climate change denier’s policies have played a direct role in speeding up destruction, experts say.
Bolsonaro gutted environmental agencies, rolled back protective regulations and cut funding for enforcement. By last July, Brazil’s two main environmental enforcement agencies had amassed a backlog of 17,000 unpaid fines, Reuters reported, that was largely due to administrative changes made at Bolsonaro’s request that have turned the process of adjudicating and collecting those penalties into a bureaucratic nightmare. Bolsonaro fired officials who have reported deforestation figures he doesn’t like. And he has pushed for the passage of new laws and regulations to open the forest to illegal land grabbing, timber exploitation and mining interests.
He turned Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment from a protective agency into an exploitative one: His first environmental minister, Ricardo Salles, spearheaded the push to open the forest to new development. In early 2020, as COVID-19 swept the planet and contributed to a new surge in deforestation, Salles argued that the government should use the pandemic as cover to further open the Amazon to development and exploitation. Salles practiced what he preached until the very end: He was ultimately forced to resign in June 2021 amid a federal probe into his efforts to thwart an investigation of illegal logging and timber exports.
The forest is not the only victim of Bolsonaro’s approach. As land grabbers and garimpeiros — operators of wildcat mines — rushed into the Amazon, rates of violence and homicides against Indigenous Brazilians skyrocketed. Illegal land invasions increased nearly 150% between 2018 and 2020, according to the Indigenous Missionary Council, a Brazilian NGO. Murders of Indigenous Brazilians rose by 61% over that period.
Indigenous tribes accused Bolsonaro of attempting to carry out a “genocide” against them. In 2020, Brazil’s largest Indigenous organization appealed to the United Nations for help, and alleged that Bolsonaro had committed “severe and ongoing violations of the rights of indigenous peoples.” Last year, tribal leaders filed a lawsuit with the International Criminal Court that accused the president of crimes against humanity.
“We have never had so much trouble than during these last three years,” Dep. Joênia Wapichana, who in 2018 became the first Indigenous woman elected to Brazil’s Congress, said at an event in Brasília this week.
The assault on the Amazon and other sensitive environmental regions across Brazil has turned Bolsonaro into a global outcast, and threatened vital international funding and investment into both Amazon preservation and the country’s broader economy. But Bolsonaro has refused to change course: The few efforts he has made to mollify critics have typically amounted to empty cosmetic gestures rather than substantive policy shifts.
“The Bolsonaro government doesn’t see the forest as a treasure that must be protected. On the contrary, the present government sees the forest as a problem, and as an obstacle to development. If he gets reelected, it will be much, much, much worse than we have seen until now.”
This spring, just months after Bolsonaro pledged to end illegal deforestation ahead of the United Nations’ major climate summit in Glasgow, he and his conservative congressional allies launched a new legislative blitz on the Amazon. A package of proposals, some of which have already passed, would open up the forest to new mining projects, further erode protections for tribal lands, and make it even easier for land grabbers and loggers to advance into new parts of the Amazon.
Bolsonaro’s most devoted base of supporters includes influential segments of Brazil’s agribusiness sector that have sought to undermine environmental regulations, and he is especially close — both emotionally and politically — to the country’s garimpeiros, who have enjoyed their newfound ability to push into the Amazon with impunity.
His instinct to throw red meat to that base, especially when he feels politically threatened, has inspired fears that an increasingly desperate Bolsonaro will only act even more aggressively ahead of the election.
And should he win, a Bolsonaro unencumbered by any real political pressure may proceed as if he has free rein to advance an even more destructive agenda.
“The Bolsonaro government doesn’t see the forest as a treasure that must be protected,” Molon said. “On the contrary, the present government sees the forest as a problem, and as an obstacle to development. ... I have no doubt that if he gets reelected, it will be much, much, much worse than we have seen until now.”
‘Everything We’ve Done Has Been Dismantled’
Four years after a conviction on corruption charges led to his banishment from the 2018 election, da Silva has returned to the center of Brazil’s political stage: His conviction was annulled last year after The Intercept Brazil revealed widespread judicial improprieties in the case against him, and he has led virtually every pre-election poll over the last six months.
Da Silva, who served as president from 2003 to 2011, is best known abroad for overseeing a massive economic boom that made Brazil a major player internationally. But he also presided over a drastic transition in Brazil’s relationship with the Amazon and the environment. By the time he left office, Brazil had reduced deforestation to record lows and cut its carbon emissions nearly in half.
Lula, as he is popularly known, is not a green politician in the mold of younger leaders like Gabriel Boric, the millennial who won Chile’s presidential election in December. And his environmental record is far from pristine.
Da Silva faced criticism from environmentalists, including one of his former ministers, throughout his time in office for prioritizing the economy and other issues over the Amazon and Indigenous concerns. It was his government that authorized the construction of the Belo Monte Dam, a controversial hydroelectric project in the Amazon region, over criticism (and allegations of human rights abuses) from Indigenous tribes and international organizations.
But at an event with tribal leaders this week, da Silva seized on environmental issues and Bolsonaro’s attacks on Indigenous rights to draw a sharp contrast with the right-wing leader. While he acknowledged that his government had not done enough to protect the environment and Indigenous tribes, he slammed Bolsonaro for rolling back the progress the leftist Workers’ Party had achieved.
“Certainly the [Workers’ Party] governments did not do everything they should have done,” he said. “But certainly no one did more than us for Indigenous peoples. And pretty much everything we’ve done has been dismantled.”
Da Silva also folded protections of the Amazon and the tribes that live within it into his broader economic argument during the event, arguing that Brazil does not need to further destroy the forest to bolster its agricultural capacity or its economy as a whole, as Bolsonaro has claimed.
“We have already proved it, and science has already proved that it is not necessary to burn a tree in the Amazon to plant soy,” da Silva said. “We have degraded land that can be reclaimed to plant whatever you want. We have to take advantage of our biodiversity so that you have a dignified life and can raise your children with respect.”
Heeding calls from tribal leaders like Joênia Wapichana, the Indigenous congresswoman, da Silva pledged to hold a “day of revocation” of Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental laws early in his presidency. He also promised to create a new Cabinet-level Indigenous affairs ministry, and said he would tap a tribal leader — rather than “a white [person] like me” — to lead it. His government, he said, would take no actions that threaten or otherwise affect tribal communities “without your concession or agreement.”
How ambitious da Silva will ultimately be, as a candidate or potentially as president, remains to be seen. Elements of his leftist coalition have begun to embrace policies that together could amount to a Brazilian version of the Green New Deal, and da Silva, who has always been conscious of Brazil’s global standing, will likely see aggressive environmental action as a way to attract international acclaim that has evaporated under Bolsonaro, and foreign investment along with it.
“I think Lula is even more conscious nowadays about the importance of the environment, and the role Brazil must play in the world right now given climate change, than he was when he was president,” Molon said. “He’s more conscious, also, about Indigenous rights and their contribution to environmental protection. The possibility of electing Lula opens the horizon of a much better president toward the environment than even Lula has already been.”
But even if he wins, da Silva is unlikely to enjoy a favorable governing majority in Brazil’s Congress, and rebuilding the agencies and institutions Bolsonaro has eroded will prove a difficult task.
It’s likely, Astrini said, that deforestation rates will continue to rise at least through 2023 no matter the outcome of the election. But in his eyes and those of many other Brazilians, a Bolsonaro loss — whether it’s to da Silva or any of the other candidates likely to pursue the presidency this year — is the only way to give the Amazon rainforest, and the planet that depends on it, a fighting chance for survival.
“Anyone,” Astrini said, “is better than Bolsonaro.”