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19 November 2021

Bolsonaro can’t end deforestation in the Amazon – even if he wants to

Ending deforestation would alienate the president’s base at a time when he needs its support more than ever.

By Oliver Stuenkel

Brazil gave climate activists a reason to cheer at Cop26 in Glasgow. Astoundingly, Jair Bolsonaro’s government announced that it would reduce methane emissions and – perhaps even more importantly – end illegal deforestation by 2028. This marked a stark contrast to the president’s systemic weakening of environmental protections since taking office three years ago, which has contributed to the highest deforestation rates in more than a decade.

Yet such promises amount to little more than window dressing meant to assuage international critics. The Brazilian government’s pledges made in Glasgow cannot be taken seriously for a simple reason: they would hurt Bolsonaro’s chances to win re-election next year. The October 2022 election already promises to be an epic battle against Lula da Silva, who governed the country from 2003 to 2010, and who is leading most polls.

Loosening restrictions against deforestation and weakening Ibama, Brazil’s environmental watchdog, was one of Bolsonaro’s key campaign promises in 2018. Breaking it would risk eroding his support among a key constituency: illegal miners and loggers, land-grabbers and small to medium-scale farmers who, contrary to Brazil’s corporate agronegócio, care little about climate change and the growing risk of consumer boycotts and restrictions on imports of Brazilian products. These groups are represented in Brazil’s Congress by the highly influential “cattle caucus”. Angering them would be the equivalent of Donald Trump announcing, less than a year prior to an election, that he would tear down the wall along the Mexican border: confusing his supporters, while hardly swaying voters left of the centre.

So far, Bolsonaro has been willing to accept the cost of courting these supporters, from displeasing powerful investors concerned about soaring deforestation rates to international villain status and the suspension of large-scale payments such as the Amazon Fund, financed by Norway and Germany. As Bolsonaro’s former foreign minister Ernesto Araújo proudly declared, if Brazil’s strategy turned it into a pariah, then “we shall be that pariah”.

Those hoping that Bolsonaro will stick to Cop26 pledges fail to take into account that, in an extremely polarised society like Brazil, issues such as climate change and deforestation have become identity-defining questions where compromise can be labelled as treason. That explains why the president, whose resolute scepticism of the science of climate change is a key element of his anti-establishment narrative, has preferred to exploit that polarisation rather than accepting international payments to help protect the forest. “Let them keep their money and let them help Angela Merkel reforest Germany,” Bolsonaro said after Berlin cut payments in 2019.

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His depiction of international NGOs and foreign governments concerned about deforestation as outsiders plotting to undermine Brazil’s sovereignty over the Amazon reliably mobilises followers of pro-Bolsonaro WhatsApp and Telegram groups. At times, even moderates are forced to side with Bolsonaro when Western observers use rhetoric that, while mostly well intentioned, sounds paternalistic and interventionist to Brazilian ears. When Emmanuel Macron suggested, in 2019, that the Amazon should have an “international status“, or when international observers argue that Brazil should be seen as the Amazon’s “custodian” rather than its “owner”, Bolsonaro has been able to stir up “rally-around-the-flag” support.

Making meaningful progress on ending deforestation in Brazil would require both a radical U-turn by Bolsonaro in environmental politics – such as massively strengthening Ibama, which he despises – as well as a profound change in the government’s overall relationship with the rest of the world. The government would need to deal with deforestation data in a transparent manner – the opposite of what happened at Cop26, where the government withheld information that deforestation had increased 22 per cent over the past year. At home, it would require working with civil society, anathema to a president who dreams of concentrating power in the executive and who regards the likes of Trump and Viktor Orbán as his role models. 

If Bolsonaro loses the election next year to a climate-conscious candidate (and, indeed, accepts the transfer of power), ending deforestation in Brazil by the end of the decade would still be an extraordinary challenge. If he wins, it becomes an impossible dream.

Oliver Stuenkel is professor at the school of international relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) in São Paulo.

[See also: How strongmen cling to power]

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