Brazil can survive another bad president. But can the planet?

Jair Bolsonaro threatens the rainforest, environmental activists and indigenous communities. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The year typically starts slow in Brazil, stretching itself until mid-March, when Carnival takes place. Yet Jair Bolsonaro, the country’s new president, has already set the tone of how he intends to govern. Journalists were treated poorly during the inauguration ceremony on January 1st, confined to rooms with no water, no bathrooms or chairs, and often told that there were snipers watching for sudden movements. Online partisan channels, however, got much better treatment.

In terms of rhetoric, the former military man continued with his form. There was no offer for reconciliation, nor any attempts to reach out to the other side. Bolsonaro instead pledged “to end socialism” and talked of a “blood-soaked flag”. There is a strange gap between Bolsonaro’s promises and the way his followers interpret them: during the elections, the most common thing to hear when it came to his ruder statements about minorities or adversaries was that the politician did not really mean it and should not be taken literally. But there was no indication of temperance in his own words: these were the beast’s teeth, and they were made for tearing throats.

Of course, anyone paying attention will not be surprised by these acts. The ideology of Bolsonarismo, if we can call it that, is aggressive and has very specific targets. These are easily identifiable: the label of “socialism”, inherited from the military dictatorship, that encompasses all of leftism; what he sees as “inverted values” and “gender ideology”, namely human rights, feminism and LGBT rights; and a “bloated State”, marking his sharp neoliberal turn. All of these evils are meant to be fought with extreme measures, and nowhere do they intersect more than in the environmental disputes that he now controls.

It is hard to understate how much of a danger Bolsonaro poses to the fragile Brazilian environment. The historical precedent he harks back to, the 1964-1984 military dictatorship, was the first government to try to “tame” the Amazon, building big projects in its lands and incentivising deforestation to make way for farming and cattle.

Current concerns about global warming do not move the administration either. Bolsonaro has surrounded himself with climate change deniers. He had previously tried to end the Environment Ministry, but was forced by circumstances to keep it after international pressure threatened the country with economic retaliation. He did not take the warnings in a diplomatic spirit, muttering instead that developed countries had devastated their own forests, and shouldn’t try to tell Brazilians what to do with theirs. Like Donald Trump and his theories about climate change being a Chinese hoax, Bolsonaro sees green issues as a foreign attempt to control the country’s development, rather than a real crisis. 

Allied with Bolsonaro is the powerful Beef Caucus, which controls a large part of the Brazilian Congress. These are powerful landowners, who see in the new presidency a chance to rip up the few remaining protections to the region. One of the president’s most targeted enemies is environmental agencies, which Bolsonaro calls “the big fine industry”. They symbolise, in his view, everything he has come to destroy: a mixture of the bloated state and poisonous ideology of “minority rights”. Already there is an effect being felt since his election: deforestation has risen, a dangerous development for the many native species of plants and animals.

In Brazil, however, it is not simply trees and animals in danger. To indigenous people and land rights activists, conflicts with the Beef Caucus mean being under constant threat. To stand in the way of agricultural big business has always been a dangerous game: famous activists like Chico Mendes and Sister Dorothy Stang were brutally murdered under previous governments. But there is a general fear that Bolsonaro’s arrival in power has given permission for further, more violent actions.

This was reaffirmed by the president’s first act in power: to undermine indigenous rights. As demarcations are rolled back, Brazilian indigenous people once again risk losing their original lands. But his attack goes deeper, to the very notion of indigenous culture. Bolsonaro has very clearly stated he expects these communities to integrate to wider Brazilian society, leaving an implicit “or else” to anxious populations. Modern Brazil has never been kind to indigenous people, but there are few times it has been so outrightly hostile.

Brazil is a country where life comes cheap: it has an ever-rising murder rate, poor public services, and even basic needs like sewage are only afforded to a group of privileged few. Environmental issues might seem small in face of these urgent needs, or distant from practical implications, but they are not. Brazil has endured many bad presidents and more than its fair share of authoritarians. It can endure another one. But the planet has never faced a crisis as grave as the one that is coming in the next couple of decades. Bolsonaro is a man at war with the country’s nature, and he will take every single one of us along with him.