During Brazil’s latest electoral cycle the country’s media and civil society reported a series of attacks against indigenous leaders and environmental enforcement agencies, as well as an uptick in deforestation in the Amazon. Could these be manifestations of ordinary election fever or the first signs of a new offensive against Brazil’s forests and those who protect them?
Deforestation for soy cultivation in the Cerrado, Brazil.
In October Brazilians headed to the polls for two rounds of
the presidential elections and also to cast their votes for state governors,
the federal congress and state legislatures.
Starting in 2017 and throughout the electoral campaign, the
far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro regularly verbally attacked environmental
enforcement agencies, civil society organisations, indigenous communities and
landless peasant movements in an intense effort to stoke popular animosity
against them and promote his vision of economic development based on the
opening up of Brazil’s forests and savannas to business.
Bolsonaro, now the president-elect, campaigned on a promise to scrap the Environment Ministry, bringing it under the Agriculture Ministry, and to “end Ibama’s industry of fines”.
Ibama is Brazil’s federal environmental
enforcement agency, in charge of, among other things, investigating illegal
deforestation and sanctioning perpetrators.
Civil servants have told Observatorio
do Clima, a Brazilian network of environmental organisations, that Bolsonaro’s
rhetoric is being taken seriously by land grabbers and farmers who are clearing
forests on the expectation of future amnesty for illegal deforestation.
Numbers suggest these allegations could be right. Between August and October, deforestation rates in the Amazon increased by nearly 49% compared to the same period last year, reaching 1,674 square kilometres of forest loss.
Bolsonaro’s electoral strategy to appeal to the agribusiness sector seems to have worked. Research has shown that he won easily in Amazon municipalities with a history of high rates of deforestation for cattle, crops and mining.
On the other hand,
municipalities with higher levels of conservation and indigenous populations
voted heavily for Bolsonaro’s main rival, Fernando Haddad.
Those who protect native forests, by contrast, came under
increased pressure. The start of the electoral period was characterised by
an increase in
violent threats and attacks against indigenous and peasant leaders.
According to Mongabay, on the days immediately following the first round of the elections three assassinations in the Amazon “may have been committed by perpetrators emboldened by an expectation of less or no punishment under a new far-right government”.
victims were two indigenous leaders campaigning against illegal logging in Mato
Grosso and Maranhão states, and a landless movement leader in Pará.
Bolsonaro’s claims that activism among indigenous peoples
and quilombola – communities made up of descendants of runaway slaves – makes
agribusiness in the country unviable seems to be fomenting animosity
towards these communities.
Thiago Krause, a history professor at Unirio, has told The
Independent that “elections have always been polarised. But now you
have a candidate who says that minorities must bow down to the majority, and
who says he’ll gun down opponents”.
The president-elect has pledged that “there is not going to be one centimetre more of land demarcated for indigenous reservations or quilombolas”.
Bolsonaro has referred to
quilombola residents as “layabouts” who have become lazy on the back of State
Not even government agencies have escaped the attacks. On 20
October, Bolsonaro supporters set
fire to three vehicles belonging to Ibama in Rondônia state. The day before, at
Trairão district in Pará, men set fire to a vehicle belonging to ICMBio.
The Military Police decided to
temporarily suspend its support to ICMBio’s enforcement operations at Trairão due
to fears for the safety of its officers in a climate of intense intimidations,
threats and attacks.
While this wasn’t the first time these agencies had been
targeted, Brazilian media has reported that
Ibama and ICMBio agents are concerned that Bolsonaro’s rhetoric has fuelled
hostility against them.
Brazilian civil society has tried to raise awareness about what is at stake. A few days before the second round of the elections on 28 October, a group of dozens of conservation organisations issued a press release warning that undermining enforcement agencies “could put four decades of progress in environmental protection at risk”.
They further warned
that opening indigenous reservations, quilombolas and other protected areas to
agribusiness and mining “disregards their centrality to the physical and
cultural survival of traditional peoples and to environmental protection”.
These organisations fear that, if Bolsonaro is willing and
able to make good on his promises or rhetoric, there will be “an explosion of
deforestation at the Amazon, Cerrado, Atlantic Forest and other Brazilian
biomes, which is already at high levels”.