Brazil in focus: What does Bolsonaro mean for ‘bad ag’ and the forests?


With an aggressive agribusiness lobby tapped into the political establishment, emboldened forest crooks, corruption scandals, legal threats to protected areas and rising deforestation rates, the picture for the forests of Brazil was already looking bleak. And then came Jair Bolsonaro. His victory in the Presidential election in October this year handed power to a man who has been vociferous about his desire to scale back legal protections for the environment and the rights of indigenous people, the stewards of the Amazon. In no uncertain terms, those who want agriculture to expand further into the rainforest have their man in office.

The reduction in deforestation in Brazil in the second half of the 2000s was rightly hailed as the greatest success story in global forest conservation. At the start of the decade, it was the world leader in tropical forest loss, making it the third-largest source of global warming emissions, after the US and China. A raft of policies instituted between 2004 and 2009 changed the situation, with unprecedented and unexpected speed. Central to this success story was a crackdown on illegality.

This progress was already being eroded before Bolsonaro’s election. He is stepping into the midst of an ongoing battle between government agencies, indigenous and environmental activists and even some companies, and those who want to continue destroying the rainforest. At the heart of this battle are the soy and beef industries. Stemming the advance of ranches and plantations was central to the successes that began more than a decade ago. But these industries have also demonstrated a significant capacity to break the law, producing a stream of illegally sourced agricultural commodities, flooding world markets at the expense of the forest.

We spoke to experts from Brazil, the EU and US to find out what might happen next. But also, what can be done in response if levels of illegal – and legal – deforestation begin to rise as predicted.

  • Juan Doblas, who works on the frontlines of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, told us that the Amazon is quickly reaching a point of no return. He said that deforestation cannot be allowed to reach the levels of 2000 if the Amazon is to survive. He warns that the Bolsonaro government has already sent a clear signal that will embolden and catalyse illegality by timber and agriculture firms. Read the interview.
  • Paulo Barreto, who uses satellite imagery to analyse threats to the Amazon through his work with the NGO Imazon, said there is a risk deforestation could reach previous highs. But the check to that may lie in the justice system, environmental protections enshrined in the Constitution, the actions of NGOs, and pressure on the private sector. Read the interview.
  • A senior official within Funai, the federal agency responsible for advancing indigenous rights, tells us that a key question is how much political capital the new President is willing to spend on trying to scrap environmental protections. The source expressed hope that other priorities may mean the worst fears are not realised, but agrees that the “rhetoric” has already emboldened bad actors. Read the interview.
  • Nicole Polsterer, a campaigner with the European NGO Fern, asserts that the developments in Brazil place more pressure on the EU to properly regulate its imports of agricultural commodities, and that there are a number of clear ways in which it can do so. From instituting supply chain traceability, to mandatory due diligence requirements. She warns that the EU cannot meet its pledge to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals if it allows key trading partners to forgo them. Read the comment.
  • Matthew Piotrowski, from the US-based NGO Climate Advisers, says that the erosion of legal environmental protections within Brazil could backfire for big ag trading firms that are relying on them to help deliver their own commitments. He warns that traders like Cargill and Bunge could face a “reputational backlash” if they’re caught up in a bonfire of regulations in Brazil. Read the comment.
News breaking from Brazil reveals that the downward trajectory is already clear, and gives an insight into the battles underway long before Bolsonaro takes office. ‘Bad Ag’ – corruption and illegality – are a common feature.
  • Government figures reveal that the rate of deforestation has reached the highest level in a decade, something the Environment Minister attributed to “organised crime”. 
  • An assessment by scientists working at the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research found that if Bolsonaro’s worst pledges are delivered upon, the rate of deforestation could triple between 2020 and 2030. 
  • Reports show that deforestation and violence against environmental defenders – and government agencies – rose during the electoral period. An executive at the world’s biggest meat packer has been arrested – again – as the fallout from the Car Wash corruption scandal continues. 
  • An intriguing political dispute in the state of Rondonia shows, in nitty gritty detail, how the pro-agribusiness ruralistas are seeking to erode environmental protections through state legislatures.

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