Q&A Imazon: “Bolsonaro’s discourse has already started certain trends, regardless of changes in regulations”


Paulo Barreto has an unlikely backstory for a conservationist. In 1967, the year he was born, his parents and grandparents migrated to the Amazon in search of land for cattle ranching. 

Growing up in the states of Pará and Maranhão, Paulo spent the first decades of his life observing the changing environment around him: degraded forests and river erosion caused by deforestation to make way for pastureland.

While in those days many saw the people who cleared forests for economic activity as development heroes, Paulo’s early experiences would lead him to become a forest engineer and co-found Imazon (Amazon Institute of People and the Environment), the conservation organisation where he still works as an associate researcher. Paulo’s research is heavily focused on identifying the causes of deforestation and on how Brazil can improve the protection of the Amazon.

With Bolsonaro’s inauguration less than a month away, Earthsight talked to Paulo as part of our ‘Brazil in Focus’ to gather his views on the potential impacts of the upcoming presidency for the country’s forests.

Paulo sees risks as well as opportunities ahead. “In terms of a historical trajectory, if the President can achieve everything he wants there is a risk deforestation could reach some of its worst levels”, he told Earthsight. But he also reminds us that “we […] need to look at the actions being taken to counter what [Bolsonaro] wants to do. There is an obvious reaction from the private sector in alliance with NGOs”.

Earthsight (ES): Will the new administration lead to a deterioration of environmental and indigenous protections?

Paulo Barreto (PB): Bolsonaro has said he is going to constrain the action of environmental institutions, the question is whether he will manage. The evening after the first round of the elections he started saying he would end Ibama’s [Brazil’s federal environmental enforcement agency] “industry of fines” and put an end to all activism. 

So his language is hostile to environmental protection. He has said he would quit the Paris Agreement and subordinate the Ministry of Environment to the Ministry of Agriculture. So there is a risk of deterioration but we also need to look at the actions being taken to counter what he wants to do.

There is an obvious reaction from the private sector in alliance with NGOs. Part of the private sector, for example those who export, fear that Bolsonaro’s actions could have implications for exports due to international pressure. Part of the private sector knows that climate change is happening and that Brazil needs to protect its forests. 

A lot of these actors are part of a coalition called Brasil Clima, Florestas e Agricultura [Brazil Climate, Forests and Agriculture]. This coalition has voiced opposition to some of Bolsonaro’s proposals.

The other thing is that environmental protection is in the Constitution; public prosecutors will certainly act. The big question is the justice system. The Brazilian justice system is very slow and inconsistent. Decisions are not consistent across different courts, sometimes the same court changes its decisions. This is a problem. 

So in terms of institutional protection, there’s a risk of the justice system not being a great guarantor of protection. But I would say that I take Bolsonaro’s words as true that he wants to undermine protections.

ES: You mentioned exporting companies; what impact do you think the new presidency will have on the agribusiness sector’s ability to influence environmental and indigenous legislation?

PB: Several companies seem excited about the possibility of weaker protections. On the other hand, exporting companies know there needs to be some moderation to this excitement. So I think there could be tensions within the sector. It is important to keep in mind that there is a difference between what the President can formally do and what his declarations and attitudes can lead to. 

His discourse has already started certain trends in the field regardless of real changes in regulations. There is a risk of violence; confrontations are in the increase as people hope the new President will reduce environmental law enforcement. This is a risk.

ES: Do you believe the new presidency will have an impact on current levels of deforestation?

PB: There is a risk deforestation will increase. INPE has carried out a study considering weaker regulations and market forces, and estimated deforestation could increase threefold. So in terms of a historical trajectory, if the President reduce environmental enforcement there is a risk deforestation could reach some of its worst levels. This will certainly generate strong reactions, from society and markets too, so it will be a complicated situation.

ES: What about the potential for new alliances between Brazilian and international civil society to counter these potential threats?

PB: If he weakens laws, protection could mainly be in the hands of the private sector, but if the private sector fails to act things will get a lot worse. So the private sector will be under a lot of national and international pressure.

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