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Brazil’s new government needs economic growth and may sacrifice the Amazon to get it

The impeachment of former president Dilma Rousseff, coup or not, represents a fundamental realigning of modern Brazil. For some in the country, the crisis is an opportunity. These politicians and businessmen are now exploiting the upheaval to roll-back environmental laws and get their hands on the vast natural resources found in protected regions of the Amazon.

The new government led by Michel Temer faces a budget deficit of 10%, an unemployment rate of 10.9% and strong calls for austerity. It looks set to terminate a number of successful social policies, and proposes to weaken worker rights by redefining slavery to exclude “degrading conditions” and “exhausting shifts”.

Nonetheless, Temer will want to maintain Brazil’s international brand of a nation committed to the environment. After all, climate change was put centre stage at the opening ceremony of the 2016 Rio Olympics and a clear message was beamed into billions of homes across the planet: Brazil is green.

Yet these environmental credentials are questionable. Under president Dilma Rousseff and her predecessor, Lula, deforestation returned, large-scale mining and agriculture was expanded, and more dams were built.

Temer has appointed a number of environmentalist politicians to prominent positions such as the Green Party’s José Sarney Filho, now environment minister, and José Serra, the foreign minister. But economic rejuvenation at all costs will inevitably overshadow policies aimed at conservation.

The world’s largest iron ore mine is in northern Brazil. T photography / shutterstock

Earlier this year, Temer published a document titled “A bridge to the future”, which outlined his plans for the future of Brazil and its economy. The environment, the Amazon and climate change were not mentioned.

In particular, campaigners fear the new, pro-business government will fast-track dams, mines and other damaging schemes by weakening environmental impact assessments. A proposed bill, if passed, would allow for infrastructure projects to continue regardless of potential impacts on the environment and indigenous lands. This opens the door for accelerated environmental damage in the name of economic recovery and growth.

Though activists cheered the recent cancellation of a $10 billion hydroelectric dam on environmental grounds, it seems such celebrations may prove to be premature.

A key figure behind this bill is senator Blairo Maggi, Brazil’s soybean king and a former recipient of Greenpeace’s Golden Chainsaw awarded to the “person who most contributed to Amazon destruction”. Temer has recently appointed him Minister of Agriculture.

The Soy King made his fortune turning rainforest into farms. Senado Federal, CC BY

Maggi is a prominent member of the Agricultural Parliamentary Front (or ruralistas) that have long argued for land reform so that protected forests can be chopped down for crops, cattle and mining, with the products sold abroad. As of 2014, 28.4% of protected areas in the Amazon were of interest to mining companies. These lands – protected by concerns for both the environment and indigenous communities – will likely witness further encroachment under Temer’s government.

In recent months, this increasingly strong lobby has submitted a list of demands to President Temer, including land reform and increased subsidies for agriculture. Over lunch with the ruralistas, Temer seemingly committed to exploring these demands.

In one of her last acts as president, the Guardian reports, Rousseff supported indigenous land claims and acknowledged a number of quilombolos (lands occupied by the descendants of runaway slaves). Under Temer, policies like these are now under review.

The ruralistas also want to transfer responsibility for land demarcation from the executive to the legislature, where they dominate. The bill proposing this change was first drawn up in 2000 and is now back on the agenda after years in the doldrums. If passed, it would likely sound a death knell for future territory protection.

Indigenous groups want their rights and their land protected. Antonio Lacerda / EPA

These “land reform” schemes largely focus on the Amazon rainforest, where deforestation will likely continue thanks to lucrative opportunities in agriculture and mining. Tighter government budgets will also mean less money for those charged with keeping illegal loggers and miners out of protected areas. In a nation where 50 environmental defenders were murdered in 2015 – the most in the world – resistance will likely result in violence.

A silver lining can be found in Brazil taking steps towards ratifying the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. Yet, with the Brazilian economy in its worst slump for decades, a bitter medicine remains likely.

Senator Roberto Requião, who voted against impeachment proceedings, urged the new government to “Get yourselves into the trenches … conflict will be inevitable.” The danger, as it so often is in times of recession, is that the environment will be the new Brazil’s battlefield, and its forgotten first victim.

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