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Brazil’s New President Awakens Fears for Amazon, the Environment

Oct. 29, 2018, 10:30 AM

Brazil’s environment could be a target of President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, who wants to resume dam building in the Amazon basin and has given mixed signals about whether he will pull South America’s largest country out of the Paris climate agreement.

Bolsonaro, who was elected president of Brazil Oct. 28, campaigned on a platform that includes cutting back on environmental enforcement, opening up some protected areas for mining, and building more nuclear power plants.

But he also has backed the solar and wind industries. And even critics have noted that Bolsonaro reversed or rethought some of his positions during the campaign, bringing into question how he will move on environmental issues after taking office Jan. 1, 2019.

“Bolsonaro denies the importance of any type of environmental policy because he believes that it is bad for the private sector, especially agribusiness, which he sees as essential for economic growth,” Adriana Ramos, public policy coordinator at the nonprofit Social Environmental Institute in Brasilia, told Bloomberg Environment Oct. 19. “But the extent to which he will carry out or reconsider positions he has taken regarding the environment remains to be seen.”

Rainforests Could Be at Risk

Bolsonaro, who was a far-right congressman, has called for pulling Brazil out of the Paris climate agreement. But at an Oct. 24 news conference in Rio de Janeiro, he reversed that position, declaring: “Brazil stays in the Paris Agreement.”

Under the Paris pact, Brazil has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent by 2030, compared to 2005 levels.

The country’s fabled rainforests could face new risks as Bolsonaro has said he wants to resume dam construction in the Amazon basin, despite the fact that their reservoirs flood large swaths of land and leave a big environmental footprint. He also advocates building more nuclear power plants and expanding wind and solar power.

“Bolsonaro’s campaign platform recognizes solar and wind power as job creators and economic drivers which means that either the government or national and international private-sector banks will likely provide wind and solar projects with the low-cost financing they need,” Rodrigo Sauaia, CEO of the Brazilian Photovoltaic Solar Energy Association, told Bloomberg Environment Oct. 24.

‘Deforestation Will Skyrocket’

Bolsonaro has opposed increasing the number of federally protected areas, including indigenous reserves, and has called for opening up some existing reservations for mining. He also supports reducing federal prosecution of environmental crimes, including in the Amazon.

“If Bolsonaro reduces environmental enforcement, Amazon deforestation will skyrocket by giving landowners a sense of impunity for illegal cutting, mainly to further expand the agribusiness frontier into that rainforest,” Paulo Barreto, senior researcher for Institute of Man and the Amazon Environment, told Bloomberg Environment Oct. 22.

In a statement after the election Oct. 28, Amazon Watch program director Christian Poirer said: “His reckless plans to industrialize the Amazon in concert with Brazilian and international agribusiness and mining sectors will bring untold destruction to the planet’s largest rainforest and the communities who call it home, and spell disaster for the global climate.”

But Marcelo Vieira, president of the Rural Brazilian Society, a national association of farmers and ranchers, told Bloomberg Environment Oct. 19 that “Bolsonaro doesn’t want to cut back on environmental enforcement as much as he wants to make it more efficient.”

‘Ending the Folly’

In a YouTube campaign video in January, Bolsonaro called for “ending the folly” of “the [environmental] fining industry” by subordinating the environment ministry under the aegis of the agriculture ministry and filling its posts with those nominated by “rural entities.” His campaign platform repeats the vow, the only time the word environment appears in it.

The Brazilian Coalition for Climate, Forests and Agriculture, a network of 180 environmental, scientific, and agribusiness groups, called for Brazil staying in the Paris Agreement, not merging the environment and agriculture ministries, and promoting a low-carbon economy,

“The environment ministry’s work goes beyond agricultural issues to include licensing, pollution control, chemical product use, and water resources,” as well as enforcement, in particular, against deforestation, the coalition said in a statement before the election.

“Maintaining both ministries guarantees a balance between conservation and sustainable production, giving them the same weight in government decision-making,” Luiz Cornacchioni, executive director of the Brazilian Agribusiness Association, a coalition member, told Bloomberg Environment Oct. 24. “Two separate ministries also act independently and in complementary fashion in regards to public policy.”

‘Negotiating a Compromise’

Bolsonaro has already begun to rethink such an administrative consolidation, stating in a live Facebook transmission Oct. 24 that “merging the two ministries has caused some friction and I am open to negotiating a compromise.”

And Carlos Rittl, executive secretary of the Climate Observatory, a network of 44 groups monitoring Brazilian climate policy, said Oct. 26: “Bolsonaro seems to be reversing his call for Brazil to leave the Paris Agreement because doing so could curb the country’s economic growth.

“Such a pullout could cause European companies, concerned about reputational risk, to buy less from Brazil, and cause the European Union to place tough trade restrictions, especially on commodities, like soy and beef, coming from deforested areas of Brazil’s Amazon,” Rittl told Bloomberg Environment.

French President Emmanuel Macron told the U.N. General Assembly in September that his nation, and by extension, the European Union, would not sign trade pacts with countries that do not comply with the Paris accord.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael Kepp in Rio de Janeiro at correspondents@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com