Modern Environmental Concerns Under Bolsonaro: Deforestation in the Amazon highlights autocratic traits in Brazil’s president

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By Pamela Machado and Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Developments of autocratic governmental tendencies emerge from the deleterious effects of nationalism bolstered around prejudice, bigotry, hatred, suspicion amplified by anxiety, conspiracy theories, denialism of fundamental concepts of science, rejection of facts, and the celebration of a powerful figure in a strongman, applicable to men or women but, mostly seen in men as demagogues provoking the worst sentiments in the population. There are few leaders in the world nowadays that could represent this idea more accurately than Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro.

The election of Jair Bolsonaro into the presidency of Brazil created a new era in the political landscape for Brazilian citizens with the alignment of Evangelical Christian fundamentalism and strongman negative populism. The autocratic tone in Bolsonaro’s government is no longer a surprise for those worrying about the waning status of democracy around the world, and of civil liberties internationally. Since taking office in January of 2019, the Brazilian president has made tens of international headlines starring his homophobic rhetoric, lack of diplomacy, poor social media etiquette, and disastrous handling of environmental degradation, amongst some of a litany of faux pas moments and real political scandals.

Week after week, Brazil’s president has shown signs pointing to a tyranny being instituted in Brazil under his rule. The latest recurrences involve the Amazon, with the international community funding the Amazon removing financial support because of the deforestation ongoing within the country, including by Norway and Germany. In response, Bolsonaro said, as a childish tease helpful in ascertaining his character, “Isn’t Norway that country that kills whales up there in the north pole?… Take that money and help Angela Merkel reforest Germany.” Bolsonaro shows no intention to take on criticism from the international community and scientists, and then act to curb deforestation. 

As a matter of fact, Bolsonaro has strong allies in Brazil pushing him to disregard environmental discussion as a ‘conspiracy from the left’ and ‘fake news’. One of the strongest lobbyists in Bolsonaro’s government is indeed the agribusiness sector, which is among the most powerful industries in South America. The agribusiness model, which leaves soils impoverished and lands devastated, is at the opposite side of environmentalism and indigenous land advocacy; and Bolsonaro’s intentions are to open the Amazon for agribusiness lords. Conservation of the Amazon is one of the key aspects in establishing international alliances, especially with countries in the European Union, where the green influence has grown in the political realm since the last EU elections last May. Bolsonaro’s stance can only lead to Brazil’s isolation in a global scenario in times when cooperation is a fundamental virtue to avoid a global ecological collapse.  

Bolsonaro has caused outrage after sacking the director of Brazil’s National Space Research Institute (INPE) at the beginning of the month. Ricardo Galvão, the previous director of INPE, had called out Bolsonaro’s government on skyrocketing deforestation in the Amazon after data showed that deforestation was 88% higher in June compared to a year ago. To compound this, Bolsonaro is a major climate change denier and sees the science of climate change as a Marxist plot. He claimed INPE’s latest report is lying and the methodology of the study is not trustworthy, even as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change continues in its Sixth Assessment Cycle. Bolsonaro and his coterie have a history of climate change denial, not even skepticism. He was clear about destroying the Indigenous environments and the ties between them. Bolsonaro is not informed or does not want to believe the realities and seriousness of the climate crisis facing us, where he proposes citizens, not himself, eat less and defecate every other day in order to help the climate while working to destroy the environment. Citizens should become active and involved in the political process, as they have become increasingly active and involved in the political process based on these atrocious attitudes, statements, and opinions on science.

Also, he made clear the intent, if elected, to leave the Paris Climate Agreement from 2015, mimicking US President Donald Trump. Ed Atkins, from the University of Bristol, has stated that leaving the Paris Agreement is not really in the hands of Bolsonaro: “Ultimately, his power to reverse the decision is limited, however. This is because the Paris deal was approved via the Brazilian congress, which is currently divided between 30 parties, and Bolsonaro would face the tricky task of convincing a broad church of conservatives.” However, Bolsonaro seems to care little about the rules of democracy and the institutions he should respect. 

If only environmental concerns were the only thing to worry about – but the president’s latest scandal about the Amazon are only another indicator of the autocratic turn taking place in Brazil. 

Bolsonaro is surely familiar with fake news tactics that undermine the strength of democracy: this is his strongest weapon to keep his electorate faithfully supportive as the economy continues to wade in Brazil leaving almost 14 million unemployed, worsening criminality or increasing the number of “cockroaches” in his opining, and quality of life – among other atrocities such as censoring LGBTI+ films and cutting funding to federal universities. 

The far-right president is progressively turning himself into an authoritarian force in Latin America’s major country – and he is quite proud to be so. The stance of dehumanization against one’s own most vulnerable citizens simply shows to the public in glaring and gory detail an arrogance fit for authoritarian rule. 

Bolsonaro has a long-lasting and widely reported passion with authoritarian leaders in South America. Like attracts like, one may assume here. He also has an open disgust to democracy and state institutions: “My pen is mightier than yours,” he told the lower house Speaker Rodrigo Maia earlier this year, implying that congressmen are not as powerful as him.

At a worrying speed, Bolsonaro takes steps closer in his vision to turn Brazil into a country where those who appreciate diversity and show respect to nature have no voice. Brazilian democratic institutions, where corruption is deeply ingrained, seem to get weaker by the hour and there is dooming scenario about the next three years until the next election is held make it looks like an obscure endless era.

This political cascade of anti-democratic leaders and forces contains racial elements to it. According to the latest data available, Brazil’s population is mostly non-white. The portion of Brazilian identifying themselves as whites fell from 53.7% in 2000 to 47.7% in 2010, when the latest statistic was released. Issues of self-identification or self-report in the collection of the data aside; the result is collective actions taking place all over Brazil to educate about ethnicities and gender rather than an actual decrease in the number of white people, as seen in the number of mixed-race which rose from 38.5% to 43.1%. Thanks to open conversations about racial questions and structural racism, a larger number of Brazilians have become more literate on identity politics and the issues following from them.

Bolsonaro’s contempt towards mixed-raced and non-white communities is escalating. Even more explicit comes from the majoritarian authoritarianism of the statements, Bolsonaro, in 2017, said, “Minorities have to bend down to the majority… The minorities [should] either adapt or simply vanish.” The rhetoric of dehumanization creates the basis for autocratic and tyrannical orientation leading to an easy denial of civil liberties for minorities and other, typically, vulnerable populations within Brazil. The demagoguery around denial of the real world, of living in a fantasy concocted of delusions of mass and widespread conspiracy theories, forms the basis for decoupling popular discourse from facts, common Brazilian values and shared identity, and democratic orientation of the government. There needs to be rapid damage control and broad activism to begin to solve the problems created, the fires started, by the Brazilian president and his coterie.

Photo by Alexandre Perotto on Unsplash

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