How the Brazilian elections could determine the future of the Amazon

Seeking re-election, Jair Bolsonaro’s government has championed the easing of environmental policy in Brazil, while opponents push for a sustainable turnaround
<p>Indigenous people protest against Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and in favour of the demarcation of indigenous lands, in Brasília, April 2022. The group carries a banner with the words ‘The future is indigenous’ (Image: Adriano Machado / Alamy)</p>

Indigenous people protest against Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and in favour of the demarcation of indigenous lands, in Brasília, April 2022. The group carries a banner with the words ‘The future is indigenous’ (Image: Adriano Machado / Alamy)

Billboards scattered along the sides of highways that cut through the largest soybean farms in Brazil carried a clear message: “Mato Grosso out of the Legal Amazon – we want to grow and produce.”

At the time they were installed in 2020, the state’s rural producers’ manifesto for the state to no longer be designated part of the Legal Amazon — the administrative region that comprises nine Brazilian states in the Amazon rainforest and basin – caused outrage on social media. But, over time, the notion of a Mato Grosso “exit” retreated from the spotlight. But now, as the country’s elections draw near, the demand has returned to the fore, this time reaching the national capital, Brasilia.

Supported by the ruralist benches of Brazil’s congress, federal deputy Juarez Costa, who is himself seeking re-election, presented Bill 337/2022 on 22 February. If approved, the law will exclude Mato Grosso from the list of states that make up the Legal Amazon.

The Legal Amazon was established by federal law in 1953 to support economic planning, and is complemented by other norms for the protection of the biome.

In 1965, the Forest Code determined that rural landowners must protect 50% of Amazon vegetation within their farms, the so-called “legal reserve”. In 2012, a revision of the code raised this protection to 80%.

With the exclusion of Mato Grosso from the Legal Amazon, ruralists in the state – which is the country’s largest agricultural producer – would have to protect only 20% of the rainforest within their properties, as already occurs in other Brazilian regions.

“Today you have 1,000 hectares and you can only plant on 200. You are obliged to take care of 800, for whom? What kind of preservation is this?” Costa said of the Legal Amazon’s legal reserve, in an interview in March.

If, in recent decades, Brazil was seen as gaining some of the most advanced environmental legislation in the world, which contributed to slowing the deforestation of the Amazon, in recent years the path has been very much the opposite: that of deregulation and acceleration of forest loss.

According to a study published in Nature, the relaxation of environmental protection since 2019 has already reversed previous years’ advances in controlling fires in the Amazon and “leading to some of the most severe potential impacts on biodiversity since 2009”.

Much of these changes came from the very summit of the government of President Jair Bolsonaro, who took office in 2019 and is seeking re-election this October. Should he be successful, this trend is likely to continue, environmentalists warn. But various groups have been pushing for a sustainable turnaround.

In this tug-of-war against a backdrop of elections, the future of the Amazon is at stake.

Relaxation of environmental protection

In 2019, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, the son of the president, proposed a bill to completely eliminate the legal reserve – that is, to allow deforestation of an entire rural property, including along the banks of waterways. But given the negative impacts this would bring upon lands, and an international outcry over 2019’s Amazon wildfires, the bill was shelved shortly after it was proposed.

Juarez Costa
Supported by the ruralist congressional bench, federal deputy Juarez Costa has proposed Bill 337/2022, which seeks the exclusion of Mato Grosso from the Legal Amazon (Image: Archive / Chamber of Deputies)

Other bills supported by the government are still the subject of heated debate. A proposal that would authorise mining on indigenous lands is being discussed in the national congress as a matter of urgency. “The Amazon is a very rich area. In [the northern state of] Roraima, there is a periodic table under the ground,” Jair Bolsonaro is quoted as saying in March this year.

In October 2021, the president visited an illegal mining operation in the Raposa Serra do Sol indigenous territory in Roraima. In February of this year, he then launched a support programme for mining, the Pró-Mape, to stimulate small-scale mining, mainly in the Amazon.

This month, representatives of the rural caucus of pro-development, pro-agribusiness lawmakers met with senate president Rodrigo Pacheco to ask for the advancement of important issues for the sector, which have the president’s support. Among them is the land title regularisation framework, which, according to specialists, would legalise the undue occupation of public lands. Pacheco warned the caucus that legislation like this would not be rushed.

But although the approval of laws such as these has encountered resistance, such initiatives towards greater flexibility flow more easily from the executive: a series of decrees and normative acts issued by the president have eliminated or weakened environmental policies. Bolsonaro has extinguished hundreds of public participation bodies, limited the application of environmental fines and reduced transparency of information on supply chains, for example.

Taciana Stec, public policy analyst for Política Por Inteiro, an NGO that monitors and analyses legislation proposals, explains that the discourses of deregulation and attacks on the environment originate in the states, and slowly reach the national congress through legislative and executive acts.

Four soybean harvesters in one field
Harvesting on a soybean plantation in Nova Mutum, Mato Grosso. The state is the largest agricultural producer in the country but faces transparency challenges in its environmental policy (Image: Paulo Whitaker / Alamy)

“The first year of the Bolsonaro government was a year of a lot of flexibilisation, and a lot of things were repealed,” Stec said. “But in recent months, we have seen an increase in the creation of ‘technical groups’, whose work is prolonged but does not reach any conclusion. That is, in the last year, it is as if they are pretending to deliver something, but in practice they regulate nothing.”

The NGO has also noticed that many projects that arise quietly in municipalities and states come back to the fore in election years. “This was one of the purposes for us in starting to monitor the environmental policy of the states, but we found challenges in transparency, especially in Mato Grosso,” said Stec.

A report released Wednesday by the Instituto Centro de Vida, an NGO that analyses public policies on the environment, showed exactly how state agencies have been making it difficult to access information on environmental regulation. The lack of transparency, the paper says, “impairs the implementation of the Forest Code, making its monitoring difficult”.

The president also blocked the release of funds for the protection of biomes, the main one being the Amazon Fund. Financed with resources from Norway, Germany and Brazil, it was created to foster sustainable activities in the Amazon and to control deforestation and fires.

“There are 3.3 billion reais [US$684 million] sitting idle in the Amazon Fund since 2019. This is unacceptable,” said Suely Araújo, a public policy expert at civil society network Observatório do Clima, and president of the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) between 2016 and 2018. She added that when she presided over IBAMA, the fund was “fundamental for control measures”.

Araújo is one of the authors of Brazil 2045, a plan containing 62 measures proposed by environmentalists to “undo the setbacks” of the current government in the environmental arena. The document, launched last week by the Observatório do Clima, argues that defeating Bolsonaro in the next elections “is the only way to reverse the deterioration of environmental policy, especially with regard to the preservation of the Amazon”.

Election proposals against the Amazon

Despite a less-than-effective regional campaign in 2020, the proposal to withdraw Mato Grosso from the Legal Amazon has now found heavyweight supporters in Brasilia. Neri Geller, a former Minister of Agriculture in 2014 and federal deputy for Mato Grosso, is rapporteur for the project.

“In this mapping [of the Legal Amazon] Mato Grosso was very prejudiced,” said the state politician and rural producer, who is seeking a seat in the senate in the October elections. “There is an imbalance that we need to correct.”

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According to the Forest Code Observatory (OCF), an organisation that works to combat deforestation, the exclusion of Mato Grosso from the protection zone would open up at least 10 million hectares of the Amazon for possible deforestation. The law would also overlook previous illegal deforestation in the region, reducing the area targeted for restoration by 3.3 million hectares.

Meanwhile, deforestation continues to advance rapidly in the biome. Data from the federal government indicates that in April, deforestation in the rainforest increased by 74.5% compared to the same month in 2021. The total area of 1,012.5 km2 deforested was the largest recorded during the month of April since the system began operating in 2015.

Researchers’ evaluations estimate that the increase in deforestation could drive regional droughts and cause agricultural losses of around US$2.7 billion per year. “The increase in deforestation would not imply greater agricultural production and economic gain – on the contrary, it would generate… large-scale losses,” reads an OCF technical note published in March.

Proposals for environmental flexibility, and statements against protection of the Amazon pave the way for a feeling of permissiveness towards devastation, according to Alice Thuault, executive director of the Instituto Centro de Vida.

“The proposed laws are based on a simplifying discourse and are full of myths, such as the myth that Brazil needs to produce to feed the planet,” Thuault said.

Environmental governance in Brazil needs to be rebuilt, as it has suffered from a very clear process of dismantling, rigging and mismanagement

Meanwhile for Herman Oliveira, executive secretary of the Mato Grosso Forum for Environment and Development, proposals to open protected areas to boost agricultural sectors in the Amazon are “electioneering ideas”.

Former president and current poll leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will likely enter into a polarised debate with Bolsonaro ahead of the October elections. Despite the antagonism between them, Oliveira sees that the debate on the Amazon is still not very present in the discourse of Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT). Among his proposals is the creation of an “Indigenous Ministry”.

“It is obvious that if you put the Bolsonaro government up against any other in environmental matters, this was the most disastrous government that ever existed,” Oliveira said. “But looking at Lula, there is no environmental proposal. He has social and economic proposals, but not environmental.”

Thuault says that the situation has become so dire that it is vital to at least guarantee that a sense of democracy itself is upheld in the country. In this scenario of devastated land, any sign of democracy being maintained would be a relief: “It is very obvious to everyone that environmental governance in Brazil needs to be rebuilt, because it has suffered in recent years from a very clear process of dismantling, rigging and mismanagement.”