Eurasia Group | Brazil’s Bolsonaro unlikely to change tune on environment

Brazil’s Bolsonaro unlikely to change tune on environment

29 August 2019
A tract of Amazon jungle after a fire in Brazil. REUTERS. A tract of Amazon jungle after a fire in Brazil. REUTERS.
Faced with mounting international pressure to step up the fight against an epidemic of fires in the Amazon rainforest, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has overcome his initial reluctance and pledged more resources to combat the problem. But as Eurasia Group expert Silvio Cascione explains, though geopolitical considerations have forced the controversial leader to make this important concession, they won't convince him to change his basic approach to environmental issues.

Why did Bolsonaro buckle to international pressure?

The president appeared on national television to announce he would send federal troops to the Amazon to combat the fires. It was a surprising development after months of denials of the scale of the problem and sarcastic attempts to shift the blame elsewhere. He had said, for example, the fires were set by environmental activists intent on making him look bad, or who were working for foreign interests intent on getting their hands on the Amazon's mining and forest resources.

But threats from concerned European nations to pull out of a landmark trade deal with Latin American countries including Brazil and calls for a boycott of Brazilian products on social media spooked the country's powerful agri-business lobby, which urged the Bolsonaro administration to take the problem more seriously. The episode has highlighted a clash between two different parts of Bolsonaro's agenda—relaxing environmental controls and expanding trade. The president decided he could resolve the conflict by moderating his approach on the former. The federal government is likely to announce new measures to combat illegal deforestation in the coming weeks.

How bad are this year's fires?

For most of the year, tropical rainfall keeps the forest wet, so fire activity picks up during the dry season, from June to September, owing to natural causes and human activity. Most fires are set by small farmers to clear land for cultivation, and this year's number is not entirely unprecedented. The number recorded in August 2019 so far (28,104) is slightly above the historical average for the month (25,853). But this month's number is the highest since August 2010, when 45,018 fires occurred, according to Brazil's space agency INPE. Most of the fire alerts were detected near federal roads in the state of Para and blamed on human activity. Official deforestation rates are calculated with months of delay, but it seems clear the rate has rapidly accelerated this year.

What is causing the uptick?

Brazil has a rigorous forestry code, which requires that 20% of all agricultural farmland in the south and southeast of the country be reserved for native forests; the number rises to 80% in the Amazon region. Illegal deforestation, even on private property, is punishable by large fines or even detention. But enforcement has historically been a challenge across the country's vast geography. It has become more challenging under Bolsonaro, who has promised to rein in environmental agency IBAMA, which he has blamed for an “industry of fines.”

Government agencies have never had the human or technical resources to fully cover their jurisdictions, but their monitoring activity had acted as a deterrent to small landowners and loggers who feared large fines. The protection system has been severely undermined by the president's rhetoric, which has fueled expectations that illegal deforestation would no longer be punished. Large agricultural exporters, who have stronger ties with Europe and other markets, say they have continued to comply with environmental rules, as they fear external sanctions. But smaller producers have felt emboldened. Federal police are investigating, for example, whether landowners in Para used social media to organize a “Day of Fires” on 10 August to defy local authorities.

The Bolsonaro administration has also taken concrete steps to weaken enforcement, removing experienced members of IBAMA from their posts and firing the head of INPE after it published alarming deforestation data. In Para, media reported IBAMA did not conduct any large-scale operations in July, when the fire season usually gains momentum. Also, while in previous years IBAMA officials destroyed any equipment found in fields where illegal logging operations were discovered, that practice is no longer being enforced.

Will any of this change now?

The difficulty for Bolsonaro is how to put the genie back in the bottle. The armed forces can help control the largest fire outbreaks, but they cannot do the job of IBAMA or local agencies in enforcing environmental legislation on a long-term basis. Fires will peak in September and disappear with the arrival of the wet season, probably in October, but they will probably return next year in similar rates if government agencies are not strengthened again.

Bolsonaro's rhetoric on the issue will matter a lot, given its symbolism. There is some pressure from within the administration, driven by the agri-business lobby, to remove Environment Minister Ricardo Salles to signal a change in approach. But Bolsonaro's continued public feuding with French President Emmanuel Macron, who has harshly criticized Brazil's environmental record, does not bode well for any fundamental change. Though Bolsonaro has made a concession to international pressure, he still believes in more flexible economic development policies and is very outspoken. The more likely outcome is increasingly mixed messages from the administration, which is not likely to fully revert the notion among the local population that the administration is more lenient than its predecessors. In practice, that is likely to limit the efficacy of new measures.

Read 2019 TIME 100: Jair Bolsonaro, look at Politics in Pictures: a visual guide to Brazil, and check out Red Herrings feature on Brazil in our Top Risks for 2019 report.
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Eurasia Group Latin America Senior Analyst Silvio Cascione.
Based in Brasilia, Silvio manages Eurasia Group's local research on Brazil's congressional agenda and major regulatory changes. He is the ear on the ground for clients interested in the latest updates from Brazil's capital.