Bolsonaro’s Environmental Denialism

6 May 2021

“A man proceeds towards his announced goal of the conquest of nature, he has written a depressing record of destruction, directed not only against the earth he inhabits but against the life that shares it with him”, Rachel Carson in her book “Silent Spring”, first published in 1962.

Since taking office in 2018, Brazil’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, and his environment minister, Ricardo de Aquino Salles, have been crystal clear about their views and objectives on environmental policies in Brazil.  Their words and actions have served to weaken and dismantle structures and mechanisms of the environmental protection laws, as well as cutting resources for the environment.

Bolsonaro’s policies have encouraged miners, land grabbers and illegal ranchers to cut down the forest for national development. Cattle ranching for industrial meat and soya farms have also contributed for the deforestation not only of the Amazon, but also the Cerrado region in central Brazil.

In May 2020, the government transferred responsibility for leading anti-deforestation efforts in the Amazon from environmental agencies to the armed forces, despite their lack of expertise and training.

Under Bolsonaro’s administration, an area of 2.7 million acres of the Amazon forest, seven times the size of London, was lost in a single year. The rainforest has suffered the worst deforestation for 12 years, according the INPE, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research.

Scientists warn that if 5-8% more of the Amazon is lost to deforestation, it could reach a tipping point, meaning the rainforest will not be able to produce enough rain to sustain itself. Around 17-20% of the Amazon rainforest has already been destroyed.

Bolsonaro called NGOs working in the Amazon, a “cancer”, a group that he “can’t kill”, accusing them, without proof, of the destruction of the rainforest. He also blamed Indigenous people and small farmers for Amazon fires.

This week, a group of 40 UK firms threatened to stop sourcing products from Brazil over land reforms by signing an open letter calling on Brazil’s legislature to reject a bill, which could legitimise the private occupation of public land.

It is worth pointing out that 2 of the signatories in this letter include the firms Pilgrim’s UK and Moy Park. JBS S.A., a Brazilian company and one of the largest meat processing companies in the world, owns 80% of Pilgrim’s Pride. Moy Park is also owned by JBS, a company linked to the destruction of Brazil’s rainforest.

“Supermarkets need to go beyond their sustainability rhetoric by setting strict requirements for their suppliers, banning deforestation, monitoring their suppliers for compliance, and dropping contracts with the worst offenders like JBS,” said Mighty Earth.

The Amazon rainforest and the cerrado regions are not the only ones being threatened by Bolsonaro and his administration. Any institution or individual who opposes to Bolsonaro’s views and policies, have also been subject to intimidation and vicious attacks.

At the Climate Leaders Summit this year, Bolsonaro pledged to work with the Indigenous communities and protect the Amazon, but instead he has being accused of using intimidation tactics towards the indigenous peoples.

A week after the Climate Leaders Summit, two indigenous leaders and activists, Sônia Guajajara and Almir Narayamoga Surui, were both summoned for questioning by the federal police over allegations of defamation of Bolsonaro’s government.

“The persecution of this government is unacceptable and absurd. They will not silence us”, Guajajara said on an April 30 Twitter post.

Brazil’s environment minister, Ricardo Salles, has recently made a statement about rubber tapper leader, Chico Mendes, who was murdered in 1988, saying, “What difference does it make who Chico Mendes is at the moment?” Later on, Salles mentioned that he was unaware of who Chico Mendes was.

Chico Mendes’ initial aim was to protect the “seringueiras”, rubber tappers, in the Amazon region, that were exploited in large-scale projects and expansion of agribusiness in the country. He also helped establish the Worker’s Party (PT) in Brazil.

“Chico Mendes was a worker, activist, social leader, rubber tapper, parliamentarian, politically persecuted, an example of struggle. He gave his life for the environment and was cowardly murdered by the system. Respect Chico Mendes, minister”, wrote a parliamentarian on Twitter.

The agribusiness industry in Brazil is one of the most powerful lobby groups today, made up of the largely land-owning elites, the very ones Chico Mendes was fighting against. This is an example of how dangerous life can be for environmental activists in Brazil, and now more than ever.

Since 2019, many Brazilian scientists have also been under Bolsonaro’s attacks. He accused the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) for lying about data showing increase deforestation in the Amazon and then fired its director, physicist Ricardo Galvão, for defending the data.

According to Science magazine, online harassment appears to have escalated to physical attacks. Biologist Lucas Ferrante, a doctoral candidate at INPA, published articles in high-profile journals (including Science) criticising Bolsonaro’s environmental and health policies, his cellphone and social media accounts lit up with threatening messages.

In November 2020, Ferrante suffered an attack by a man driving an Uber vehicle he had hailed; the man told Ferrante he “needed to shut up” and attacked him with a pointy object. Since then, Ferrante is reluctant to leave his house and carries a cellphone that isn’t linked to his name.

One more concern for environmentalists in Brazil is Bolsonaro’s government’s release of a staggering 1,059 pesticide registrations since January 2019. One third have already been banned in the European Union due to the risks to health and the environment. A quarter of Brazilian municipalities have a mix of 27 pesticides in the water; 51% of the food contains pesticide residues.

Recently, there have been reports of pesticides being launched by plane over children and communities in Brazil in disputes over land. There are growing complaints from rural communities of symptoms of pesticide poisoning, said to originate from pesticide spraying from farmers’ airplanes.  It is said that the farmers want those communities to depart the land. The Brazilian state is not responding to the seriousness of the problem.

Illegal deforestation, destruction of the environment, invasion of indigenous territories, intimidation tactics and violence towards environmental activists, indigenous leaders and scientists, is abhorrent, unacceptable and must be addressed for the sake of Brazil and humanity. 

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