Only a week into his presidency, Brazil’s far-right leader, Jair Bolsonaro, is already making good on his campaign trail threats to abandon climate action in favor of industry interests, a shift in priorities that is drawing comparisons to his ally, President Donald Trump.
In the wake of dire reports indicating that the world needs to dramatically accelerate climate action, the Brazilian leader is instead handing outsized power to the controversial Ministry of Agriculture — a decision that stands to benefit farmers and loggers, whose activities contribute significantly to the country’s overall carbon emissions.
“Bolsonaro made many anti-environmental statements during the campaign and it wasn’t clear how much he would actually do,” said Kathryn Hochstetler, a professor at the London School of Economics, who specializes in environmental issues with an emphasis on South America. “[But] he has done a lot of alarming things already.”
The president’s first actions in office give the Ministry of Agriculture control over deforestation and considerable oversight of many of the indigenous communities working to prevent destructive practices like logging and mining. Bolsonaro also moved the Brazilian Forestry Service, intended to promote sustainable forest use, from the Ministry of the Environment over to its agriculture counterpart. According to Carbon Brief, land-use change and the forestry sector are Brazil’s leading source of emissions.
Those steps follow through on Bolsonaro’s campaign trail threats. He initially pledged to exit the Paris climate agreement before backtracking last year and leaving his plans vague. He also taken repeated jabs at Brazil’s environmental protections and commitments.
Under Brazil’s provisional measures, presidents can largely operate without legislative approval from the national congress for a 60 day-period, extendable up to another 60 days. Using that mechanism, Bolsonaro is able to put his campaign promises into action.
Bolsonaro’s choice for agriculture minister, Tereza Cristina, has deep ties to Brazil’s agribusiness sector. And conflicts between landowners and indigenous communities are common in her home state, Mato Grosso do Sul. Fabio de Sa e Silva, co-director of the Brazilian Studies program at the University of Oklahoma, told ThinkProgress that Cristina has long advocated for relaxations on the use of pesticides during her time in congress, earning her the nickname “Poison Queen.”
And there’s little chance of a shift. Cristina has “proposed that rural enterprises could issue their own environmental license and meat producers could issue their own certificate of compliance with sanitary requirements,” Sa e Silva said. “This all suggests little care for the environment and indigenous community [sic] and an intent to relax environmental regulations.”
Brazil’s steps away from environmental safeguards are daunting for the country, which is the primary caretaker of the Amazon, along with a wealth of natural resources. But climate leadership in Brazil also matters globally. The country is considered a critical player in worldwide efforts to meet the goals laid out by the Paris agreement, particularly with regards to keeping global emissions within 1.5ºC of global warming above pre-industrial levels.
An alarming report released last year by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Chance (IPCC) found that the world likely only has around 12 years to avoid crossing that temperature threshold. Heading off the worst impacts of climate change requires global teamwork, but one key player is already missing in action. Under Trump, the United States has pledged to leave the Paris agreement, and the president has overseen the mass rollback of environmental regulations. Bolsonaro has notably allied himself with Trump on a number of issues, with climate emerging as a key area of overlap.
Climate scientists contacted by ThinkProgress indicated that it’s too early to gauge how Brazil’s effort to follow the U.S. pivot away from climate leadership could impact global emissions reduction efforts. But Hochstetler, the professor, said the apparent alliance between Trump and Bolsonaro could create a domino effect.
“In much the same way, Bolsonaro’s position will give cover to other global presidents who might be thinking of weakening their own commitments,” she said. “The movement down the slippery slope hasn’t gathered steam yet, but the first steps have been taken.”
The Paris agreement largely relies on national action to begin with, Hochstetler said, and Brazil has come under fire from climate advocates for failing to set loftier climate goals. But weakening the landmark pact could have far-reaching ramifications and experts have expressed concern that any movements away from the agreement could imperil global climate action.
“The less countries you have on board, the more difficult it gets to move forward,” said Sa e Silva, who also noted that Brazil’s global bargaining power would likely suffer if the country were to exit the Paris agreement.
Threats to climate action within Bolsonaro’s cabinet extend beyond the ministry of agriculture. Ernesto Araújo, the new foreign minister, has called climate change a scheme concocted by “cultural Marxists.” Araújo will represent Brazil’s international interests and already worked with Bolsonaro on a decision to back out of hosting annual U.N. climate talks in 2019.
Brazil’s new minister for the environment, Ricardo Salles, has ties to agribusiness interests himself, and Sa e Silva noted that Salles lacks close ties to environmental scientists and activists, a significant shift away from prior trends. Salles has called climate change a secondary issue and has said that engaging in a debate with climate advocates is “pointless.”
Salles also oversees Ibama, Brazil’s environmental protection agency, which is tasked with protecting the Amazon. Suely Araújo, who has led Ibama since 2016, resigned on Monday following ongoing criticism from Bolsonaro, who on Sunday accused Araújo on Twitter of mismanaging the agency’s budget. Araújo called the accusations “baseless” and sources within Ibama alleged that the criticism is part of a government effort to weaken the agency.
The departure has deepened anxiety over the Amazon among environmentalists and activists, many of whom are already concerned for their safety and work. Organizations like Greenpeace Brazil have been targeted by the new government and groups working to protect land defenders have also expressed fears that indigenous communities might be especially vulnerable. According to Global Witness, a watchdog group, 57 people were killed in Brazil two years ago while protecting the environment — the highest number recorded around the globe.
Prior to Bolsonaro’s election, environmental advocates worried those numbers could rise under his leadership, and Bolsonaro’s initial actions have done nothing to alleviate those fears. In a statement to ThinkProgress, Ben Leather, a senior campaigner with Global Witness, honed in on the new authority given to the Ministry of Agriculture.
“Indigenous people already suffer disproportionately from attacks from agribusiness on their land and communities,” he said. “If the Brazilian Government wants agribusiness to stop driving the murders of indigenous communities and Land and Environment Defenders [sic] — it must take action now, and reverse this decision.”
The decree that handed new powers to the Ministry of Agriculture still needs to be ratified within 120 days by congress. And while advocates largely remain grim, Hochstetler underscored that Bolsonaro is likely to meet legal resistance as he moves forward, especially with regard to the Amazon and attacks on activists. Concern over economic push-back from more climate-conscious countries also serves as an incentive to curtail drastic moves to decelerate climate action, with even agribusiness interests concerned about losing business in Europe over pro-deforestation movements.
“In a global trading economy, Bolsonaro may quickly find out that there are economic limits to policies he wants to follow,” she said, “even those that have ostensibly economic aims, like reducing forest protections.”