Brazil’s environmental activists are bracing for dark future

Jair Bolsonaro's climate views are terrifying green groups and activists.

Supporters of Brazilian far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro attend a rally in Copacabana beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on October 21, 2018. CREDIT: CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images
Supporters of Brazilian far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro attend a rally in Copacabana beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on October 21, 2018. CREDIT: CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

Brazil’s runoff elections on Sunday are set to have resounding implications for environmental activists in the country, as well as for global climate efforts.

Far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, a 63-year-old congressman and former army captain, could very well become the next president of Brazil after coming in ahead of his leading opponent, the left-leaning Fernando Haddad, with more than 46 percent in the country’s first round of voting on October 7. The final vote is scheduled for October 28, at which point Brazil may be looking at a future radically different from its present.

Fueled by years of government scandal and widespread public resentment in Brazil, Bolsonaro has slowly built a steady following around his ultranationalist agenda. The deeply conservative politician has targeted the LGBTQ community, immigrants, drug liberalization, and affirmative action in one of the world’s most racially diverse countries.

He has also singled out environmental issues, something that could have an outsized impact on global efforts to fight climate change and ecological devastation.

Brazil has oversight over critical habitats that activists have long sought to protect from poachers, miners, and the logging and hydro industries. Environmental advocates in the country have faced extreme danger from these forces for years.


According to the watchdog group Global Witness, 57 people were killed protecting land in Brazil in 2017 alone following confrontations with poachers, loggers, and others. If Bolsonaro is elected, green groups fear these conditions could worsen, jeopardizing human rights along with the environment.

Home to both the Amazon rainforest and the Cerrado, a vast tropical savanna ecoregion, Brazil’s participation in efforts to combat global warming is critical — deforestation represents 10 percent of greenhouse gases globally.

Since 2004, the country has been a key player in environmental efforts. Over the course of the past 13 years, Brazil has worked to dramatically lower its greenhouse gas emissions, reducing deforestation by 70 percent and keeping at least 3.2 billion tons of carbon emissions out of the atmosphere. Prior to these efforts, Brazil had the highest deforestation rate in the world.

Recent years have challenged that success story; a resurgence in deforestation coupled with a rollback in environmental regulations have both taken their toll in Brazil. Activists and green organizations worry that trend is about to get a lot worse.

Researchers in Brazil have called Bolsonaro “the worst thing that could happen for the environment” and pointed to his own comments as proof. Bolsonaro has said that Brazil has “too many protected areas” that in turn “stand in the way of development” in the large country. He has also threatened to withdraw Brazil from the landmark Paris climate agreement, although he has recently wavered on that pledge.


“Brazil has a tradition of helping in the negotiations and advancement of international climate agreement[s],” explained Marcio Astrini, Greenpeace Brazil’s public policy coordinator.

In an email to ThinkProgress, Astrini said that while Brazilians and activists “still do not know exactly the extent of what Bolsonaro intends in environmental matters,” they are still very worried for the environment and for activists.

“From what we have seen so far, his ideas are not only dangerous but irresponsible and undermine the country’s democracy at various times… [like] when he says he will try to close… environmental NGOs in the country,” said Astrini.

Western media has consistently compared Bolsonaro to U.S. President Donald Trump, drawing correlations between the loud, controversial approaches both men have taken to office. While stark contrasts exist between both figures, Trump has similarly targeted environmental regulations and sought to roll back the green strides made by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Brazilian activists worry Bolsonaro would be much the same and dozens of non-governmental environmental groups have warned the candidate could be devastating for the country’s biodiversity and forests. In addition to possibly leaving the Paris agreement and hobbling environmental agencies, Bolsonaro has said he will give the green light to controversial hydro-electric dams and open up indigenous reserves to mining.

That runs counter to everything activists have worked for, putting them in likely danger. Indigenous activists are disproportionately targeted in their efforts to protect their land and last year, 80 percent of the murders of land defenders occurred in the Amazon, according to Global Witness. Some of those attacks included armed assaults by ranchers on activists, while military police allegedly stood by and refused to intervene.

Organizers with Global Witness were unable to comment to ThinkProgress due to work load, but the group has warned repeatedly about the risks Brazilian activists currently face.


Bolsonaro has also pledged to crack down on dissidents, something that could further imperil activists. Last Sunday, the candidate threatened to purge his left-wing political antagonists, a move that came weeks after an attempted assassination, from which the right-wing politician has been recovering.

“Either they go overseas, or they go to jail,” Bolsonaro said.

Those comments have further alarmed activists and progressives in Brazil. Even as activists strategize how best to approach such a leader, apprehension is mounting. In addition to concern for human rights, many are worried about basic climate policy. It is unclear where Bolsonaro stands on climate change, although his son, also a Brazilian politician, has embraced Trump’s own approach, celebrating the U.S. president’s attack on climate policies.

Meanwhile Haddad, a 55-year-old professor and Bolsonaro’s only significant opponent, has run on a platform emphasizing social justice and progressive values, although he has been relatively quiet on environmental issues. But Brazilians have expressed little enthusiasm for the candidate, who is seen as a carryover of the corruption of recent leaders, including former Presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff. That leaves Bolsonaro in a comfortable position — much to the dismay of social justice advocates.

In an open letter published by the Guardian on Thursday, a group of 15 activists, lawmakers, and other key figures warned that Brazil’s most vulnerable communities would all be threatened by a Bolsonaro presidency. Among those most threatened, they said, are environmental and human rights defenders, who already face incredible danger in Brazil for their activism.

One of the biggest sources of concern is the Paris agreement. Any move to leave the agreement, Astrini said, “will put the country against its history and what the world needs.”

But even prior to Bolsonaro’s latest threats against his political opponents, Astrini emphasized that activists are still preparing to fight back in the event that he does indeed become president.

“There is already a great resistance front against some of these threats,” Astrini said, explaining that indigenous groups, human rights activists, scientists, and scholars have come together to work in opposition to the candidate.

“If elected, this type of movement will expand, become stronger, gain new members and increase their resistance,” Astrini said.

Brazilians will have their say on Sunday, in an election much of the world will be watching. No matter what happens, many of the country’s activists are preparing themselves for an uncertain future.

“The worse and more dangerous your ideas are to the environment, the more it will be exposed, nationally and internationally, and the greater the resistance against your actions,” said Astrini. “Especially in the Amazon, we will create a broad and strong movement to defend the forest, inside and outside the country.”