Brazil environmental activists react to Bolsonaro victory with horror, resolve

Green groups are terrified for the fate of the Amazon, as well as for land defenders.

A supporter of the left-wing presidential candidate for the Workers Party (PT), Fernando Haddad, reacts after the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro won Brazil's presidential election, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on October 28, 2018.  CREDIT: Fabio Vieira/FotoRua/NurPhoto via Getty Images
A supporter of the left-wing presidential candidate for the Workers Party (PT), Fernando Haddad, reacts after the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro won Brazil's presidential election, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on October 28, 2018. CREDIT: Fabio Vieira/FotoRua/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Environmental advocates and human rights supporters reacted to the victory of far-right Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro with outrage and concern on Sunday night, even as they vowed to continue their activism.

With a decisive 55 percent of the vote, Bolsonaro, a congressman and former army captain, sailed to victory in South America’s largest country, likely ushering in a dramatic shift for Brazil. The 63-year-old has gained prominence on a deeply conservative, inflammatory platform, which he has used to target people of color and indigenous communities, along with LGBTQ Brazilians, refugees, and other vulnerable groups.

He has also repeatedly threatened the future of Brazil’s environmental ministry, while pledging to do away with regulations and safeguards that ensure the protection of areas including the Amazon.

Following his victory, Bolsonaro doubled down on his threats against political opponents, arguing in a Facebook Live address that Brazil must cease “flirting with socialism, communism, populism and the extremism of the left.”


Bolsonaro has previously said he will jail opponents, something that has sparked concern for environmental activists, who are already vulnerable in Brazil for their efforts to defend the land. In the hours following his election, green groups and activists all over the world have widely expressed their fears about the future. Many emphasized, however, that they hope Bolsonaro’s rhetoric will subdue as he enters office.

“Brazil has the potential to be a leader on curbing climate change, but Jair Bolsonaro needs to commit to a Zero Deforestation policy instead of weakening environmental protections to make way for more industrial cattle grazing and farming,” said Asensio Rodriguez of Greenpeace’s Brazil arm in a statement to ThinkProgress and other publications.

Rodriguez also commented that “nature is not a resource for profit, it is a way to guarantee future generations’ lives are safe.”

As the overseer of both the Amazon and the Cerrado savanna, Brazil plays an outsized role in global climate efforts. The country’s steps over the course of the past decade to reduce deforestation and protect delicate biodiverse areas have earned acclaim worldwide — Brazil has reduced its once-staggering deforestation levels by 70 percent since 2004. Deforestation is responsible for roughly 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.


But in recent years Brazil has slowed those efforts, relaxing environmental protections even as the country has grown significantly more dangerous for land defenders. The watchdog group Global Witness documented 57 instances in 2017 where environmental activists were killed in Brazil during clashes with poachers, loggers, ranchers, and others. Many worry Bolsonaro’s election will exacerbate that fraught reality.

“He is promoting violence,” said Rubens Born, an activist with the climate network, referencing the time leading up to the election along with the current political climate. “Several NGO activists in different fields are getting threats… We are in a very bad and sad situation in terms of democracy and human rights.”

In addition to fearing for their own lives, activists worry Bolsonaro’s presidency will almost certainly imperil some of the world’s most precious natural resources. Bolsonaro has threatened to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, a pledge he has walked back in recent weeks.

If Brazil were to leave, others might follow suit, even as climate scientists and experts largely agree the world has around a decade left before the planet passes a dangerous global warming threshold. Bolsonaro has also said he will give controversial hydroelectric dam projects in the Amazon the green light, along with okaying logging efforts and other sources of concern for environmentalists.

“His reckless plans to industrialize the Amazon in concert with Brazilian and international agribusiness and mining sectors will bring untold destruction to the planet’s largest rainforest and the communities who call it home, and spell disaster for the global climate,” said Amazon Watch program director Christian Poirer in a statement following the election.

Farmers and ranchers have largely supported Bolsonaro’s rise, which many see as crucial to preserving their jobs and livelihoods. White men and wealthy Brazilians also appear to have contributed to the candidate’s victory.


Some world leaders are also likely to find common ground with the Brazilian leader. President Donald Trump, who has overseen the mass rollback of U.S. environmental regulations and to whom Bolsonaro has been compared by much of Western media, offered the president-elect his congratulations on Sunday.  Trump reportedly called Bolsonaro to commit to working together and deepening ties between the United States and Brazil.

Bolsonaro is set to take office on January 1, 2019, to serve an initial four-year term.