In Brazil, Election Respite for Rainforest?

November 3, 2022


Scientists breathed a sigh of relief on Sunday as Brazil narrowly elected Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as president, ousting the current leader, who they say disregarded science, weakened environmental policies and disparaged minority groups.

Overcoming the reputational damage of a 19-month stint in prison on corruption charges that were tossed out in 2021, Lula received nearly 51% of the vote in a runoff election against the right-wing incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro. Lula, a leftist labour leader and former president, will take office in January.

“Today is a very hopeful day here in Brazil,” says Elisa Orth, a chemist at the Federal University of Paraná in Curitiba. Orth has watched students walk away from science over the past several years, while Bolsonaro slashed research funding and attacked scientists, academics and others. With Lula, Orth says, “we voted for somebody who believes in science, who believes in education”.

Many scientists and academics had lined up in favour of Lula, who garnered international fame during his first two terms in office, from 2003 to 2010, for promoting sustainable development, lifting millions out of poverty and sharply reducing deforestation in the Amazon. His Workers’ Party invested heavily in science, innovation and education.

By contrast, during his presidency, Bolsonaro cut science budgets, curbed the enforcement of environmental laws and promoted misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines during the pandemic, which killed more than 685,000 people in Brazil. A former army captain, Bolsonaro repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of Brazil’s electoral system in the run-up to the election, leading many to fear that he might attempt a coup. He had not yet conceded the election and had made no public comments on the outcome by the time Nature published this story.

As of now, following some doubts, it looks like Mr Bolsonaro will cooperate with an orderly transfer of power.

After some early doubts, Mr Bolsonaro has apparently agreed to an orderly transfer of power.

It remains concerning that Mr Bolsonaro’s strongest supporters are in the very areas where destruction of the rainforest is most egregious. Similar to MAGA Republicans in the United States, it would appear that right wing Brazilians feel not just apathetic to the natural world, but actually hostile.

Monga Bay:

  • In a close runoff, incumbent Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was defeated in his reelection bid against former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
  • Bolsonaro, however, won in eight of the 10 Brazilian municipalities with the biggest deforestation rates in the Amazon forest last year.
  • Bolsonaro won in the majority of the 256 municipalities in the Arc of Deforestation, which accounts for about 75% of the deforestation in the Amazon, as well as in Novo Progresso, in Pará, where ranchers, loggers and land-grabbers orchestrated a significant burning of deforested areas in 2019.
  • Historical, economic, social and religious elements explain the preference for Bolsonaro in a swath of Brazilian territory where people have been encouraged to cut the forest down.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was elected president of Brazil on Oct. 30 in a close runoff with incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro. But voters of eight out of the 10 most deforested Brazilian municipalities in the Amazon in 2021 chose Bolsonaro.

One of the leading municipalities for deforestation is Novo Progresso, in southern Pará, where Bolsonaro received 82.92% of the votes in the Oct. 30 runoff. Lula got 17.08%. The locality was the epicenter of what became known worldwide as the “day of the fire,” a coordinated action by ranchers, loggers and land-grabbers to clear illegally deforested land — which resulted in record-breaking wildfires in August 2019.

In neighboring Itaituba, also in southern Pará, Bolsonaro had 62.45% of the votes in the second round. This municipality has concentrated illegal gold mining operations. In August, Mongabay showed that coordinated raids on mining company Gana Gold have revealed how gold mined illegally in Indigenous territories and other protected areas near Itaituba makes its way into the legitimate trade.

The massive support for Bolsonaro on the edges of the Amazon is even more evident in the general voting map. The president won the first round against Lula in the vast majority of the 256 municipalities of the “Arc of Deforestation” — a region on the eastern and southern edges of the Amazon rainforest that has topped the forest loss rates in the last decades. Placed on the margins of the Belém-Brasília and Cuiabá-Porto Velho highways, these 256 municipalities are responsible for around 75% of deforestation in the Amazon.

Historical, economic, social and even religious elements explain the massive voting for Bolsonaro in the Arc of Deforestation. These municipalities were created in the 1970s when settlers went to the Amazon as part of a federal occupation policy of the military dictatorship, which ran from 1964 to 1985. The generals had a motto for the Amazon: “integrate to not surrender.”

The population came from other parts of Brazil, especially from the agricultural states of the southern region, and was encouraged by the military dictatorship to cut down the forest to open up areas for farming and ranching. “A large part of this population is made up of people who don’t have a connection with the forest, with the rivers and with the culture of the Amazon region,” Carlos Augusto da Silva Souza, a political scientist at the Federal University of Pará (UFPA), told Mongabay by phone.

Rondônia is the best example of this culture, according to João Paulo Viana, professor of political science at the Federal University of Rondônia. Created in the final years of the dictatorship, the state was always influenced by the military because of its border with Bolivia and was occupied by settlers who followed the instructions from the generals. They cut down the forest and opened up farmland. In the last few years, the growth of evangelical churches has made the place even more favorable to the political project led by Bolsonaro. This melting pot of values resulted in an ultraconservative state that sees forest conservation as an enemy of economic development.

“Rondônia is the most ‘bolsonarist’ state in Brazil,” Viana told Mongabay by phone. “Bolsonaro won in all 52 municipalities in 2022 and had already won in all 52 of these municipalities in the first and second rounds of 2018. We have an explosive combination here.”

When Rondônia became a state in the early 1980s, 2% of its territory had been deforested. Today, almost 30% of the local forests have been cut down. During this period, with agriculture and cattle ranching as one of its main engines, the annual GDP reached R$47 billion ($9 billion) in 2019, six times the amount recorded a decade earlier — indicating a direct link between deforestation and economic growth.


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