Were deforestation and violence in election period a sign of things to come?

Thursday, December 6th, 2018

During Brazil’s latest electoral cycle the country’s media and civil society reported a series of attacks against indigenous leaders and environmental enforcement agencies, as well as an uptick in deforestation in the Amazon. Could these be manifestations of ordinary election fever or the first signs of a new offensive against Brazil’s forests and those who protect them?

In October Brazilians headed to the polls for two rounds of the presidential elections and also to cast their votes for state governors, the federal congress and state legislatures.

Starting in 2017 and throughout the electoral campaign, the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro regularly verbally attacked environmental enforcement agencies, civil society organisations, indigenous communities and landless peasant movements in an intense effort to stoke popular animosity against them and promote his vision of economic development based on the opening up of Brazil’s forests and savannas to business.

Bolsonaro, now the president-elect, campaigned on a promise to scrap the Environment Ministry, bringing it under the Agriculture Ministry, and to “end Ibama’s industry of fines”. Ibama is Brazil’s federal environmental enforcement agency, in charge of, among other things, investigating illegal deforestation and sanctioning perpetrators.

Although he has since hinted he might keep the ministries separate, Bolsonaro has also promised to “put an end to all activism in Brazil” and to “get the State off the necks of producers”.

Civil servants have told Observatorio do Clima, a Brazilian network of environmental organisations, that Bolsonaro’s rhetoric is being taken seriously by land grabbers and farmers who are clearing forests on the expectation of future amnesty for illegal deforestation.

Numbers suggest these allegations could be right. Between August and October, deforestation rates in the Amazon increased by nearly 49 percent compared to the same period last year, reaching 1,674 square kilometres of forest loss. During the most intense period of the electoral campaign – August and September – the increase was 79 percent, with deforestation tripling in August alone.

Bolsonaro’s electoral strategy to appeal to the agribusiness sector seems to have worked. Research has shown that he won easily in Amazon municipalities with a history of high rates of deforestation for cattle, crops and mining. On the other hand, municipalities with higher levels of conservation and indigenous populations voted heavily for Bolsonaro’s main rival, Fernando Haddad.

Those who protect native forests, by contrast, came under increased pressure. The start of the electoral period was characterised by an increase in violent threats and attacks against indigenous and peasant leaders.

According to Mongabay, on the days immediately following the first round of the elections three assassinations in the Amazon “may have been committed by perpetrators emboldened by an expectation of less or no punishment under a new far-right government”. The victims were two indigenous leaders campaigning against illegal logging in Mato Grosso and Maranhão states, and a landless movement leader in Pará.

Bolsonaro’s claims that activism among indigenous peoples and quilombola – communities made up of descendants of runaway slaves – makes agribusiness in the country unviable seems to be fomenting animosity towards these communities.

Thiago Krause, a history professor at Unirio, has told The Independent that “elections have always been polarised. But now you have a candidate who says that minorities must bow down to the majority, and who says he’ll gun down opponents”.

The president-elect has pledged that “there is not going to be one centimetre more of land demarcated for indigenous reservations or quilombolas”. Bolsonaro has referred to quilombola residents as “layabouts” who have become lazy on the back of State subsidies.

Not even government agencies have escaped the attacks. On 20 October, Bolsonaro supporters set fire to three vehicles belonging to Ibama in Rondônia state. The day before, at Trairão district in Pará, men set fire to a vehicle belonging to ICMBio.

The Military Police decided to temporarily suspend its support to ICMBio’s enforcement operations at Trairão due to fears for the safety of its officers in a climate of intense intimidations, threats and attacks.

While this wasn’t the first time these agencies had been targeted, Brazilian media has reported that Ibama and ICMBio agents are concerned that Bolsonaro’s rhetoric has fuelled hostility against them.

Brazilian civil society has tried to raise awareness about what is at stake. A few days before the second round of the elections on 28 October, a group of dozens of conservation organisations issued a press release warning that undermining enforcement agencies “could put four decades of progress in environmental protection at risk”. They further warned that opening indigenous reservations, quilombolas and other protected areas to agribusiness and mining “disregards their centrality to the physical and cultural survival of traditional peoples and to environmental protection”.

These organisations fear that, if Bolsonaro is willing and able to make good on his promises or rhetoric, there will be “an explosion of deforestation at the Amazon, Cerrado, Atlantic Forest and other Brazilian biomes, which is already at high levels”.


Image on homepage shows Ibama vehicle on fire.