Bolsonaro: A threat to the future for the Amazon?


A global trend of successful far-right leaders has actualised yet again in Brazil with the victory of Jair Bolsonaro. The rhetorics that his victory banks upon include -among other things- the deregulation of the Amazon rainforests to make way for industrial activities like mining, hydro-electric projects and agro-business aimed at fostering economic growth of the country in an attempt to “put Brazil over everything”. The catastrophic impacts of the materialization of such a move is not only limited to the indigenous communities that depend directly on these forests for their shelter, food and livelihoods; but on the world at large which relies on a climate regulated majorly by the massive carbon sink that the Amazon forest is, and for the food that is grown there – Amazon being the ‘breadbasket’ of the world. This article traces the history of environmental regulations in Brazil and the impact they have had on the Amazon rainforests. It then goes on to identify the winners and losers of a potential change in the policy.


In what can be called one of its most polarizing elections [1] since the end of the military rule in 1985, Brazilians witnessed the resounding victory of Jair Bolsonaro as their new President. With an election campaign high on rhetorics, the president also referred to by some as the “Trump” of Brazil, campaigned his way up with the slogan “Brazil above everything, God above everyone” [2]. The victory of Bolsonaro is an addition to the pool of right-wing and far-right leaders that is growing globally. For Brazil it is a rightward swing after fourteen years of rule by the leftist Workers Party” [2].

One of the most striking elements in his campaign strategy was his pledge to “roll back regulations protecting the Amazon rainforest and indigenous lands” [2]. The statements reflect a feeling of insecurity resulting from the feeling that the control over Brazil’s Amazon forests and what activities are to be conducted within it, is increasingly under the mandate of international organizations and not with the people to whom it belongs [2].  Digging deeper into the rhetoric, one can see that his words are but a reflection of the interests of the Agribusiness corporations whose aspirations conflict with the moratorium against buying products sourced from deforested properties.

There is an impending disaster upon the whole world if Bolsonaro indeed succeeds in de-regulation of the Amazon forests. Not only would it be an environmental catastrophe,  but will potentially change the fate of the several indigenous peoples to their detriment. To better comprehend potential changes that the environmental policy in Brazil could undergo under the Bolsonaro regime, and the several impacts it may have on those dependent on it,  it is useful to trace the history of some of the important environmental legislations that Brazil has had in the past.

Evolution of Brazil’s Environmental Policy

The Old and New Forest Codes- 1965-2012; 2012-2018

In 2012,  Brazil approved the New Forest Code, which was an amended version of the hitherto primary law regulating deforestation in Brazil, called the Brazilian Forest Code. This was a law created by the military government in 1965 in the wake of increasing land clearance under coffee and sugarcane monocultures.[3] Although with a loose track record of ineffective implementation, the original code included some strict legal clauses that sought the Brazilian landowners to maintain up to 80% of forests as legal reserves and, to reforest an area of 41 million hectares [4]. These laws, however, did not stop Brazil from recording its “highest rate of deforestation, with over 29,000 square kilometres cleared in 1995” [3] This was a result of the growing cattle ranching, soybean and corn production industry in the Amazon basin [3].

In more recent years starting in the 2000s, the industrial agribusiness grew rapidly and expanded deeper into the Amazon basin. Having grown in political influence, the rural farmers represented by the the bancada ruralista pushed for a forest code that would favour the interests of the agriculturalist expansion into the Amazon basin [3]. This pressure gave birth to the New Forest Code, passed by President Dilma Rousseff and with much more relaxed measures of environmental protection and therefore in the favour of “a wide range of rural elites, farmers, ranchers and land-grabbers, some of whom had been illegally cutting down forest for many years.” [3]. In March 2018, the constitutionality of this law was reiterated by the Supreme Court, much to the disappointment of the conservationists [5].

The Soy Moratorium 2006

In the years 2004 and 2005, once again the condition of the Amazon forests had deteriorated gravely, with the “second highest rate of annual deforestation on record” [6]. This time, the tremendously growing soybean cultivation was one among the two main contributors to the cause. More effective than the rather loosely implemented Forest code in Brazil  to control such a trend was the Soy Moratorium that followed. Greenpeace took up the initiative to call for “a moratorium on the purchase of soy that came from deforested areas, was associated with slave labour or encroached on Indigenous Lands – as of the date the moratorium was signed.” [6].

McDonald’s was one of the largest buyers of soybeans from Cargill* in Brazil at the time – after having been exposed by Greenpeace’s campaign and having gone through the evidence and alternatives, McDonald’s along with several other private companies mainly from Europe, that relied on the soybeans from Brazil created the European Soy Consumers Group to pressurize the suppliers to source their supplies from non-deforested lands. Many civil society organizations also took the lead to participate in and expand the effectiveness of the moratorium. “From the Soy Moratorium’s inception in 2006 until today, deforestation has fallen 86% in the 76 municipalities covered by the moratorium, and these municipalities produce 98% of the soybeans in the Amazon biome”said P Adario from Greenpeace [6].

However, critics say that this decrease masks the indirect expansion of deforestation on areas which is not covered by the moratorium. It appears successful owing to the fact that by 2006, much of the land under the current soya cultivation was already deforested. Therefore, it was convenient for the industry to just continue growing on the land that which was available to them as of then vis a vis an expansion that was no longer desirable in the market [7].

Recent developments in the environmental policy 2017

The recession that plagued the Brazilian economy in 2017 was another setback in terms of environmental policy.[8] Brazil witnessed the rolling back of some of its very crucial conservationist policies to give way to large-scale land deals, slackened protection of indigenous peoples’ land right the growing grievances of the rural lawmakers who thought that these reforms had been overdue. This manifested in the form of budget cuts to the Environmental Ministry by a whopping 40% in 2017 [8].

Having reviewed the fluctuating life cycles of Brazil’s environmental protection and deforestation policies, it can be noted- as highlighted by Rachel Garrett, an environmental policy specialist from Boston University who has been observing Brazil for over a decade – that  “there’s no protection for deforestation that goes towards hydroelectric dams or mining, and Bolsonaro has specifically said he’s going to open up the region to mining. So I think there’s going to be a lot of large-scale deforestation for mining and hydroelectric” [2].

Some of the implications of these potential changes, for example, those on the global climate change and carbon budget are obvious, but some others like the implications for the Brazilian indigenous communities is less obvious and requires more attention.

Impact on Indigenous communities

“About 240 tribes living in Brazil today, totalling around 900,000 people, or 0.4% of Brazil’s population” live in the 690 territories covering  13% of Brazil’s land mass recognized by the government of Brazil for its indigenous people.[9] Most of this land lies in the Amazon. Guarani, the largest tribe of about 51,000, have very little land left under their control as over the last century most of their land has been snatched from them and this land has been converted into sugarcane plantations, soya fields and “vast, dry networks of cattle ranches” [9]. The remaining lands are getting overcrowded; some communities even have the plight of living under tarpaulins by the side of highways.

Today, as the new Brazilian leader pledges to forge ahead with aggressive plans to develop and industrialize the Amazon, even the ‘uncontacted’ groups of the native Indians will see hydroelectric dams built in their areas snatching away not only their lands and water but also their sources of livelihood.[9] These dams will only serve to provide cheap energy for the mining companies while thousands of Indians will be displaced off without a second thought if Bolsonaro succeeds to make his words materialise into action.


The recent appointment of Ernesto Araújo, the new Foreign Affairs’ minister who is a climate denier by the new President marks the beginning of what could be a disastrous future for Brazil’s Amazon rainforests. It remains to be seen how exactly Jair Bolsonaro goes about changing his campaign slogans into policies. While it has been a matter of victory for the rural lobbyists, it is a great loss for the environmentalists, indigenous peoples and the world as a  whole which relies on the Amazon forests for a multitude of its services. However, this does not necessarily have to mean bad news. In the past, Brazil has witnessed the coming together of civil societies and private companies to part take in commitments that have proven to be more successful than the Brazilian legislation itself in protecting the forests. Once again, it is imperative for the Brazilian people, companies and the international community to take a step in the right direction before it is too late to save the Amazon.

Jayasurya KALAKKAL


[1] HUGHES, A., 2018. Brazil election 2018 results: When is second round of voting? What time does voting open?[Online]. Available at: [Accessed 12 November 2018].

[2] Moran, B., 2018. What The Brazilian Presidential Election Means For The Amazon Rainforest [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 12 November 2018].

[3] Branford, S. & Torres, M., 2018. Analysis: the Brazilian Supreme Court’s New Forest Code ruling[Online]. Available at: [Accessed 12 November 2018].

[4] Wikileaks, 2016. Brazilian Forest Code [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 15 November 2018].

[5] Angeoletto, F., 2018. New Brazilian Forest Code is bad news for conservation of biodiversity [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 12 November 2018].

[6] Adario, P., 2016. The Soy Moratorium, 10 years on: How one commitment is stopping Amazon destruction [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 12 November 2018].

[7] Branford, S. & Torres, M., 2017. Amazon Soy Moratorium: defeating deforestation or greenwash diversion? [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 13 November 2018].

[8]Arsenault, C., 2017. Brazil, home of Amazon, rolls back environmental protection [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 15 November 2018].

[9] Survival International, n.d. Brazilian Indians [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 15 November 2018].


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