Differently from what has been written by a part of the media lately, the election of Jair Bolsonaro for the Brazilian Presidency is not a puzzle but a product of opposing trends coexisting in the contemporary Brazilian society. Now that the Minister of the Environment was appointed and the cabinet is complete, it is possible to see clearly how the different nominees represent this contradiction. Trying to predict the consequences of it to any issue requires understanding how the opposing forces react to the issue in question and which seem to have a better resonance with the Presidency itself. In the following lines, this is what we do regarding environmental issues and the future of Brazil in Global Environmental Governance.
Broadly, it is possible to identify two opposing trends in Bolsonaro’s cabinet, a modernizing and a conservative one. The modernizing, in tandem with a different configuration of the Brazilian state and a new role for the country in the global economy, is represented by the Ministry of the Economy Paulo Guedes, supporter of deep market-friendly reforms and eager to open the economy to international competition and to fight crony capitalism; the Ministry of Justice Sergio Moro, aligned with the fight against corruption and organized crime and also tasked with improving the poor situation in public security; and the military Ministers, with an agenda of fighting crime in the porous Brazilian borders and updating technologically the Armed Forces. The conservative trend, defending conservative values on different issues, is represented by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, intending to fight global governance – what he calls globalism – and willing to align Brazilian foreign policy with Trump’s; the Minister of Education and the Minister of Family, arguing against the anti-capitalist ideology promoted by the Worker’s Party in primary and secondary school and promoting a Christian traditionalist ideology; and, now, the Minister of the Environment.
Bolsonaro’s choice for the Environment, Ricardo de Aquino Salles, is a lawyer and was the head of Department of the Environment of the State of São Paulo between July 2016 and August 2017. Nevertheless, the environment has never been a key issue to Salles. He is investigated for administrative misconduct during his tenure at the São Paulo State, and at least two cases regard environmental issues. He is investigated, first, for having started, without Legislative authorization, administrative procedures for conceding/selling to the private sector 34 forested areas of the State of São Paulo (O ESTADO DE SAO PAULO, 2017; DIRETO DA CIENCIA, 2017). The areas are protected due to their role in conserving biodiversity, including species threatened with extinction, and water resources in the region. And second, he is prosecuted for irregularities in the elaboration of the São Paulo State’s Plan for management of Tiete River Meadows, a protected area (his office is accused of having altered maps that identified the protected area and minutes of the Plan, and for accepting demands of the private sector that had already being rejected in the previous consultation). In addition, last October, while Salles run for office to represent São Paulo at the federal House of Representatives (and was not elected), his campaign was centered around the issues of public security, action against corruption and opposition to “Brazilian communism” – environmental issues in general, and climate issues, in particular, were absent. In fact, Salles has said that climate change is an issue of secondary importance (FOLHA, 2018).
Salles’ appointment, therefore, cannot be understood in terms of technical knowledge and involvement with environmental issues, but as a commitment of the future administration with conservative groups that form its political basis of support. In fact, even the continuity of the Ministry as a separate entity was threatened: during his campaign and after being elected, Bolsonaro indicated that it could be merged with the Ministry of Agriculture (O ESTADO DE SAO PAULO, 2018). The move was opposed by several groups in the Brazilian society and reverted due to pressures of the Brazilian agribusiness sector, aware that barriers to its exports could be raised by key importing countries. By choosing Salles, Bolsonaro signals that despite keeping the Ministry as a separate entity, environmental action during his administration will be tamed by interests aligned with the agenda of conservative groups: e.g. speeding up and “easing” environmental licensing of large infrastructure projects (hydropower plants, railways, roads, ports, etc.); allowing increase in legal deforestation, especially in biomes not as protected as the Amazon such as the Brazilian savannah, the Cerrado – the primus locus of expansion of soybean plantations in the country.
The appointment of Ernesto Araújo to lead the Ministry of Foreign Affairs adds to the picture. Ignoring scientific evidence and increasingly frequent extreme weather events, the diplomat has said that “the climate change agenda is part of a political conspiracy of the globalized Left to transfer power from Western countries to China” (ARAUJO, 2018). The choice makes sense considering Bolsonaro’s alleged appreciation of US Trump’s foreign policy, which seems to be shared by Araújo, but goes against the Brazilian diplomatic tradition. Nevertheless, it is not clear how much influence the future chancellor will actually have in Bolsonaro’s administration. If his views clash with the ones of more powerful Ministers, the latter will probably prevail – it is hard to see how his doctrine against global governance would survive Paulo Guedes’ interventions to enhance Brazilian economic role in the global economy.
The prevalence of conservative forces in the environmental area are seriously detrimental to Brazilian interests, and it seems that the elected President and the conservative sector of his cabinet do not understand it. Brazil is an environmental powerhouse for the assets it has. Even without entering into the debate of how the environment is important for local livelihoods and minority groups, such as indigenous people – topics unlikely to find resonance in Bolsonaro’s administration – it is amazing to observe how the conservative sector of the administration seems to ignore that the Brazilian economy is built around activities that depend greatly on environmental goods. Agribusiness, mining and basic transformation industry (iron ore, aluminum, etc.) – the greatest Brazilian exporter sectors, whose profits contribute highly to the Brazilian Balance of Payments – are directly dependent on weather conditions and availability of water resources. Without advancing environmental protection, including conservation of primary forest and serious schemes of payment for environmental services, the common goods produced by the environment will be lost and these activities will be affected. In addition, Brazil lags behind its peers in innovation and technology, so there is no substitute for our dependence on exporting commodities if we want to keep our national accounts in balance for the near future.
The same is true for the urgency of climate change. Brazil is among the countries being hit hard by climate change, and projections indicate that life will become extremely harsh in extent areas of the country – not to mention the predicted desertification, the impact on hydropower production and losses for agriculture and biodiversity (INPE, 2007; NOBRE et al, 2016). Yet, instead of embedding the climate change in the plans for policy and positioning Brazil as a responsible player in the climate regime, sectors of Bolsonaro’s administration seem obsessed with an obsolete idea of an international conspiracy threatening Brazilian sovereignty in the Amazon – Onyx Lorenzoni, future Minister of Casa Civil (the office of political articulation of the Presidency in Brazil) has even picked a fight with donors whose help is absolutely necessary to tackle deforestation in Brazil, both in the Amazon biome as well as in other biomes.
Thus, despite its potential, due to its environmental assets and relatively low carbon energy matrix compared to global average, it is likely that Brazil will remain a laggard in global environmental governance. Considering climate, changes that have occurred during the 2009-2011 period and allowed a more progressive position in the international climate regime, putting Brazil closer to a moderate conservative power (VIOLA et al, 2013), have since vanished (VIOLA and FRANCHINI, 2018) and are now even less expected to return. Hopefully, there will be some change in discourse and practice after the administration truly starts, probably coming from the modernizing sectors of Bolsonaro’s administration, whose understanding of the issues is expected to be very different. But, for now, it is not possible to predict if their influence will be enough to counteract the conservative forces. The future of Brazil in global environmental governance seems poor and the impact to current and future generations will be hard to calculate.
ARAUJO, Ernesto (2018): Sequestrar e perverter. Available at <https://www.metapoliticabrasil.com/blog/sequestrar-e-perverter>, access 10 Dec 2018.
DIRETO DA CIENCIA (2017): Sem lei, governo de SP faz chamamento para venda de 34 áreas florestais, 19 Jan 2017. Available at < http://www.diretodaciencia.com/2017/01/19/sem-lei-governo-de-sp-faz-chamamento-para-venda-de-34-areas-florestais/>, access 10 Dec 2018.
FOLHA DE SAO PAULO (2018): Discussão sobre aquecimento global é secundária, diz futuro ministro do Meio Ambiente, 09 Dec 2018. Available at <https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/ambiente/2018/12/discussao-sobre-aquecimento-global-e-secundaria-diz-futuro-ministro-do-meio-ambiente.shtml>, access 10 Dec 2018.
INPE (2007): Atlas de cenários climáticos futuros para o Brasil. Available at <http://mudancasclimaticas.cptec.inpe.br/~rmclima/pdfs/prod_probio/Atlas.pdf>, access 28 Set 2018.
NOBRE, Carlos et al (2016): Riscos de mudanças climáticas no Brasil e limites à adaptação. Available at <https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/504489/Clima-Sumario-v3.pdf>, access 28 Set 2018.
O ESTADO DE SAO PAULO (2017): MP abre novo inquérito de improbidade contra secretário de Ambiente de SP por venda de florestas, 24 Mar 2017. Available at <https://sustentabilidade.estadao.com.br/noticias/geral,mp-abre-novo-inquerito-de-improbidade-contra-secretario-de-ambiente-de-sp-por-venda-de-florestas,70001713366>, access 10 Dec 2018.
VALOR ECONOMICO (2018): Novo chanceler diz que esquerda criou ‘ideologia da mudança climática’, 15 Nov 2018. Available at <https://www.valor.com.br/politica/5985233/novo-chanceler-diz-que-esquerda-criou-%3Fideologia-da-mudanca-climatica>, access 10 Nov 2018.
VIOLA, Eduardo and FRANCHINI, Matias (2018). Brazil and climate change beyond the Amazon. New York and London: Routledge.
VIOLA, Eduardo; FRANCHINI, Matias and RIBEIRO, Thais Lemos (2013). Sistema internacional de hegemonia conservadora – governança global e democracia na era da crise climática. São Paulo: Annablume.
Larissa Basso has her PhD in International Relations from the University of Brasilia and is a member of the International System at the Anthropocene and Climate Change Research Network. Contact: <email@example.com>
Eduardo Viola is a Full Professor at the Institute of International Relations of University of Brasília and the coordinator of the International System at the Anthropocene and Climate Change Research Network. Contact: <firstname.lastname@example.org>