Brazil and the future of the Amazonian Rainforest

By: Summer Moukalled

In October 2018, Jair Bolsonaro was elected the 38th president of Brazil, taking office on January 1, 2019.[1] Bolsonaro has been described as a far-right president, a stark contrast to the leftist leaders that have been elected in South America over the last two decades.[2] Bolsonaro promised to crack down on crime and corruption while on the campaign trail.[3] He also partook in incendiary rhetoric against minority groups including Brazil’s indigenous population and the LGBTQ.[4] Within a few days in office, announced proposals to privatize airports and seaports, and announced his intention to loosen gun restrictions.[5]  He also introduced a degree that could undermine protections for Brazil’s Amazon rainforest protections.[6]

The Amazon rainforest and its waterways and canopy provide an ecosystem for a 10th of all the world’s species.[7] It helps to regulate the temperature of the entire planet, and most the Amazon rainforest is in Brazil.[8] About 20% of it has been lost to deforestation since the 1970s.[9] Between 2004 and 2017, the rate of deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon fell by roughly 75%.[10] However, between August and October of 2018, as Bolsonaro rose as a favorite in Brazil’s presidential election, the rate of deforestation rose by 50%.[11]  Deforestation allows for new activities like cattle ranching, mining, new highways, hydropower dams, and soybean farming.[12] Further, roughly 13% of the land is legally designated as indigenous land, reserved for the country’s indigenous population of roughly 900,000.[13] Not only does the President’s order worry environmentalists, but indigenous populations face a threat of violence.[14]

Article 231 of the 1988 Constitution states that the indigenous people of Brazil have “original rights over the lands that they have traditionally occupied.”[15] Many analysts have expressed concern over whether Bolsonaro will respect these laws.[16] While Bolsonaro’s decree only impacts indigenous lands that haven’t been mapped, Sarah Shenker, a senior researcher at Survival International, states that she “wouldn’t be surprised to see the president try to open up territories that have already been set.”[17] The Guarani indigenous people who live near Brazil’s southwest border, have lost most of their land to large-scale crop production, forcing many to live off the side of the roads in makeshift homes.[18] Opening up and destroying indigenous territories is not only detrimental to the indigenous population that occupy the land, but is catastrophic for humanity in regards to the fight against climate change.[19]

Hours after his inauguration, Bolsonaro signed an executive order allowing the agriculture ministry to regulate and create new indigenous reserves.[20] The indigenous people’s interests are advocated for by two organizations, the FUNAI and the IBAMA.[21] Previously, FUNAI, the indigenous agency, controlled the demarcation of indigenous reserves.[22] The executive order also gave Bolsonaro’s secretary far-reaching powers over non-governmental organizations working in Brazil.[23] The degree expires in 120 days unless it is ratified by Congress.[24] It allows Carlos Alberto Dos Santos Cruz, to “supervise, coordinate, monitor, and accompany the activities and actions of international organizations and non-governmental organizations in the national territory.”[25]  

Bolsonaro has also said that he wanted to restrict the ability of the Brazilian Institute of Environmental and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), the forest protection agency, to fine companies and individuals that illegally deforest and pollute.[26] Statements made by Bolsonaro and his campaign rhetoric led many environmentalists concerned for the future of the Amazon under his governance.[27]  Following criticism from President Bolsonaro, the head of Brazil’s environmental protection agency resigned.[28] In December, Bolsonaro named Richard Salles as his environment minister.[29] Beto Verissimo, co-founder of Imazon, an environmental NGO based in the Brazilian Amazon states “[w]e expect Bolsonaro will be against environmental protection and the environment minister he picked will follow his agenda . . . Agribusiness people think he (Salles) will help reduce obstacles for environmental licensing and reduce protection.” [30] In 2016, Salles was found guilty in a civil action of “administrative impropriety” for altering maps in an environmental protection plan to benefit mining companies.[31]

            Additionally, Brazil withdrew its offer to host a United Nations climate change conference, and President Bolsonaro also threatened to withdraw Brazil from the Paris accord on climate change.[32] Brazil’s withdraw would mean that it would no longer be committed to curbing its emissions from the deforestation of the Amazon.[33]

            It is clear based on the actions of President Bolsonaro during his campaign and within his first days in office, that protections for the Amazon, the indigenous population, and the environment, are not top priorities. Questions arise as to whether Bolsonaro’s campaign statements were merely rhetoric, or whether he will attempt to destroy the Amazon for commercial purposes and violate the Constitution of Brazil by disregarding the rights of the indigenous population.[34]


[1] Jen Kirby, Brazil’s New far-right president had an alarming first week, vox, https://www.vox.com/2019/1/8/18168276/jair-bolsonaro-brazil-president-week-one (Jan. 8, 2019, 7:30 pm).

[2] Id.  

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Mark Tutton, Why Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro has environmentalists worried for the Amazo,  https://www-m.cnn.com/2019/01/05/americas/bolsonaro-amazon-global-warming/index.html?r=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2F&rm=1  (Jan. 5, 2019 3:07 pm).

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Marina Lopes, Activists feared Brazil’s Bolsonaro would accelerate Amazon deforestation. Now they think it’s already happening, The Washington Post (Dec. 8, 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2018/12/07/activists-feared-brazils-bolsonaro-would-accelerate-amazon-deforestation-now-they-think-its-already-happening/?utm_term=.3ffb8fad11de.

[12] Mark Tutton, Why Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro has environmentalists worried for the Amazo,  https://www-m.cnn.com/2019/01/05/americas/bolsonaro-amazon-global-warming/index.html?r=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2F&rm=1  (Jan. 5, 2019 3:07 pm).

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Fabiano Maisonnave, Amazon at risk from Bolsonaro’s grim attack on the environment (Oct. 9, 2018 6:32 EDT), https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/09/brazils-bolsonaro-would-unleash-a-war-on-the-environment.

[16] Id.

[17] Binkwire, Brazil’s New President Moves to Kick Indigenous People off Their Land Just Hours After Taking Office, Brinkwire (Jan. 4, 2019), http://en.brinkwire.com/news/brazils-new-president-moves-to-kick-indigenous-people-off-their-land-just-hours-after-taking-office/.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Catherine Garcia, Brazil’s Bolsonaro moves to weaken environmental and Amazon protections, The Week (Jan 2. 2019), https://theweek.com/speedreads/815445/brazils-bolsonaro-moves-weaken-environmental-amazon-protections.

[21] Aparajita Gangopadhyay, Will Jair Bolsonaro destroy the Amazon and its Indians?, DownToEarth (Nov. 12, 2018), https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/forests/will-jair-bolsonaro-destroy-the-amazon-and-its-indians--62088.

[22] Jen Kirby, Brazil’s New far-right president had an alarming first week, vox, https://www.vox.com/2019/1/8/18168276/jair-bolsonaro-brazil-president-week-one (Jan. 8, 2019, 7:30 pm).

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Anthony Pereira, How Brazilians (and Norwegians) can stop fair Bolsonaro from trashing the Amazon rainforest, Independent (Jan. 7, 2019 10:57), https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/brazil-jair-bolsonaro-amazon-rainforest-environment-activism-a8715001.html

[27] Anthony Pereira, How Brazilians (and Norwegians) can stop fair Bolsonaro from trashing the Amazon rainforest, Independent (Jan. 7, 2019 10:57), https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/brazil-jair-bolsonaro-amazon-rainforest-environment-activism-a8715001.html

[28] Brazil’s environmental chief resigns after Bolsonaro critism, AlJazeera (Jan. 7, 2019), https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/01/brazil-environmental-chief-resigns-criticism-190107161353404.html

[29] Mark Tutton, Why Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro has environmentalists worried for the Amazo,  https://www-m.cnn.com/2019/01/05/americas/bolsonaro-amazon-global-warming/index.html?r=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2F&rm=1  (Jan. 5, 2019 3:07 pm).

[30] Mark Tutton, Why Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro has environmentalists worried for the Amazo,  https://www-m.cnn.com/2019/01/05/americas/bolsonaro-amazon-global-warming/index.html?r=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2F&rm=1  (Jan. 5, 2019 3:07 pm).

[31] Id.

[32] Marina Lopes, Activists feared Brazil’s Bolsonaro would accelerate Amazon deforestation. Now they think it’s already happening, The Washington Post (Dec. 8, 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2018/12/07/activists-feared-brazils-bolsonaro-would-accelerate-amazon-deforestation-now-they-think-its-already-happening/?utm_term=.3ffb8fad11de.

[33] Fabiano Maisonnave, Amazon at risk from Bolsonaro’s grim attack on the environment (Oct. 9, 2018 6:32 EDT), https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/09/brazils-bolsonaro-would-unleash-a-war-on-the-environment.

[34] Fabiano Maisonnave, Amazon at risk from Bolsonaro’s grim attack on the environment (Oct. 9, 2018 6:32 EDT), https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/09/brazils-bolsonaro-would-unleash-a-war-on-the-environment.