Arms outstretched, thumbs pointed skyward, far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro was the vision of optimism in October 2018. During a divided time for Brazil’s young democracy, his victory appeased those tired of socialist policies and the deprivations of Brazil’s longest recession. But Bolsonaro’s victory would also leave the Amazon open to four years of industrial pressure. In 2020, Amazonian deforestation hit the worst level in a decade.
In 2009, Brazil signed its National Policy on Climate Change, committing to reducing deforestation rates in Amazonia by 80 per cent by the end of 2020. To succeed, forest losses would have to stay below 3,925 square kilometres. However, PRODES, a programme that continually monitors the Amazon with satellites, estimates that 2020 saw 11,088 square kilometres of deforestation – 182 per cent higher than the target established in law.
The failure is the inevitable result of Bolsonaro’s axing of environmental regulations. On gaining power, his first target was the land ownership laws of the Forest Code. The president added a loophole in December 2019 that allowed land speculators to use past deforestation, much of which was illegal, to register their occupation of public lands. The administration said the bill would make it easier for small rural families to register land occupation. However, conservation publication Mongabay estimates that the policy led to the secession of 40–60 million hectares of public land to private landowners in 2019, a fifth of which can now be legally deforested.
Next, Bolsonaro revoked a decree that halted the expansion of sugarcane into sensitive areas such as the Pantanal wetlands and Amazonia. He also announced in mid-2019 that the agriculture ministry database would no longer be publicly available, hampering independent investigations.
Meanwhile, IBAMA – the administrative arm of Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment – has been systematically neutered by firings of elite officials and a restriction of the administrations authority. Between August 2019 and July 2020, the number of fines imposed by IBAMA dropped by 42 per cent – the lowest number in a 12-month period in IBAMA’s history. And on 5 February 2020, Bolsonaro signed a bill that permits mining inside Indigenous lands. According to a recent report published by Brazilian researchers in the journal One Earth, this threatens 863,000 square kilometres of the Amazon, home to 222 culturally unique Indigenous groups.
These cuts have cleared a path for companies looking to expand. A recent investigation by Global Witness showed that between 2017 and 2019, Brazilian meat traders JBS, Marfrig and Minerva purchased cattle from 379 ranches that contain 20,000 football fields’ worth of illegal deforestation. Recent customers include Burger King, Sainsbury’s, Subway, McDonalds, Walmart, Carrefour and Nestlé.
Nevertheless, international pressure could stifle Bolsonaro’s appetite for more destruction. OECD countries and the EU have publicly urged the president to curb deforestation. France, the world’s largest importer of Brazilian soy flour, announced in December that it will scale back its business with Brazil. The goal is ‘to recover part of France’s agri-food sovereignty … and to stop importing deforestation,’ said Julien Denormandie, French minister of agriculture and food, in an interview.
Some economists think that soy producers and commodities companies could also oppose Bolsonaro if EU nations refuse to ratify the proposed US$19 trillion EU-Mercosur Trade Agreement (Mercosur is a South American trade bloc made up of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay). On 3 December 2020, Ignacio Ybáñez, the EU ambassador to Brazil, said that the agreement was on standby, awaiting concrete actions by the South American nations to combat deforestation. France joined Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland and Austria in voting against the deal.
Similar private-sector moves have been successful in curbing deforestation before. After a Greenpeace investigation revealed that three US commodities traders were responsible for millions of hectares of deforestation in May 2006, companies responsible for 90 per cent of the trade in Amazonian soy agreed to halt purchases of soy grown on recently deforested land. The so-called Brazilian Soy Moratorium contributed to an 84 per cent decline in Amazonian deforestation between 2004 and 2012. ‘There was really widespread commitment both by the private sector and the Brazilian government,’ says Robert Heilmayr, environmental economist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. However, replicating that success will require huge cooperation. ‘The moratorium was so powerful because such a large share of the sector made commitments. This type of unified message can provide an important market signal.’
A repeat performance faces several hurdles. While EU countries may halt trade if Brazil fails to combat deforestation, others might not. ‘China has become a much larger buyer of Brazilian soy and beef in the last decade. The leverage that the EU has over these markets has decreased,’ says Heilmayr.
At the same time, Bolsonaro’s domestic support has apparently strengthened. His approval rose from 32 to 37 per cent in 2020, according to Datafolha, the polling arm of Grupo Folha, Brazil’s second largest media conglomerate. Handouts of US$110 to the poorest citizens during the pandemic are likely to have helped them during the hardship and enamoured a broader base of support. However, new evidence suggests that Bolsonaro’s accelerated deforestation helped 2020’s rampant wildfires to disperse. If he fails to heed the EU’s warnings over deforestation, he risks tossing vital trade relations onto the bonfire that he has stoked in the Amazon. The burn could then be felt through his supporters wallets.