What the Brazilian Election of President Jair Bolsonaro Means for the Global Environment and Human Rights

What the Brazilian Election of President Jair Bolsonaro Means for the Global Environment and Human Rights

The U.S. midterms are finally over, and as the dust settles and the last few races are called, I’d like to turn our attention to another race that deserves more attention and alarm, especially from environmentalists.

On October 28, Brazilians elected Jair Bolsonaro president of Latin America’s largest country and the world’s eighth largest economy. He is fueled by misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, pro-business, pro-torture, pro-gun beliefs; as a congressman. He said of a fellow representative that she is “not worth raping; she is very ugly.” He reminisces fondly of Brazil’s military dictatorship, saying that the mistake of the dictatorship was not killing enough people. He said in a Playboy interview that he’d rather have his son die in an accident than be gay and later that he would beat a gay couple if he saw them kissing on the street.

Despite having a decades-long career in politics, he billed himself as an outsider who promised to bring Brazil back to its former glory, fight against the political class, and rollback protections for marginalized communities, which is typical of global far-right and reactionary candidates. His ascension is yet another representation of the rise of far right, fascist ideology that’s been rising globally, and will have potentially disastrous effects for human rights and the environment.

What the Brazilian Election Means for the Global Environment and Human Rights - Jair Bolsonaro
Jair Bolsonaro. Credit: Jeso Carneiro / Flickr

Bolsonaro started his race as a fringe candidate, but won the presidency over a promise to reign in crime, political corruption, and bolster the economy. Sound familiar? While many U.S. candidates complain about corruption, some legitimate, others less so, Brazil’s young democracy is inundated with corruption. Nearly every level of the outgoing center-right government was named in operation Car Wash, a massive corruption investigation. The investigation accused nearly the entire political class of some level of corruption. The corruption in Brazil runs deep, and has many problematic factions both in the corrupt and anti-corruption politicians; I highly recommend reading this essay by Ben Fogel to dive deeper into the Brazilian political climate and history of corruption.

A Bolsonaro government, regardless of the amount of resistance it faces in Congress, is bad for the environment. His party will not have a majority in congress, but will have the second largest membership. Many who advocate for worrying less will point to this as a reason he won’t be able to enact his platform. This is the equivalent of Donald Trump trying to govern with a slim Democratic majority in the House; however, even if his anti-environment policies are mitigated by Congress, a compromise would still represent fewer environmental regulations and less protection for marginalized people. To believe the man who admires dictators and advocates for murder would concede that his power is limited shows a naive over-confidence in decorum. This is a global step backwards as we approach virtually unavoidable environmental catastrophe.

The Amazon rainforest is Brazil’s most treasured natural resource, but is lusted after by agribusiness interests. The Amazon is protected by two primary national agencies, the indigenous affairs agency, FUNAI, and the Ministry of Environment. Under a Bolsonaro presidency, these agencies have an uncertain future. Scott Mainwaring, a Brazil expert at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Public Policy said that “Bolsonaro has a very strong anti-environment discourse, and I have zero doubt that his discourse will direct policy… It doesn’t seem there will be any major effort to protect the Amazon.”

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro- Geraldo Magela:Agencia Senado
Jair Bolsonaro with President of the Supreme Federal Court of Brazil, Dias Toffoli. Credit: Geraldo Magela/Agencia Senado via

Bolsonaro’s soon-to-be chief of staff, Onyx Lorenzoni, confirmed that the new president will merge the ministries of agriculture and the environment, which would undermine the efforts of environmental protection. This is important because the rainforest is not only home to a diverse ecosystem unlike any other on earth, but that it produces much of the world’s Oxygen. The Amazon is often called the lungs of the world; those lungs just got cancer.

Human rights organizations are also alarmed over this election. Given Bolsonaro’s beliefs, it’s likely he will operate a government hostile to women, the LGBTQ community, Afro-Brazilians, and the indigenous community. According to Human Rights Watch, Bolsonaro said that he’d like to double the size of the Brazilian Supreme Court to pack it with judges who share his views, compared Afro-Brazilians to cattle, called refugees “the scum of the earth,” and said he would end all activism in Brazil. 

One of the most shameful reactions to Bolsonaro’s win comes from the global business community who saw opportunity rather than threat in the far-right candidate. CBC News tweeted that “Critics have lambasted the former paratrooper for his homophobic, racist and misogynistic statements, but his government could open new investment opportunities.” The Canadian outlet continued to suggest that a Bolsonaro presidency could present great investment opportunities for businesses thanks to his promise to slash environmental regulations and privatize government-owned companies.

The piece continued to quote Anna Prusa, former U.S. State Department official, saying “It could be a good time to be a mining investor in Brazil, Bolsonaro has said pretty publicly he would like fewer restrictions… he is a recent convert to market liberalism.” The singular pursuit of profits in neoliberal market capitalism allows little space for restraint nor introspection, and this should be a wake up call to those who care about the environment and human rights worldwide. We assume that the system has to remain as it is, that it’s just a few bad companies who do most of the damage, but prioritizing profits over people is systematic in the world of multi-national corporations. This kind of cynical business culture can’t be allowed to continue if we want to move forward on progressive issues as environmental and social justice.

So what can we do?

Advocating for environmentalism and human rights at home could pressure companies being courted by the new president into taking pause before participating in Bolsonaro’s economic plan. The U.S. took a great first step by voting for Democratic control of the house and electing a historic number of women to office, who have been shown to bring up issues of human rights and climate change more often than their male counterparts. While a majority in one house of Congress isn’t a magic bullet, it’s a step towards changing the status quo.

Finally, support some of the afro-Brazilian feminist and indigenous organizations who will undoubtedly be at the forefront of opposing Bolsonaro. Some blogs and organizations to watch include Black Women of Brazil, FUNAIBrazil’s Indigenous People Articulation and SOS Corpo.

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Title image credit: Alessandro Dias / Flicker

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