Worried About the Economy and Corruption Brazilians Have Been Neglecting the Amazon

It’s never easy to predict what will happen next in Brazil. A year ago, few thought that President Michel Temer, dreadfully unpopular and mired in accusations of corruption, would survive politically. Chosen by Congress and not the people, he only became president in August 2016 because Dilma Rousseff, of the Workers’ Party (PT), was impeached for crimes much less serious than the ones Temer is currently charged with.

But Temer and his party, the powerful PMDB, proved skilful at making deals with right-wing members of the legislature – especially the bancada ruralista (ruralist lobby) – many of whom are also accused of corruption and anxious to avoid prosecution. In recent months, Temer himself fought off three attempts by the Supreme Court to investigate corruption charges made against him by winning over congress to vote against the probe.

Despite all the challenges involved in making forecasts, we look here at likely future trends, and offer some educated guesses at likely events and outcomes.

The 2018 Election, the Elephant in the Room

First off, Temer is likely to survive until the end of his term. With elections coming in October, he has just one year to serve and the economy, though far from booming, is in better shape than it was two years ago.

According to the finance ministry, growth recovered to 1.1 percent in 2017 and is expected to reach 3 percent in 2018. It seems likely the only event that could force Temer from Brasilia’s Alvorada Palace is ill-health: 77-years-old, he has a heart condition and prostate problems which led to hospitalization in December.

Secondly, Temer is increasingly irrelevant, as all eyes focus on the October elections when Brazil will elect a new president, new federal deputies, two-thirds of its senators and all its state governors.

There is a great deal of uncertainty as to the outcome. A far-reaching corruption scandal, known as Lava Jato (Car Wash) has ensnared a huge swath of Brazil’s political elite, and the public has never held Congress in such low esteem. According to Supreme Court data, 237 of the 594 members of Congress are currently being investigated for corruption – 40 percent of the legislature.

Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known in Brazil simply as Lula), from the Workers’ Party, heads the opinion polls. Many voters recall that during his two consecutive terms (2003-2011) Brazil’s poorest saw an improvement in their living standards and greater access to constitutional rights.

But Lula, too, is enmeshed in the Lava-Jato scandal. In July 2017, he was sentenced to nine and half years in prison, though many in his party claim the evidence against him was weak. Lula appealed and a court is due to make a ruling on 24 January. If the sentence is confirmed, Lula could be banned from running, although another appeal may be possible.

Environmentalists have mixed feelings about Lula: many say that, although his immediate successors – Dilma Rousseff and, even more so, Michel Temer – have done much more to weaken environmental protection, the rollback began under Lula, who was anxious to get rid of any laws that he saw as standing in the way of his overriding goal: economic growth.

Against this background, support for Lula, once the clear favorite, is slipping. In an opinion poll published just before Christmas, 45 percent of voters said they would – or might – vote for Lula, while almost as many (42 percent) said the same about federal deputy Jair Bolsonaro.

A former captain in the army, Bolsonaro is a flamboyant extreme-right politician. Knowing that President Rousseff had been tortured by the military in the early 1970s, he dedicated his vote to impeach her to Colonel Carlos Brilhante Ustra, the man in charge of torturing political prisoners during the military dictatorship.

Notorious for insulting women, gay people and ethnic minorities and inciting violence against them, he is promising, if elected, to put an end to the demarcation of indigenous and quilombo territories and to stop the public funding of NGOs. It seems absolutely certain his policies would be unfriendly to the Amazon, conservation, and Brazil’s Paris Agreement carbon reduction pledges.

In normal times, Bolsonaro, with his extreme views, would not likely have been a serious candidate. But times are not normal: a survey carried out by the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in August 2017 found disapproval of the government at 83 percent, of politicians and political parties in general at 78 percent. Moreover, 55 percent said they would not vote for the candidate they had voted for in the last election.

Such extreme discontent could pave the way for a new dynamic in Brazilian politics – the rise of anti-politicians and far-right populists, similar to what has been in the U.S. with the election of Donald Trump.

The Forgotten Amazon, in Deep Trouble

As Brazilians endure turbulent times – traumatized by economic woes and rampant corruption – little attention is being paid to what is going on in the Amazon. Even before Temer came to power, the influential bancada ruralista was doing all it could to destroy the social and environmental gains enshrined in the 1988 Constitution. The ruralists achieved further strides under Temer in 2017 and are likely to continue to succeed this year.

Fiona Watson, from Survival International, an NGO which works with indigenous people globally, told Mongabay: “2018 is likely to be a grim year for indigenous peoples in the Amazon, as the government and the ruralista bloc in Congress will undoubtedly intensify their drive to tear up indigenous peoples’ constitutional rights. With agribusiness eyeing up resource rich indigenous territories in the Amazon and foreign mining companies circling, it all makes for a volatile and dangerous powder keg, particularly in an election year.”

She went on: “An election year is when the gloves come off and the land grabbers, loggers and miners know they can invade indigenous territories with greater impunity than normal, as the authorities are less likely to take action as they court the votes [and campaign donations] of these people. And, hand- and-in-hand with invasion, comes violence; globally Brazil already has one of the world’s highest rates of murders of indigenous people and environmental defenders.”

Philip Fearnside, a scientist at the National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA), is also pessimistic. He notes that as the world moves forward, addressing the carbon reduction goals of the Paris Agreement by embracing renewable energy and protecting forests, the Temer government is moving away from meeting its Paris pledge and opening the country to an oil frenzy by giving companies a package of tax breaks that could amount to US$ 300 billion over the next 25 years to develop off-shore and gas.

He adds that Amazonian deforestation, the main source of Brazil’s carbon emissions, can be expected to go on trending upwards, because the forces behind the clearing – more roads, railways, and industrial waterways; more mines; more interior settlement and more development investment – continue to grow.

Another key event expected in 2018, Fearnside adds, is the “gradual opening of the BR-319 highway that connects Manaus in central Amazônia with Rondônia in the notorious ‘arc of deforestation.'”

“All of this points to higher emissions,” Fearnside concludes, which, he says, would already be higher “if emissions omitted from official data were included, such as forest degradation from fires, logging and droughts.”

Grassroots Resistance and High Court Decisions

Not everything is bleak. With the economic crisis and the government’s determination to cut the fiscal deficit, there is little public money for big energy and infrastructure projects, which have always had serious environmental and social impacts.

This fact was recently recognized by top officials, who, speaking via a press article, announced the likely end to plans for future mega-dams in the Brazilian Amazon. This decision will only likely be reversed if new sources of massive investment are found, from the Chinese for example, who offered a credit line of US$ 20 billion to Brazil for infrastructure in 2017. Scientists warn that many medium and small dams are still planned, which can do significant environmental harm.

Opposition to the government’s anti-environmental policies is also growing. Survival International’s Watson said: “On the positive side, indigenous organizations at grassroots and regional levels are active and vocal in defending their Amazon homeland and, if anything, they will be more vocal in 2018.

“In the almost absence of the state, tribes like Guajajara and Ka’apor have formed their own groups of ‘guardians’ to defend their forest and the vulnerable, uncontacted people who live there too. We can expect to see more action from them.”

2018 may also be a year in which a foundation is laid for heightened levels of resistance in 2019, when the new government takes office. Márcio Santilli, founding member of the NGO Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA), told Mongabay that “important decisions are expected from the Supreme Court that should place limits on the setbacks introduced by the [Temer] government and Congress.”

Santilli referred especially to a Supreme Court ruling, expected within weeks, on the legality of the so-called “marco temporal” – an arbitrary date (5 October 1988) set by the Temer government on which indigenous groups had to physically have occupied an ancestral territory in order to lay legal claim to it.

With many indigenous groups driven off their land during the military dictatorship (1964-1985), this requirement is widely viewed as unfair and probably a violation of the 1988 Constitution.

Another proposed measure expected to go before the high court is the legalization of the renting or leasing of indigenous territory to agribusiness. Santilli says that such a move infringes the constitution and should be thrown out in the courts.

A ruling is also expected in the next few months on the land rights of the Quilombos (communities set up by runaway slaves), which would be severely restricted if a party, close to the government, is successful in its legal action.

Perhaps the most important ruling likely to come in 2018 concerns the county’s controversial forest code. In February, the Supreme Court is expected to decide whether the forest code (revised in 2012, arguably to the detriment of the environment) infringes the country’s Constitution. Some expect this ruling to be the most important decision ever made in the history of Brazil’s environmental law.

Overall, 2018 is likely to be a waiting year, a year in which environmentalists and indigenous movements valiantly resist further setbacks by the Temer government, Congress and the ruralists, while seeking to overturn earlier reverses.

Depending on the outcome of the October election, popular movements and NGOs hope to regroup and move forward with protecting the Amazon in 2019.

But with uncertainty and instability running high, and presidential candidates ranging from Jair Bolsonaro on the far right; to Lula and the Workers’ Party; and Marina Silva, a former environmental minister and long shot on the center-left – all bets are off.

This article appeared originally in Mongabay – https://news.mongabay.com


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