- President-elect Jair Bolsonaro has chosen Ricardo Salles as Brazil’s environment minister. The former São Paulo state government environment secretary is under investigation for allegedly redrawing maps allowing protected lands to be developed for mining and factories. His statements are heavily pro-agribusiness and sometimes espouse violence.
- The selection of ruralist Tereza Cristina as agriculture minister, and Ernesto Araújo as foreign minister, also almost certainly signals difficult days ahead for Brazil’s environment. Cristina has pushed hard for fast track approval of toxic pesticides. Araújo calls climate change a “Marxist” conspiracy.
- Analysts say that, by choosing ministry appointees who hold extreme views on the environment, Bolsonaro is making Brazil vulnerable to economic reprisals from the international community – especially from developed nations and companies responding to voters and consumers who oppose harm to the Amazon and indigenous groups.
- Former army officer Bolsonaro has chosen six retired generals to head ministries; other military men join him as VP and chief of staff. Activists fear these appointments will have a chilling effect on Brazilian democracy, leading to repression. Deforestation and violence against activists since the campaign, including assassinations, continue rising in Brazil.
Banner image: Jair Bolsonaro. Fábio Rodrigues Pozzebom/Agência Brasil.
President-elect Jair Bolsonaro finished shaping his administrative team on 8 December with his selection of Ricardo Salles as environment minister. The new cabinet member formerly served as the São Paulo state government environment minister.
Salles is a controversial choice, as he is under investigation for administrative improbity by the São Paulo Public Ministry, an independent litigative branch of government.
Prosecutor Silvio Antônio Marques says there is evidence that, while Salles was São Paulo environment secretary, he and two members of his team altered six maps so that environmental protection along São Paulo’s most important river, the Tietê, was weakened, clearing the way for factories and mining operations in previously protected areas. In response, Salles says that he was correcting “very serious errors” in the maps, which were drawn up according to “ideological rather than technical” criteria.
Observatório do Clima (Climate Observatory), a network of NGOs and social movements campaigning on climate change, sees Bolsonaro’s choice of Salles as an indication of the president-elect’s anti-environmental agenda. It stated in a press release: “He [Salles] is the right man in the right place. After all, the president-elect has made it clear that he sees the environmental agenda as an obstacle [to economic development] and that he intends to dismantle the National Environment System [SISNAMA, a body bringing together state and municipal environmental bodies] so that, in his own words, he ‘gets the state off the back of producers.’ Nothing better than entrusting the task to someone [like Salles] who thinks and acts in the same way as him [Bolsonaro].”
Senator Randolfo Rodrigues, a member of the Environmental Parliamentary Front, said: the president-elect “is appointing [as environment minister] someone linked to the [agribusiness] lobby, to the interests of mining companies, accused of environmental crime … It’s clear that the environment will suffer.”
According to the Observatório do Clima, Bolsonaro has accomplished with this appointment what he repeatedly promised during his campaign: to subordinate the environment ministry to the agriculture ministry. The appointment “has side-stepped the problems that could have arisen if the environment ministry had been formally abolished. On the other hand, it means that the ministry, for the first time since it was created in 1992, will no longer be an independent body. Its minister will carry out the orders of the agriculture minister,” the NGO stated.
As reported earlier, Bolsonaro has chosen as his agriculture minister state deputy Tereza Cristina, known as the “muse of poison” because of her effort to remove most controls over the approval and use of pesticides in Brazil. The president-elect also selected as his foreign minister Ernesto Araújo, an obscure diplomat who has declared that climate change is a plot by “cultural Marxists” to stifle western economies and promote the growth of China.
Analysts warn that – by choosing ministry appointees who hold extreme views on the environment – Bolsonaro risks making Brazil vulnerable to economic reprisals from the international community. They point out that developed nations and companies likely won’t want to be associated with a nation causing rampant environmental destruction, especially deforestation in the Amazon and attacks on indigenous groups – a public rallying point in the past.
“Ideological ruralism will compromise the interests of modern agribusiness, which will pay the price when markets are closed for our commodities,” warned Observatório do Clima.
Salles strongly refutes the suggestion that that the Bolsonaro government will subordinate environmental concerns to the demands of agribusiness. “It [the environment ministry] is extremely important and will receive all our attention,” he told the O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper. “Our main focus is to reassure society, not just in Brazil but internationally, that the environment is a priority and will receive a lot of attention from the new government.”
Bolsonaro also plans to shift FUNAI, the indigenous affairs agency, from the powerful justice ministry, to a new catchall ministry, dealing with women, human rights and indigenous affairs. Experts say this new ministry is unlikely to be granted much authority. It will be headed by Damares Alves, a lawyer and evangelical preacher. She co-founded a group that “rescues indigenous children from perilous situations” and she opposes abortion.
Alves too is controversial. She is a founding member of the Atini Movement – Voice for Life, which seeks “to prevent infanticide among indigenous communities.” Atini’s partner organization, Jocum (Youth with a mission) is being taken to court by the Federal Public Ministry (MPF), an independent litigative branch of the Brazilian government, for showing a film in which mentally retarded indigenous children are allegedly buried alive by relatives. The MPF says Jocum’s claim that the film documents “survivors or victims of attempts at infanticide” is false.
The Bolsonaro transition team did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
More environmental changes in the pipeline
Bolsonaro’s transition team has proposed that ten laws that govern environmental licensing and fines for environmental crimes be repealed. The recommendation was made by a group in charge of formulating environmental policy for the government, headed by Evaristo Miranda, director of the geo-referencing department of the state-owned research company, EMBRAPA. Miranda has labelled the current licensing system chaotic and unfair: “Today there are inspectors who impose fines from a helicopter,” he said. “They fly over a deforested area and impose a fine. They don’t listen to the person on the ground.”
IBAMA officials have long argued that they need at times to register deforestation from the air, because they are monitoring vast areas. IBAMA personnel are also permitted by law to bear arms, because they often must confront violent loggers and armed land thieves. Bolsonaro has put forward a bill to revoke the law that allows IBAMA staff to carry weapons.
Bolsonaro’s environmental policy transition team has also suggested that the Brazilian Forestry Service (SFB), that administers government-owned forests and currently is part of the ministry of the environment, be transferred to the ministry of agriculture. That shift raises serious concerns among conservationists, who fear that in future SFB will be less interested in managing forests ecologically and more willing to listen to the demands of agribusiness.
The transition team also suggests that the government’s two prime environmental regulatory agencies – IBAMA and ICMBio – be merged, creating a new body for licensing priority infrastructure construction and other public works. The proposed entity, called the Secretariat for Strategic Licensing, would likely be attached to the Presidency. Critics see the realignment as a way of putting the agencies under the thumb of the agribusiness-friendly Bolsonaro, and a means of disempowering IBAMA – an agency the president-elect has criticized since his arrest by IBAMA for illegal fishing.
For the moment IBAMA is resolutely carrying on with its work. On 7 December, it turned down a request from Total, the French oil company, to drill for oil near the mouth of the Amazon, off the coast of Amapá state. Environmentalists have campaigned against drilling activities there, saying an oil spill would wreck the Amazon Reef, one of the largest reef systems in the world. According to IBAMA, Total’s EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) contained “incongruencies” and “inadequacies” with respect to emergency plans.
But, even before Bolsonaro takes office, IBAMA is facing unprecedented problems on the ground. In a recent interview IBAMA president, Suely Araújo, said: “There are areas of the country where our inspectors are received with gun shots. The south of Amazonas state is the best example. Planning an operation in the south of Amazonas is almost like planning a military operation during a war.”
The situation has got worse in recent months, she says: “The anti-environmental discourse is largely responsible for this … It justifies illegal actions by saying that environmental norms are unnecessary, that they are something that gets in the way of the country’s development.”
Threats to democracy and risk of heightened violence
Bolsonaro had originally promised to reduce the number of ministries by almost half, from 29 to 15, but found it impossible. As now planned, the number will be reduced to 22, with the most powerful being a super Ministry of the Economy, merging three existing economic ministries. This mega-ministry will be headed by the controversial Paulo Guedes, who intends “to free up” the economy. As a neoliberal in favor of privatization and deregulation, he has little sympathy for what he sees as cumbersome environmental impact studies that slow down economic development. He wishes to remove the impediment of environmental impact studies conducted in advance of infrastructure project authorization.
Another concern, expressed off the record by environmentalists and political activists, is the possibility of limits placed by the new government against the freedom to organize and protest. Bolsonaro, himself, is a former army officer, while six retired generals will run six of his ministries. Two other military men will hold powerful positions: rightist General Hamilton Mourão, will be vice president; and General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, the former head of the National Secretariat for Public Security, will be Chief of Staff, a key position. Santos Cruz will coordinate with the other ministries and interface between the administration and civil society.
Santos Cruz has been described as “a hard-liner among hard-liners.” One military officer described him as the “knife in the skull,” referring to the symbol of the Battalion of Special Police Operations (BOPE), an elite police unit allegedly responsible for 65 deaths occurring from January to August 2017 – an 80 percent increase over the same period in 2016. Another tough general, Augusto Heleno, will head the Institutional Security Cabinet (GSI).
Both Mourão and Augusto Heleno were openly critical of successive Workers’ Party (PT) governments under presidents Lula and Rousseff. Mourão made a highly controversial comment during the 2018 election, saying that Brazil had inherited “the Iberian [Spanish] culture of privileges, the indolence of the Indians and the chicanery of the Africans.”
Many older Brazilians, who remember the military dictatorship that ruled from 1964 to 1985, are fearful of these military appointments to civil government. Clóvis Rossi, a journalist at the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper, was forced into exile during the regime, and said that Bolsonaro “has awoken the devils that inhabit a significant part of the electorate, getting them to vote for a candidate who defends torture and dictatorship.” Bolsonaro in his statements has supported both.
Brian Winter, editor of Americas Quarterly, predicts “slaughter” in the next few months: “Bolsonaro’s number one priority is to relax the laws and rules for the security forces, allowing them to shoot first and ask questions afterwards.” In 1999, Bolsonaro declared that the Brazilian dictatorship “should have killed 30,000 persons, starting with Congress as well as President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.”
Another concern among critics is that Bolsonaro’s incendiary statements during the campaign, and his repeatedly pretending to shoot a gun as a sort of violent meme, may be inciting conflict – giving a green light to land grabbers, human rights violators and land thieves, especially in remote Amazon areas where law enforcement is lax.
These concerns were deepened with the recent publication of figures documenting the biggest increase in Amazon deforestation in the last ten years, as reported by Mongabay. Brazil’s leading NGO, the Social-environmental Institute (ISA), believes that “negative signs about the environment expressed during the electoral campaign, including by the president elect, Jair Bolsonaro,” help explain the increase.
Then came the assassination on 8 December of two leaders of Brazil’s largest landless social movement – the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) – in Paraíba state. The assassins, seemingly without fear of repercussions, nonchalantly walked into a landless encampment and riddled the two camp coordinators with machine gun fire as they ate their dinner. About 450 families live in the camp and the murders were viewed as an attempt to intimidate the others. A solidarity group, Friends of the MST in Paraíba, issued a statement blaming the deaths on the current increase in “the criminalization of the country’s organizations and popular movements” since Bolsonaro’s rise.
The MST believes that the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 was a “watershed” for Brazil’s rural conflicts, leading to a significant increase in violence against peasant families in the interests of the ruralist agribusiness lobby. According to Ayala Ferreira, from the MST’s human rights sector, the worst affected state is Pará, where 23 peasant settlements have been broken up this year. “The actions in this state are not carried out through the courts but instead [through] the landowners use violence,” he said.
Activists’ fears are being heightened by other signs of saber rattling and coming conflict. For example, during his unsuccessful run to become a São Paulo federal deputy in October, Ricardo Salles – the man now in line to become environment minister – tried to use the ammunition for a .30-06 rifle as his electoral symbol. He also selected 3006 as his identification number in the polls. Salles said the violent symbol expressed his animosity “against the left and the MST,” and “against banditry in the countryside” and “against the theft of tractors, cattle and farming products.” He was forced to stop using the image, after being told by Twitter that it would not permit “any suggestion of support of violence.”
Indigenous reserve threatened
While some see such statements and gestures only as campaign bravado and appeals to the right-wing base, Brazil’s environmental and civil society organizations are preparing for the worst.
One place where clashes may soon erupt is Roraima state in the very north of Brazil and part of the Amazon. Ruralists have long raged about the amount of land occupied by indigenous communities in this state. They were furious when Brazil’s Supreme Court decided in 2008 to uphold the indigenous claim to the Raposa Serra do Sol Reserve. Occupying 1,747,464 hectares (6,747 square miles), it is home to some 17,000 indigenous people of various ethnicities. Part of the reserve had been invaded by non-indigenous rice farmers, who were ordered to leave after the Supreme Court ruling.
Ruralists have long campaigned to get this land back and now Bolsonaro has listened. On 17 December he said: “It [the Raposa Serra do Sul Reserve] is the world’s richest area and it has to be exploited rationally. The Indians will be given royalties and integrated into society.” The area is believed to contain extensive reserves of niobium, a metal in demand by the nuclear and electronics industries. According to the Brazilian press, Bolsonaro’s transition team is already preparing a decree to rethink the creation of the reserve.
No protests have been voiced by any of those expected to become part of the new government, including Damara Alves. “Before, ruralists were part of the government, but now they will be the government,” said Father Paulo Cesar Moreira from the Catholic Church’s Pastoral Land Commission. “This suggests a scenario in which violence and the legitimization of violence will increase.”