Home Mel Gurtov: Brazil’s election and the future of the Amazon

Mel Gurtov: Brazil’s election and the future of the Amazon

Mel Gurtov
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On Oct. 2 we will have a presidential election in Brazil of enormous consequence for the planet. The election will, among other things, decide the fate of the Amazon region’s tropical forests, “the lungs of the earth.”

According to the website Agenda Recife, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will be seeking the presidency for a second time. During Lula’s tenure from 2004 to 2010, Amazon deforestation was reduced by 80 percent.

If his opponent, current president Jair Bolsonaro, should win reelection, rest assured that the cattle owners, soybean growers, loggers, gold diggers, and racist landowners who have been responsible for forest destruction will have the government’s full support. (Note: Since there are four other candidates, victory requires winning 50 percent of the vote. Otherwise, a runoff will take place later in October.)

Bolsonaro is a Trump look-alike who has been singularly responsible for the continued destruction of the Amazon and the violence against indigenous people and their supporters, most recently the murders of a British journalist and his Brazilian guide who were doing research for a book on protecting the Amazon.

He has also taken aim at democracy itself, following Trump’s script of questioning the election results in advance, aligning with the far right, and accusing political and civil society opponents of being “communists.” Bolsonaro’s fondness for the two decades of military rule in Brazil (1964-1985) is well known.

The Amazon’s precarious state

An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 2021 shows that as global warming increases, the capacity of carbon sinks to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere lessens. Bolsonaro has not heeded that lesson, and probably could care less. During his rule, indiscriminate clearing of forest land by fires along with reduced rainfall has turned the lungs of the earth black: a carbon sink has become a net carbon emitter.

Fires consumed an estimated 5.4 million acres of Amazonia last year, so that Brazil showed a net gain of almost 10 percent in carbon emissions, putting further strain on the planet’s ability to cope with climate change. “In 40 years,” one study concludes, “the Amazon has lost an area as big as California to deforestation.

Some scientists suggest the Amazon is now close to a tipping point, at which it will become a savanna rather than a rainforest.” One reported estimate is that the tipping point could be reached in a decade if deforestation, which already has impacted 17 percent of Amazonia, increases to between 20 and 25 percent.

Bolsonaro is hardly the first Brazilian leader to put extraction of the Amazon’s resource wealth ahead of either the region’s indigenous people or planetary wellbeing. Nor is he the first to try to bait the international community with threats to play or pay. It’s the old game of thieves: He’s dangling stolen property (“the Amazon is ours,” he has said) before the world in hopes of compensation he can pocket.

“There must be fair payment for environmental services provided by our biomes to the planet at large,” he says. It’s extortion, and he might just get away with it. Back when Joe Biden was a candidate, he called on the world to offer Brazil $20 billion to end deforestation in the Amazon or face “economic consequences.” Bolsonaro called Biden’s comment a “cowardly threat.”

Let’s hope Biden doesn’t repeat that offer; he’s dealing with a carbon criminal.

A coup?

Lula, by most accounts, will win the upcoming election. Though well aware of what happened here on January 6, 2021, he believes that Bolsonaro will not attempt a similar coup. Lula said of Bolsonaro: “He’s a poorly made copy of Trump. Trump also tried to avoid accepting the result. They tried to storm the Capitol. But he had to back down and I’m certain that here in Brazil the election result will be accepted without any kind of questioning.”

Still, rumors abound that Bolsonaro might not accept the results and might stage a coup. “A new class of thieves has emerged who want to steal our freedom,” he said in a speech. “If necessary, we will go to war.” Bolsonaro, a former army captain, has plenty of generals on his side, and some senior military commanders are members of an election commission set up to find and prevent fraud.

Sen. Bernie Sanders is concerned enough that he has crafted a Senate resolution to make clear that the US will “not be supportive with military aid” and “will not be recognizing an illegitimate government.”

Sanders is absolutely right: Bolsonaro must not repeat the Trump formula of election denial. Otherwise, Brazilians will be condemned to more years of authoritarian rule and Amazonian destruction.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.