The presidential election in Brazil will not only shape the destiny of Latin America’s largest country. It is also a referendum on the fate of the Amazon: the world’s largest tropical forest, sometimes known as the lungs of the Earth.
The stakes for the planet are huge.
The front-runner for the presidency, Jair Bolsonaro – a far-right congressman who has said Brazil’s environmental policy is “suffocating the country” – has promised to champion his country’s powerful agribusiness sector, which seeks to open up more forest to produce the beef and soy that the world demands.
He has dangled the possibility of pulling out of the Paris climate agreement. But even if he doesn’t, his campaign promises could have dire consequences for the Amazon, and therefore for the rest of the planet. Stretching across two million square miles, most of it in Brazil, the Amazon acts as a giant sink for the carbon dioxide emissions that the world as a whole produces.
Mr. Bolsonaro has said he would scrap the Environment Ministry, which is mandated to protect the environment, and instead fold it into the Agriculture Ministry, which tends to favor the interests of those who would convert forests into farmland.
He has dismissed the idea of setting aside forest land for native Brazilians who have lived in the Amazon for centuries, promising that “there won’t be a square centimeter demarcated as an indigenous reserve” if he is elected.
Recent studies show that forest reserves controlled by native people in many countries provide some of the best defenses against deforestation. Mr. Bolsonaro sees other uses of the forest, though. “Where there is indigenous land,” he has said, “there is wealth underneath it.”
And according to a Reuters report, his campaign has also suggested that Mr. Bolsonaro would reduce penalties against those who violate environmental laws.
“A potential Bolsonaro win would, without a doubt, make Brazil lose its leadership on the global climate agenda and become a huge obstacle for the global efforts to combat global warming,” said Carlos Rittl, executive secretary of the Climate Observatory, a Brazilian organization that compiled the presidential candidates’ positions on environmental issues.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s opponent in the Oct. 28 runoff, Fernando Haddad of the leftist Workers Party, trailed far behind in the first round of voting this month, with only 29 percent of the vote to Mr. Bolsonaro’s 46 percent. Mr. Haddad’s campaign promises aggressive targets to halt deforestation, though his party has in the past erected enormous infrastructure projects with devastating environmental consequences – the Belo Monte dam, for instance.
Forests all over the world are lucrative for commercial interests, and converting forestland to grow commodities like soy and beef accounted for about a fourth of all global deforestation between 2001 and 2015, according to a recent study.
In the Amazon, deforestation has long been caused by illegal ranching, logging and the conversion of forests into farms. Global demand for beef, one of Brazil’s top commodities, is growing. The United States-China trade feud has increased the demand for soy, Brazil’s other top commodity, as well.
Until recently, Brazil had been lauded as an environmental leader. It had pledged zero illegal deforestation by 2030 under the Paris agreement and sharp reductions in its carbon emissions as a whole.
Deforestation rates began falling steadily starting around 2005. But that trend has since reversed, and, according to satellite surveys by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, more than 3,000 square miles of forest cover were lost between August 2015 and July 2016.
Indeed, long before Mr. Bolsonaro declared his bid to be president, Brazil had been retreating on its environmental policies. Politicians on left have been less vocal about claiming resources in indigenous lands, for example, but the demarcation of reserves slowed under former President Dilma Rousseff and deforestation rates began to rise.
A crippling recession has also taken a toll, resulting in sharply reduced funding for the Environment Ministry.
An analysis by Brazilian scientists found that if current environmental trends continue in the country, Brazil would not meet its emissions reductions targets under the Paris Agreement. And Global Witness, in collaboration with The Guardian newspaper, found Brazil to be the deadliest place for environmental rights campaigners.
Cutting down trees creates emissions, too. Lots of emissions. A report from a research and advocacy group called Global Forest Watch found that carbon dioxide emissions from tree-cover loss in tropical countries averaged 4.8 gigatons every year between 2015 and 2017, or equal to the emissions that come out of the tailpipes of 85 million cars over their entire lifetime. If that rate of tropical forest loss continues, the report said, it would be impossible for the world to keep global warming to below the goals of the Paris accord.
Brazil is the world’s sixth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, though its emissions are much smaller than the two big industrial countries of the world, China and the United States. Agriculture and oil production are the top sources of Brazil’s emissions.
The recent rollback of conservation measures reflects the growing influence of a powerful conservative wing within Brazil’s legislature that calls itself the Beef, Bible and Bullet Coalition. A Bolsonaro victory would amplify its influence, analysts said.
The next president of Brazil will face an immediate choice that stands to affect its global stature. Brazil, which hosted the Earth Summit in 1993, when world leaders first began to sign on to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is in the running to host its annual negotiations in November 2019. Its goal is to rally countries to slow down global warming, including by saving forests.