Election Worries - Bolsonaro Could Burn Brazil's Democracy Along with Amazon Forests
Brazil is celebrating 200 years of independence. Will it celebrate democracy or face a coup in October?
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President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil addressed a huge gathering of supporters on the bicentennial of Brazil's declared independence from Portugal (from the Bolsonaro campaign Facebook page)
You've probably noticed by now that I'm not a doomist when it comes to climate and the environment. If enough people engage enough skill sets where the need is greatest, a thriving human journey on a still-wondrous planet lies ahead.
But I do have my nightmares. One centers on a looming juncture in Brazil between two competing models of rural development - abusive extraction and sustainable and just resource management - and two competing forms of governance - democracy and despotism.
The juncture is the presidential election that begins on October 2.
Many of my longtime contacts in Brazil, while confident President Jair Bolsonaro will be outvoted by leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, are expressing deep concerns that Bolsonaro could succeed where former U.S. President Donald Trump failed in finding a way to stay in power.
This paragraph updated 9/17 - The polls show Lula with a significant but narrowing lead over Bolsonaro, with several other candidates far behind. Under Brazil's system this will require a second round of voting October 30. Explore a recent overview of poll results from AS/COA and the election tracker website of PollingData, which includes this animation (this is the presumptive one-on-one second-round vote between Lula and Bolsonaro):
Bolsonaro has the usual advantages incumbency offers - from boosting cash benefits for the pandemic-strained working class and poor to holding histrionic events like those scheduled today, September 7, the bicentennial of the declaration of Brazil's independence from Portugal by Dom Pedro I, the founder and leader of the Empire of Brazil.
The events include yet more displays of the golden urn containing Dom Pedro's preserved heart, which arrived in Brazil on August 22 on loan from Portugal at Bolsonaro's request.
On August 23, President Bolsonaro and First Lady Michelle Bolsonaro posed with children next to an urn containing the preserved heart of Dom Pedro I, founder and first ruler of the Empire of Brazil (Photo by EVARISTO SA/AFP via Getty Images)
But that is all standard fare and within the realm called politics. The darker possibilities lie with Bolsonaro's deep alliances with the military establishment, his energetic extreme-right-wing base, his reshaping of the courts and some signals of support from some corners of the business community.
Again, this could all be just overheated worry. But one might have said the same thing about the warnings about Trump and his followers long before January 6th.
It's hard for me to believe that when I was in the Amazon rain forest in 1989 reporting on the murder of the land-rights defender Chico Mendes for my book The Burning Season, the country was just four years out of its last dictatorship and about to hold its first free democratic election. I hope hard-earned freedom isn't about to be stolen.
Reason for concern
Listen to how the situation was summarized at the end of one of my recent Sustain What episodes by Jonathan Watts, the global environment editor and former Brazil correspondent of The Guardian, who lives in the Amazon forest with his Brazilian wife:
"He's trying to do what Trump did. But while Trump left everything until the last minute, Bolsonaro is clearly paving the way, organizing the military on his side, casting doubt early on, packing the Supreme Court with sympathetic judges. So I don't think anyone should be in any doubt that he's going to try to usurp democracy and now is the time for people to really act. If democracy is to be saved in Brazil and the Amazon is to have any chance, Brazil really needs to understand there'll be quite a high cost to pay if this happens.”
In mid August, the Brazilian publication Metropoles published screen shots taken of discussions in the "Businessmen & Politics" WhatsApp group by owners of a variety of big businesses, some of whom spoke favorably of a coup.
A few days after that story ran, as the Associated Press reported, police executed search warrants and authorities took other steps under the direction of a Supreme Court justice who heads the nation’s electoral authority.
If you wonder why this is being taken so seriously, it's worth recalling that Brazil's last military dictatorship only ended in 1985, and that in 2019, Bolsonaro, a former army captain, reinstated military commemorations of the 1964 coup that ushered in those dark decades. (Read the Human Rights Watch release on this.)
Seeking more guidance, I reached out to Marcelo Leite, a longtime columnist on the environment and related matters at Brazil's biggest paper, Folha de S.Paulo. He wrote:
“I guess it’s improbable that Bolsonaro wins, but not impossible. He’ll buy time now that there is certainly going to be a second round, and he’ll keep spending to lure poorer voters. As of now he’d certainly lose to Lula, judging by the polls, but if it ends up being for a narrow margin, he might attempt to drag the military in an adventure. My guess (my hope) is that he wouldn’t succeed. But nobody knows for sure. Contrary to the time of dictatorship, journalists know very little about what goes on among the brass, apparently pundits haven’t any sources in those ranks. Bolsonaro’s supporters can raise confusion on Election Day, and the military plus police might use it as an excuse to stage a coup. It doesn’t look likely, but who knows. I never thought he would get elected back in 2018…"
What's at stake in Amazonia
Intensified after the horrific Amazon forest murders of journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous advocate Bruno Pereira, there's been a steady stream of stunning reporting laying out the human and environmental toll during Bolsonaro's presidency.
Start with Terrence McCoy's stunning "The Amazon, Undone" series in the Washington Post.
The Guardian and Forensic Architecture, an investigative news hub mining data and imagery, have co-produced a special video report examining evidence of crimes against Indigenous people abetted by the lack of enforcement.
The Bolsonaro campaign has peppered Facebook and other social media with defenses of the president's forest record, along with colorful photographs of the candidate with Indigenous people.
Explore the Bolsonaro Facebook post here
Environmental groups have been vigorously fact checking such assertions and posting rebuttals here.
Among an array of steps aimed to please Bolsonaro's "beef, bible and bullets" constituency, his administration has been trying to choke off government sources of data on illegal deforestation. Read Bernardo Esteves's excellent recent piece in the Brazilian magazine Piauí (use Google Translate).
(This is a more forceful variant of some steps the George W. Bush administration took to constrain NASA's output on climate science in the months leading up to the 2004 presidential election. I reported in depth on that effort, which happily was reversed.)
Two vying visions of development
On my most recent visit to Brazil, in 2018, I visited the Sao Paulo offices of Instituto Socioambientale - a group working for 30 years with Indigenous and other traditional rural communities on strategies to protect their territories, sustain their cultural integrity and boost economic sustainability. There I met Marcelo Salazar, who was visiting from his base in Altamira, an Amazon city sandwiched between dams, mining, cattle-driven deforestation and the Xingu Indigenous preserve. He works with Indians to develop markets for sustainably harvested forest products. Using a map of the region, he succinctly described the two clashing visions of Amazon development reflected in the conditions around Altamira:
This election, and the aftermath, will determine which vision prevails.
On Tuesday, illustrating the destructive dynamic Bolsonaro's time in office has driven, Matt Finer of the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project tweeted this fresh snapshot from this year's burning season (which peaks in Brazil in September). As Finer explained, red is smoke form major fires. He said this is the "most severe we've seen so far this year - big fires everywhere: Para, Rondonia, Amazonas, Mato Grosso..."
In a weird way, this new pulse of destruction might be good news.
Reporting from the Amazon for The Guardian a few days ago, Tom Phillips described how environmental watchdogs sensed this intensified activity could reflect resignation that the Bolsonaro era is almost over. As he writes:
"[T]he prospect of Jair Bolsonaro’s defeat in October’s presidential election has sparked a last-minute race to raze the jungle, with an unholy trinity of illegal loggers, cattle ranchers and gold miners intensifying their activities before his successor takes office."
Time will tell.
In Brazil, everything's possible
Here's a bit more historical context, offered by the University of Maryland anthropologist Linda Rabben, who worked with Indigenous people and human rights defenders for more than 30 years:
"It’s important to put Bolsonaro in historical context. Brazil has a long history of coups and dictatorships interspersed with democratic, or at least civilian, elected regimes. The most-recent military dictatorship lasted 21 years, from 1964 to 1985. This is the period that Bolsonaro and his followers remember with nostalgia. However, many Brazilians weren’t alive or weren’t old enough to be conscious of the dictatorship. During the military dictatorship Brazil was opening its undeveloped areas in the Amazon, building highways, encouraging migration and boosting logging, mining and cattle ranching there. A strong nationalistic ideology became entrenched. Bolsonaro echoes the expansionist development discourse of that period. But for many Brazilians he’s an old man, yesterday’s man.
"Brazil’s national motto should be 'Tudo é possível'—everything is possible, including violent overthrow of the government or what Brazilians call a golpe branco, or white coup, by an elected civilian leader. I’m not sure if the military wants to take over the government. In addition, civil society is organized on both the right and the left, and many Brazilians favor environmental protection. They also remember Bolsonaro’s failure to address the Covid pandemic in a humane and effective way. They are aware of his sons’ alleged involvement in organized crime. Lula is a strong political figure, still very popular and a hero to many.
But tudo é possível."
"The Imminent Election Crisis in Brazil" - Americas Quarterly, August 30, by the journal's editor-in-chief, Brian Winter. Here's one key passage:
"Bolsonaro has made his intentions abundantly clear over the past year. Influenced by his belief that Donald Trump won the 2020 election in the United States, and determined to avoid a similar fate (or worse), Bolsonaro has pursued a multi-pronged, if often erratic strategy. He has repeatedly cast doubt on the integrity of Brazil’s electronic voting system, and said he will only accept a result that he deems 'auditable'—an impossible bar, since Congress voted last year not to modify the system. He has portrayed Lula not just as an opponent but an illegitimate, 'criminal' threat who 'can only win via fraud.' Meanwhile, anticipating a confrontation, the one-time Army Captain has deepened his ties to Brazil’s military, appointing retired generals to key posts, including as his running mate."
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