RIO DE JANEIRO – Brazil has a major role to play in addressing climate change as home to the world's largest rainforest, but after Sunday's election, the subject is less likely to come up than ever.
In the country's lower house of Congress, the Liberal Party of President Jair Bolsonaro increased its share by 30%, jumping from 76 to 99 seats. The Liberal Party has one of the worst environmental records among the country’s many parties, according to two Congress watchdogs. One of the new lawmakers is former Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, a fierce agribusiness ally who has dismissed climate change as a “useless debate.” On his watch, Brazil’s environmental agencies were weakened and Amazon deforestation spiked to its highest rate in 15 years.
Salles was the subject of two investigations by Brazil's federal police and resigned as environment minister in 2021. The probes looked into whether he tried to block the seizure of illegal timber and aided in its export. Salles has denied any wrongdoing.
Salles was elected to represent Sao Paulo state with a massive 641,000 votes. In Congress he will join the so-called beef caucus, which currently includes almost half the lawmakers in both houses, according to Congresso em Foco, a news website focused on Congress coverage.
In contrast, one of the country's best known environmentalists, Marina Silva, a former environmental minister also running in Sao Paulo, garnered only 237,000. She also won. Brazil’s voting system for the lower chamber is statewide so these vote counts are directly comparable.
A native of the Amazon, Silva decided to run from the country's most populated and industrialized state, São Paulo given that her native state of Acre has become a Bolsonaro stronghold. By the same logic, Indigenous leader Sônia Guajajara ran for Congress in São Paulo instead of her native Maranhao state and was also elected.
In the Senate, Bolsonaro’s party may seem to hold a small minority of seats, but that is the norm in Brazil which is famous for its numerous political parties. Bolsonaro's support will not be limited to his own party. He has other powerful allies, including Hamilton Mourão, currently serving as vice president.
Under Bolsonaro's orders, Mourão, a retired army general, oversaw a fruitless deployment of thousands of soldiers with no experience in environmental enforcement to the Amazon to prevent deforestation and deliberately-set fires in the first three years of Bolsonaro’s rule. The initiative has been criticized by environmentalists for its high costs and lack of impact.
The election results were even more disappointing for environmentalists in the vast Amazon region, nine states in all. Joenia Wapichana, only the second Indigenous person ever elected to Congress, was not re-elected.
That means not one of the 118 Amazon lawmakers in the new Congress ran on the environment.
The only indigenous woman who was elected in the Amazon, Silvia Waiãpi, is a Bolsonaro ally.
“In the Amazon, politics moves like sunflower towards whoever occupies the Presidency. The outcome is more about the power of the political machine than ideology,” Rosiene Carvalho, a political columnist, told the Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Next comes the runoff for president, Oct. 30. Bolsonaro will face leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. If reelected, he will have more steam to advance his controversial Amazon agenda in Congress, from legalizing land-robbers to opening Indigenous territories to more mining and agriculture.
Sen. Randolfe Rodrigues, a member of the Lula da Silva campaign from the Amazon, said if, on the other hand, Lula wins in the runoff, he will have a lot of sway over Congress to protect the environment.
“The new Congress won’t change the scenario we have today by much. What matters more to the Amazon now is Lula’s victory because the executive is the one that sets the agenda,” Rodrigues told the AP on Monday after a campaign meeting. But if there is another presidency like Bolsonaro's, "the Amazon will unavoidably reach the point of no return.”
Under the Paris Agreement, Brazil has committed to reducing its carbon dioxide pollution by 43% from 2005 levels by 2030. But rather than that greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 grew by 9.5%. This was during the pandemic, when worldwide emissions dropped by almost 7%, according to the nonprofit network Climate Observatory.
Almost half of Brazil’s climate pollution comes from deforestation. The destruction is so vast that the eastern Amazon has ceased to be a carbon sink, or absorber, for the Earth, and has converted into a carbon source, according to a study published in 2021 in the journal Nature.
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