RIO DE JANEIRO/SAO PAULO, Brazil (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Victory by far-right Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro in Sunday’s elections could lead to indigenous people losing lucrative land, campaigners and researchers warned.
The latest polls put Bolsonaro on track to win office, raising prospects of a new turn in policy that could exacerbate the threat to Brazil’s precious rainforests and speed the economic exploitation of its majestic landscape.
“Everything is at risk,” said Carlos Nobre, an acclaimed climatologist and currently a researcher at the Institute of Advanced Studies of the University of Sao Paulo.
There is good reason for such alarm.
Bolsonaro said during his campaign that “not one centimeter of land will be demarcated for indigenous reserves or quilombolas (descendants of runaway slaves)”, and that indigenous lands could be opened to economic exploitation, including agribusiness and mining.
He also promised to ease “excessive” oversight by the country’s environmental watchdog and join up the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, although on Thursday he scrapped an earlier pledge to quit the 2015 Paris deal to tackle climate change.
Bolsonaro said he would respect the accord as long as he got assurances Brazil would not cede sovereignty to native tribes or international jurisdiction over the Andes mountains, Amazon rainforest and Atlantic Ocean - the so-called Triple A region.
The climate pact U-turn may be a positive sign, but “it is just a first step”, said Paulo Barreto of Imazon, a Brazilian research institute, adding he was “still concerned” about potential damage to the environment.
Protecting the country’s fragile ecosystems depends on tackling deforestation and strengthening its environmental oversight, Barreto added, “so it will require him (Bolsonaro) to change his views on this as well”.
Bolsonaro allies say he has plans to replace the heads of state-owned firms that control major power generation projects and to slash fines for farmers who break environmental laws.
“If Bolsonaro implements all his hostile discourse, there is a risk (of indigenous peoples) not having new lands and losing their existing territories,” said Barreto.
Bolsonaro did not respond to requests for comment. In a poll published on Oct. 25 he had 56 percent of voter support, compared to 44 percent for leftist Fernando Haddad.
South America’s largest country is grappling with scores of deadly land conflicts, illustrating the tensions between preserving indigenous culture and economic development.
“Brazil is a ‘champion’ of killings in the countryside. This can be aggravated by these statements ... because people’s acts follow such signals,” Barreto said.
Last year, 110 indigenous people were murdered throughout Brazil, according to Conselho Indigenista Missionario (Cimi), a church-linked monitoring group. It recorded 118 murders in 2016.
Cimi said many were connected to land conflicts amid a lack of land rights and 847 unconcluded indigenous land claims filed over the last two decades.
Between June and September, deforestation in the country grew by 36 percent compared to a year ago, according to the country’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE).
Experts predict there is worse to come.
“We may face an unprecedented environmental disaster in the next four years,” said Brazilian researcher Paulo Artaxo, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
“The main concern is the Amazon. According to Bolsonaro’s statements we can conclude that illegal settlements and deforestation will accelerate.”
The Amazon covers nearly 60 percent of the country and has shrunk by 20 percent since 1970, mostly due to logging, farming and mining, according to government data. Experts worry about man making bigger inroads into the world’s biggest tropical forest and reducing its power to counteract global warming.
His opponent’s official proposals promised land rights for traditional communities and land titles for indigenous people and quilombolas, though further details were not provided.
Haddad also pledged to promote the conservation of forests and fight against violence in the countryside and criminalization of activists.
However, experts flagged concerns over how he would deal with pressure to move forward with infrastructure projects in the Amazon, including big dams, given that many controversial projects had already received political backing.
Even if Haddad wins, his campaign promises “will not fall from the sky” and will demand constant negotiations to become a reality, said Marcio Santilli, founding partner at Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), a Brazilian advocacy group.