Far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro won Brazil’s presidential election on Sunday, earning support from 55 percent of voters. Bolsonaro has often been called the “Tropical Trump,” given his many parallels with the American president.
Like Trump, he is also known for making brash, controversial, and decidedly undiplomatic statements, generally at the expense of women or minority groups. This, and his authoritarian leanings, have been the main factor that has made Bolsonaro such a polarizing figure.
A former military officer, Bolsonaro has spoken highly of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil for two decades until 1985, and has promised to crack down on violent crime in Brazil.
But easily overlooked among Bolsonaro’s divisive language and authoritarian impulses is the degree to which he represents a threat to science, research, and environmental protection in Brazil, the world’s 5th most populous nation.
Though just two days before the election, he walked back his earlier promise to withdraw Brazil from the Paris climate pact, he has promised to widely cut back on environmental regulations in favor of economic development. He has said he will combine the nation’s environment and agriculture ministries in order to limit regulations on agriculture. This would also pave the way for ongoing efforts by the conservative rural caucus in Congress to loosen regulations on deforestation in the Amazon.
The broader trend in the past decades has seen the pace of deforestation in the Amazon slow considerably, reaching a historic low point in 2012. Since then, more forest has been cleared for ranching and farming. Scientists in Brazil have estimated that there has been a 52 percent increase from 2012’s low point.
Bolsonaro’s dismissal of regulations is sure to accelerate that trend. As the Amazon has declined, scientists have gained a better understanding of the role it plays in the global climate. Trees play an crucial role in the world’s carbon cycle, helping to soak up the greenhouse gases produced by industrialized human economies. With such a high concentration of plants, the Amazon is often called “the lungs of the world.” In 2008, the Amazon was thought to soak up around 10 percent of global carbon emissions.
Deforestation additionally leads to its own carbon emissions, either through the burning of trees or through decomposition.
Beyond global emissions concerns, Brazil’s unparalleled biodiversity will also face threats from Bolsonaro’s deregulation efforts. The new president has said the country has “too many protected areas” hindering development.
Earlier this month, as it became clear that Bolsonaro was on track for a victory, University of São Paulo climate researcher Paulo Artaxo said:
“I think we are headed for a very dark period in the history of Brazil. There is no point sugarcoating it. Bolsonaro is the worst thing that could happen for the environment.”
More broadly, early signs also suggest Bolsonaro will limit scientific and intellectual freedom in Brazil. Days ahead of the election, police and election authorities raided at least 17 universities, in what they said was an effort to stymie illegal election campaigning.
Brazilian law prohibits electoral promotion in public spaces. Yet, according to academics and students, authorities seized materials that had no relevance to the election, including pro-democracy and anti-fascist banners and fliers. Observers have warned that the raids appear to be a crackdown on democratic discourse as whole.
“In my opinion, this is censorship, and it smells like dictatorship,” says Eliane Alves, a Brazilian biologist at Germany’s Max Planck Institute who studies the relationship between the Amazon rainforest and the atmosphere.
Other indications as to Bolsonaro’s science policies have been minimal, but the ones we have seen are less than promising. Earlier this month, a general in charge of Bolsonaro’s science and education plans spoke in favor of teaching creationism, saying students don’t necessarily need to “agree with” Charles Darwin. A draft campaign document leaked earlier this month showed plans to double R&D investment, but with most of the funds focused on applied science like space and robotics instead of basic research.
Researchers in Brazil have already endured steep budget cuts recently, with federal funding for the Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovation, and Communication decreasing by over half since 2013.
Bolsonaro is certainly bad news for the environment. While he has said little explicitly to indicate what to expect from his science policies, his actions so far speak louder than words could. And his disregard for the environment reveals a fundamental disdain for scientific priorities.
But perhaps above all else, however, Bolsonaro seems to be following in the footsteps of the far-right demagogues that have gained traction worldwide in recent years. Science and research require an environment in which the free exchange of ideas can thrive. Autocrats like the ones Bolsonaro admires do not, historically, provide any such freedom. And early indications suggest Bolsonaro will be no different.