The Amazon Rainforest: a lush jungle that more closely resembles a single, living, breathing organism rather than a collection of individual greenery. Perhaps the center-right leaders of the West have missed the forest for the trees; or rather, Brazil for its populist threat. Democratic erosion typically studies the degradation of the institutions and protections of democracy that lead to authoritarianism. However, in this blog post, I’d like to examine a different angle of the dangers of a populist figure. Why? Because democratic environmental erosion is a much harder mistake to undo. Furthermore, authoritarianism is negatively correlated with environmental concern, potentially creating a negative feedback loop of political and natural decay. Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s 38th president, was elected to the office in the 2018 election cycle. Comparisons to Trump were quickly made due to a populist campaign and similar right-wing political positions. The ripple effect of Bolsonaro’s presidency is not just a warning sign for democracy in Brazil or Latin America, but an existential threat to the environment. A dangerous precedent for environmental deregulation has been established in Brazil. Should this trend spread to other developing nations in the Global South, climate change and pollution of the air and oceans could be rapidly accelerated with disastrous consequences. Bolosnaro’s campaign and election fell on the heels of the Brazilian 2014 economic crisis, caused by falling raw material export prices and a scandal involving the then-president Dilma Rousseff, eventually culminating in her impeachment. Brazil was on the verge of a full – but shaky – recovery when Bolsonaro was sworn in. In this way, his campaign and early presidency earns the comparison to Trump’s in 2016. Both voter bases – mostly composed of males above the age of 34 and ranging from the middle to upper classes – were incensed by actions of previous national leadership and supported a right-wing candidate marred in controversy whose radical epithets matched their anger towards the “establishment”. Bolsonaro apparently encouraged these comparisons, as he cites Trump as an influence on his politic, and his supporters likely shared the sentiment. Early popular support gave way to souring opinions, however, when the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic took their toll on the Portuguese-speaking nation. Bolsonaro, in an attempt to steer the national economy upwards, refused to implement harsh measures to slow the spread of the virus. As a result, Brazil was one of the most heavily-infected countries during the peak of the pandemic, perhaps having the opposite of the intended effect and further delaying economic recovery. However, The Brazilian President’s response to the pandemic is not the aforementioned existential threat his administration projects.
Rather, the elephant in the room (or jungle, I suppose), is the Bolsonaro administration’s actions in the Amazon Rainforest. Two issues stand out in particular: ending protections for minority native populations, and deregulation allowing mass deforestation. Indeed, a large chunk of the Amazon Rainforest is located in Brazil, so the theoretical will of the people of Brazil in regard to important jungle is being executed within its own sovereign borders by Bolsonaro. However, these actions have far-reaching consequences that affect the entire world, not just Brazil. Whether this threat qualifies as a large enough crisis to justify international intervention is a debate best left for the U.N., but its consequences are not made insignificant by nationalist posturing from those on the economic right. The hard facts show a positive link between Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere and rising global temperatures. This environmental degradation will likely affect those peoples close to the equator first, causing a climate-refugee scenario. Regardless of the global situation, Brazilians will be among those first affected, meaning this is an issue all people should take a vested interest in, regardless of nationality or political position.
The other issue in the Amazon is the plight of the Native South Americans losing protection from the non-profits. These indiginious people, who have lived in the Amazon Rainforest for centuries, will have their fate decided by the Brazilian Agriculture Ministry, headed by an agribusiness capitalist whose track record shows an antagonistic attitude towards Native rights. Without these protections, some activists worry that indiginous peoples in Brazil will be forcefully culturally assimilated. Additionally, under Bolsonaro’s watch, mining and farming groups have crossed into indiginous land to conduct their business, in many cases without seeking official permission.. This directly goes against a campaign promise to protect indiginous land.
The double-edged environment-degrading sword Bolsonaro and his platform wields is a worrying development that cannot be repeated in other parts of the world. Although higher levels of pollution is a known trend in developing nations, the long-term effects of these short-term choices in Brazil will echo for generations, if not centuries. The Amazon is (or was) one of the Earth’s greatest CO2 absorbers. Without the green lungs of the lush rainforest, anthropogenic climate change will certainly be accelerated. Any “outside-in” solution would be hard to implement from the international community, especially with a right-wing populist at the top of the food chain in Brazil. Instead, awareness for people internationally must be pursued, and social pressure put on the citizens of Brazil to vote for environmentally conscious politicians, preferably those that also happen to not be proto-authoritarians.
Hi Kevin, I really enjoyed reading your post and the way you proposed the idea of democratic environmental erosion. When we think of democratic erosion, most of us picture mismanagement/abuse of civil and financial resources, while environmental mismanagement is often mistakenly forgotten.
I’m interested in how we can connect democratic erosion with failures to follow through on campaign promises. In our class at Brown, this relationship isn’t something we’ve discussed, but I found your example of Bolsonaro’s failure to follow through on his campaign promise to protect indigenous land very compelling.
Finally, you mentioned Trump twice in this article, which inspired me to think of democratic erosion on an international scale. I’m curious about how democratic erosion in one nation can “inspire” democratic erosion in another. I’m reminded of how authoritarian or hybrid regimes deliberately use mechanisms to bolster international legitimacy in an effort to divert attention from antidemocratic practices. I wonder what implications the “Trump effect” has for the relationship between international legitimacy and democratic erosion, and how it might change the very meaning and value of international legitimacy altogether.