Bolsonaro loses election but finds big support in Amazon Arc of Deforestation

Bolsonaro loses election but finds big support in Amazon Arc of Deforestation

  • In a close runoff, incumbent Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was defeated in his reelection bid against former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
  • Bolsonaro, however, won in eight of the 10 Brazilian municipalities with the biggest deforestation rates in the Amazon forest last year.
  • Bolsonaro won in the majority of the 256 municipalities in the Arc of Deforestation, which accounts for about 75% of the deforestation in the Amazon, as well as in Novo Progresso, in Pará, where ranchers, loggers and land-grabbers orchestrated a significant burning of deforested areas in 2019.
  • Historical, economic, social and religious elements explain the preference for Bolsonaro in a swath of Brazilian territory where people have been encouraged to cut the forest down.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was elected president of Brazil on Oct. 30 in a close runoff with incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro. But voters of eight out of the 10 most deforested Brazilian municipalities in the Amazon in 2021 chose Bolsonaro.

The survey was done by the Climate Observatory, a network of Brazilian civil society organizations advocating for climate action. The nonprofit crossed official deforestation figures from INPE, Brazil’s space agency, with poll results from the Superior Electoral Court. According to the report, Bolsonaro’s performance in most of these places was even better than in 2018, when he was elected, showing that the disastrous environmental policy of the current government is not seen as a problem by much of the electorate in areas plagued by illegal exploitation of Amazon territory.

One of the leading municipalities for deforestation is Novo Progresso, in southern Pará, where Bolsonaro received 82.92% of the votes in the Oct. 30 runoff. Lula got 17.08%. The locality was the epicenter of what became known worldwide as the “day of the fire,” a coordinated action by ranchers, loggers and land-grabbers to clear illegally deforested land — which resulted in record-breaking wildfires in August 2019.

In neighboring Itaituba, also in southern Pará, Bolsonaro had 62.45% of the votes in the second round. This municipality has concentrated illegal gold mining operations. In August, Mongabay showed that coordinated raids on mining company Gana Gold have revealed how gold mined illegally in Indigenous territories and other protected areas near Itaituba makes its way into the legitimate trade.

The massive support for Bolsonaro on the edges of the Amazon is even more evident in the general voting map. The president won the first round against Lula in the vast majority of the 256 municipalities of the “Arc of Deforestation” — a region on the eastern and southern edges of the Amazon rainforest that has topped the forest loss rates in the last decades. Placed on the margins of the Belém-Brasília and Cuiabá-Porto Velho highways, these 256 municipalities are responsible for around 75% of deforestation in the Amazon.

Map shows major support for Bolsonaro in the municipalities in the Arc of Deforestation in the first round of the presidential election in Brazil.

No Surprises

Experts don’t see the result as surprising since a large part of the population in this part of the territory doesn’t consider deforestation to be illegal. “Land invaders, loggers, ranchers and gold miners want a full license to occupy the Amazon territory. And Bolsonaro is not against that,” Beto Veríssimo, researcher and co-founder of the Brazilian conservation nonprofit Imazon, told Mongabay by phone. Voters from those municipalities benefit from politicians who promise not to fight illegal activities, according to Veríssimo.

In the past four years, Bolsonaro has proudly declared several times that he has dismantled environmental enforcement in the Amazon. A Folha de S.Paulo newspaper report showed that candidates elected Oct. 2 in Brazil totaled almost 24 million reais ($4.6 million) in environmental fines, according to official data, with a concentration of names precisely in the Arc of Deforestation.

While in office, Bolsonaro did not demarcate new Indigenous territories, openly stimulated mining activities, criticized the destruction of machinery used by criminals (as laid down by law) and allowed a strengthening of the ecosystem’s illegalities. His administration also froze international funding to fight deforestation and promote sustainable development in the region and critiqued scientific data on deforestation, among other actions that resulted in tragic numbers.

According to experts, Bolsonaro’s policy subverts the protective role of the federal government for the environment, as designed by the Brazilian constitution. Veríssimo said that Amazon’s future depends on presidential leadership since the federal government owns most of the land in the region, concentrates instruments to implement a development plan without degradation, and has the power of inspection and police.

“It turns out that the current government has not used any of this. There was a green light to deforest,” Veríssimo said.

A deforested area for pasture meets a forest reserve near the Arc of Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, in the state of Mato Grosso. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Bolsonarist Arc

Historical, economic, social and even religious elements explain the massive voting for Bolsonaro in the Arc of Deforestation. These municipalities were created in the 1970s when settlers went to the Amazon as part of a federal occupation policy of the military dictatorship, which ran from 1964 to 1985. The generals had a motto for the Amazon: “integrate to not surrender.”

The population came from other parts of Brazil, especially from the agricultural states of the southern region, and was encouraged by the military dictatorship to cut down the forest to open up areas for farming and ranching. “A large part of this population is made up of people who don’t have a connection with the forest, with the rivers and with the culture of the Amazon region,” Carlos Augusto da Silva Souza, a political scientist at the Federal University of Pará (UFPA), told Mongabay by phone.

Rondônia is the best example of this culture, according to João Paulo Viana, professor of political science at the Federal University of Rondônia. Created in the final years of the dictatorship, the state was always influenced by the military because of its border with Bolivia and was occupied by settlers who followed the instructions from the generals. They cut down the forest and opened up farmland. In the last few years, the growth of evangelical churches has made the place even more favorable to the political project led by Bolsonaro. This melting pot of values resulted in an ultraconservative state that sees forest conservation as an enemy of economic development.

“Rondônia is the most ‘bolsonarist’ state in Brazil,” Viana told Mongabay by phone. “Bolsonaro won in all 52 municipalities in 2022 and had already won in all 52 of these municipalities in the first and second rounds of 2018. We have an explosive combination here.”

When Rondônia became a state in the early 1980s, 2% of its territory had been deforested. Today, almost 30% of the local forests have been cut down. During this period, with agriculture and cattle ranching as one of its main engines, the annual GDP reached R$47 billion ($9 billion) in 2019, six times the amount recorded a decade earlier — indicating a direct link between deforestation and economic growth.

Forest fire in the Jaci-Paraná Extractive Reserve.
Forest fire consumes a large area of the Jaci-Paraná Extractive Reserve near Porto Velho, capital of Rondônia state, at one end of the Arc of Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo by Christian Braga/Greenpeace.

According to Viana, local politics is dominated by landowners who openly support the deforestation of new areas for farming and ranching. Recently, these politicians have acted to reduce environmental conservation areas, forbid the seizure and destruction of machinery from illegal activities and legalize mining in the Madeira River.

The governor of Rondônia, Marcos Rocha, is a Bolsonaro supporter and was reelected after a runoff against another supporter of the Brazilian president. Governors linked to bolsonarism also won the race in four other states in the Legal Amazon: Amazonas, Acre, Roraima and Mato Grosso.

The dismantling of federal protection promoted by Bolsonaro opened the way for actions by local groups linked to illegalities in the Arc of Deforestation, according to UFPA’s Souza. “The context of the occupation of this forest edge area gave rise to a local elite with no appreciation for the environmental agenda. Powerful groups influence politics,” he said.

From boom to bust

The municipalities on the Arc of Deforestation are plagued by a failed development model, according to a recent Imazon study. The report showed deforestation does not improve the population’s living conditions in 772 municipalities of the Legal Amazon, a legally defined region that covers the nine Brazilian states that fall within the Amazon Basin. Deforestation is related to low development, poverty and poor living conditions, according to Imazon. In short: more deforestation, more poverty.

But, for a short time, the initial stages of deforestation create wealth for some people. Researcher Veríssimo calls this harmful logic of occupation of forest areas “boom-bust.” After a brief boom comes an economic bust as natural resources are exhausted. The model is tragic for the environment because, after the collapse, people migrate to new forest areas. The repeated pattern can help explain the support for Bolsonaro, experts say. Locals need to deforest new areas to keep gains high as old lands lead to bust.

According to experts, one of the leading regions of deforestation in the Amazon, São Félix do Xingu, in the state of Pará, is in the final stretch of the boom-bust. Owner of the largest Brazilian cattle herd and a source of mineral wealth, the municipality’s advance into the forest didn’t result in sustainable development. Today, São Félix do Xingu’s social index development numbers are below Amazon’s average. Bolsonaro also won there, with 66.58% of the votes in the second round.

“Those responsible for the illegal activity invade public land and remove the wood with commercial value,” Veríssimo said. “Then they deforest, install a low-productivity cattle ranching activity and wait for this land to be amnestied. Then they sell the land and complete a cycle of illegal exploitation. It’s good business for the exploiters but terrible for Brazil.”

“The notion of development in this area is very archaic,” Viana said.

Aerial photo of gold mining.
Gold mining in Rondônia. Almost 30% of the local forests have been cut down in Rondônia since it became a state in the 1980s. Image © Fabio Nascimento for Mongabay.

Change in this economic cycle depends on the leadership of the federal government, political scientist Souza said. “We need to establish political coalitions to propose a new model with sustainable development,” he said. “But this depends on the federal government. It is essential to bet on a solid environmental plan, but now it is also necessary to rebuild what was destroyed. Combat illegal mining, deforestation, and the invasion of Indigenous lands.”

Veríssimo said the administration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-10) got good results in reducing deforestation, but Lula’s policy lacked an economic development plan to break the boom-bust cycle.

Development proposals for the Arc of Deforestation were presented in the report The Amazon Paradox, authored by Veríssimo, part of the Amazon 2030 project — an initiative by researchers to create a sustainable development plan for the Brazilian Amazon. According to the study, some of the Amazon’s major problems — in particular, deforestation — are also opportunities to build a new occupation model restoring deforested territories.

“The people brought to the Amazon in other periods were not born to deforest. They are looking for opportunities. If there are opportunities that do not involve illegal activities, they return to the possibility of the right side of making money. You need orientation to get out of the boom-collapse,” Veríssimo said.

Banner image: President Jair Bolsonaro votes in a school in Vila Militar, Rio de Janeiro, in the first round of the 2022 presidential election. Photo by Tomaz Silva/Agência Brasil.

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