Brazilian elections and the environment: where top candidates stand

  • The Brazilian elections are just weeks away, scheduled for 7 October. The five leading candidates are Jair Bolsonaro, Marina Silva, Ciro Gomes, Geraldo Alckmin, and Fernando Haddad, though none appears to have sufficient voter backing to win on election-day. A runoff with the top two will occur on 28 October.
  • This story offers an overview of the environmental stance of the top five. Jair Bolsonaro, leader in the polls, would pull Brazil out of the Paris Climate Agreement, abolish the Ministry of the Environment, and open the Amazon and indigenous lands for economic exploitation.
  • Marina Silva, a former environmental minister, established policies that reduced Amazon deforestation. She would keep Brazil in the Paris Agreement and use it as a means of shifting the nation’s agribusiness sector to be more sustainable, competitive and equitable. Ciro Gomes supports hydroelectric dams and the Paris Agreement.
  • Geraldo Alckmin supports agribusiness over environmental. Little is known of Fernando Haddad’s environmental positions, though he’s a strong proponent of bicycling to reduce car use. As important for the environment: the bancada ruralista agribusiness lobby looks poised to grow stronger in congress in the coming election.
Candidate for the Presidency Geraldo Alckmin during commerce sector event in Brasília, August 2018. Image courtesy Valter Campanato / Agência Brasil.

Almost every Brazilian (91 percent) wants to get closer to nature, while 27 percent see deforestation, and 26 percent see water pollution, as the greatest threats to their nation’s environment, according to a WWF-Brazil survey conducted in June.

However, most of the leading presidential candidates seem to be out of step with those views ahead of the 7 October election. A look at the record, political platforms and stump speeches of Jair Bolsonaro, Marina Silva, Ciro Gomes, Geraldo Alckmin, and Fernando Haddad shows that, with the exception of Silva, the rest display little deep knowledge of, interest in, or are negatively inclined toward, the environment, and especially toward reducing deforestation and enforcing indigenous land rights.

In a country that can lay claim to the largest remaining intact rainforest in the world, only one of the top contenders, Marina Silva, is making significant room for environmental issues in the national debate. Jair Bolsonaro, first place in the polls and survivor of an assassination attempt this month, not only doesn’t mention deforestation in his platform but has declared that, if elected, he’ll follow Donald Trump’s lead in the U.S., and withdraw Brazil from the Paris Climate Agreement.

Of the five leading vice presidential candidates, Gome’s running mate (Kátia Abreu), and Alckmin’s running mate (Ana Amélia), belong to the bancada ruralista, Brazil’s agribusiness lobby which takes strongly anti-environmental positions.

Sonia Guajajara, coordinator of the Articulation of Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples (APIB), speaks at the Ministries Esplanade in Brasília. She is Brazil’s first ever indigenous vice presidential candidate. April 2015. Image courtesy of Waldemir Barreto / Agência Senado.

While not polling with the top five presidential candidates, Guilherme Boulos and running mate Sonia Guajajara, have a detailed environmental platform. Guajajara was born in the Araribóia Indigenous Preserve in Maranhão state, and is the first indigenous woman to run for the vice presidency. Boulos and Guajajara advocate zero deforestation, restoration of native forest, and the elimination of transgenic seeds and chemical pesticides in food production. Although polls show just 1 percent of voters standing with them, Guajajara’s role is significant, as she has given a political voice to the 305 indigenous peoples in the country. But it’s a milestone little noticed by many Brazilians.

As important as the presidential election is, the vote for congressional deputies is very important too, with the bancada ruralista agribusiness lobby likely to strengthen its position in the October election.

What follows is an evaluation of the environmental positions of the leading five presidential candidates, as gleaned from their records, past statements, platforms and political speeches. Voter polling statistics beside each candidate’s name and party come from a Datafolha survey published by the Folha de São Paulo newspaper Friday, 14 September.

House representative Jair Bolsonaro, November 2016. Image courtesy Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / Agência Brasil.

Jair Bolsonaro, PSL Party (26 percent)

Wherever he goes, Jair Bolsonaro is known for creating turbulence and for rash judgments. In a 1983 Brazilian Army document the then lieutenant was described unfavorably as to the “aggressive treatment given to his comrades,” and “as to the lack of logic and balance in presenting his arguments.” An example: during a conflict over military salaries Captain Bolsonaro was arrested, then, speaking off the record, said he planned to bomb the Vila Militar bathrooms, in Rio de Janeiro. He was charged, found guilty, then acquitted.

In 1988, he entered politics and is currently in his seventh term as a House deputy. In his first speech as a 2018 presidential candidate, Bolsonaro said that if elected, he would withdraw Brazil from the Paris Climate Agreement (he has labeled global warming as “greenhouse fables”). He would also extinguish the Ministry of the Environment (transferring its responsibilities to the Ministry of Agriculture), and open the Amazon and indigenous lands for economic exploitation.

Bolsonaro, an active Twitter user,  says that indigenous reserves should be opened for mining, and that indigenous people should be rewarded with royalties for the ore extracted from their reserves. “Here, our Indian has to live hidden on a piece of land, as if he were a thing of nature, as part of a zoo, as many [social and environmental] NGOs want this to be.” According to Bolsonaro, human rights groups in Brazil only defend bandits.

Jair Bolsonaro launches his candidacy for president, July 2018. Image courtesy Fernando Frazão / Agência Brasil.

In almost 30 years in Congress he has only seen two of his bills passed, though he has managed to offend women, gays and blacks. Last year, after visiting a quilombo (a community made up of the descendants of runaway slaves) in Eldorado, in São Paulo state, Bolsonaro said that “the lightest Afro-descendant [living] there weighed seven arrobas [a unit used to weigh cattle and swine]. They don’t do anything! I do not think that [they] even procreate anymore.” The candidate has been denounced in the Federal Supreme Court for racism.

Bolsonaro has been quite isolated in the House of Representatives throughout his time there, and has never been close to the bancada ruralista, although he generally votes for their policies. He, for example, voted with the ruralistas for the reduction and dismemberment of Jamanxim National Forest in the Amazon.

The ruralists, for their part, have found Bolsonaro’s words incendiary, and have at times distanced themselves from the candidate. He, for example, promised to distribute rifles to farmers with which they could defend themselves against occupations by the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST). House deputy and ruralist Domingos Sávio responded: “We do not want a person [as president] who brings more insecurity.”

Ciro Gomes, candidate for Presidency of the Republic, August 2018. Image courtesy José Cruz / Agência Brasil.

Ciro Gomes PDT Party (13 percent)

From the beginning of his political career as a state deputy in 1983, Ciro Gomes drew attention for his eloquent speeches on national issues, democracy and social reforms. As mayor of Fortaleza, the capital of Ceará, and as governor of that state, he obtained high approval ratings (75 percent excellent/good on average) for investing heavily in health, education and sanitation services, combating tax evasion and replacing politicians with young technicians in government posts.

As Minister for National Integration (2003-2006) in the Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva government (known to Brazilians simply as “Lula”), one of Gomes main tasks was to advance the São Francisco River irrigation project, which consisted in the diversion of its waters to irrigate crops and for human consumption in the increasingly drought-stricken Northeast region.

A staunch advocate of hydroelectric power, the candidate describes it as the cleanest and cheapest energy source on the planet. “It is no use having a technologically extraordinary energy [source], friendly to nature, [such as] solar, but that is inaccessible to the poor,” he said in a debate with Brazilian scientists last July.

Gomes said then that, in his view, there are two opposing camps: an “energy defender group” in favor of large-scale hydropower, and an environmental defender group that is against it, but who are “not held responsible for saying where the clean and affordable energy will come from. We need to have a national [energy] development project that converges these two values,” Gomes asserted.

Ciro Gomes officially launches his presidential candidacy, July 2018. Image courtesy Marcelo Camargo / Agência Brasil.

During the July talk, a scientist referred to the Belo Monte mega-dam on the Xingu River in the Amazon as an environmental catastrophe. Gomes agreed that “It is clear that [the dam] has changed [local] people’s lives… but to say that something has been harmed” is untrue.

He added, “The Balbina [hydroelectric dam] was a criminal environmental disaster, but not Belo Monte. I am not saying it is a good alternative, but it is the only one. We have to discuss other options [however, since] big hydroelectric dams are over in Brazil.”

A presidential candidate for the third time, Gomes has stated his commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement. However, he has chosen Kátia Abreu, former leader of the bancada ruralista agribusiness lobby in the Senate, as his running mate.

Presidential candidate Geraldo Alckmin, August 2018. Image courtesy José Cruz / Agência Brasil .

Geraldo Alckmin PSDB Party (9 percent)

Geraldo Alckmin’s environmental record is scant, except in regards to water management, or according to his critics, the mismanagement of its supply.

With nineteen years as vice governor (1995-2001), and governor (2001-2006, and 2011-April 2018) of São Paulo state, Alckmin should have had great familiarity with his region’s water needs, and with the urgent need to address deficiencies in its water systems – problems which became increasingly clear as population and water demand increased.

In 2003, the state’s Cantareira supply system, then responsible for providing more than 14 million people with water, was only operating at 3 percent capacity. In 2009, the Secretariat of the Environment issued a dire report that forecast the risk of a complete water system collapse in the state by 2015.

By 2014, São Paulo, the state’s capital, along with other urban areas, were confronting their biggest water crisis in history.

While the severity of droughts took much of the population by surprise, Alckmin’s government wasn’t caught totally unawares. In 2012, it had warned New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) investors about the expected negative economic consequences that extreme drought was likely to soon have on the finances of the São Paulo State Basic Sanitation Company (Sabesp). The main shareholder of Sabesp is the São Paulo government, but Sabesp shares have also been traded on the NYSE, New York Stock Exchange, since 2002.

Governor Geraldo Alckmin, January 2018. Image courtesy Rovena Rosa / Agência Brasil.

With water reserves at Cantareira at zero by February 2014, Alckmin took drastic action. He determined that Sabesp should extract the so-called “dead volume” of the system for public use — pumps would be employed to collect the remaining sediment-thick water in the system, lying below the normal collecting network. This required costlier treatment at public expense.

In the middle of the supply crisis, the State and Federal Public Ministries filed a civil action against Sabesp to prevent the use of the second half of the dead volume. District attorney Rodrigo Sanches Garcia strongly criticized the São Paulo government, which had denied any need to ration water during the drought and instead had allowed Sabesp to capture unauthorized dead water volume to avoid decreasing share value.

“Sabesp, in a joint decision with the management bodies, took high and inadmissible risks in the operation of the water-producing systems, extrapolating the dimensions of business management and exploiting the Cantareira System to the point of risk of exhaustion,” reads the public action.

2012 and 2013 were the golden years of Sabesp, with the highest net profits and dividend distribution of its history. Between 2004 and 2014, the profit reverted to shareholders was about R$ 4.3 billion (US$ 1.4 billion).

Rain returned to the region in 2016. But last July the Cantareira reservoir returned to a state of alert, with the water supply at 39.9 percent, and it continues to fall. Earlier this month it was at 36.4 percent.

Now in the presidential race, Alckmin selected Ana Amélia as running mate, a ruralista senator who strongly supports agribusiness. Alckmin is similarly aligned: he has proposed abolishing the Ministry of the Environment and defends PL 6.299/2002, dubbed the “Poison Bill,” which analysts say would lead to the deregulation of Brazil’s pesticide approval process, removing oversight by ANVISA (the regulatory body currently in charge of such approvals), and IBAMA, the federal environmental agency, from the pesticides registration process.

Last August, Alckmin stated: “It is not a Poison Bill, it is a Remedy Bill. Like animals get sick, plants also do, so one needs defensive agents to protect them. We need more modern defensives that have a better effect. [Passage of the bill will result in] less health and environmental problems and [the] protection of agriculture.”

Marina Silva in an interview for Empresa Brasil de Comunicação (EBC) as a candidate for the Presidency of the Republic, August 2018. Image courtesy Marcello Casal jr. / Agência Brasil.

Marina Silva REDE Party (8 percent)

Marina Silva is the only major presidential candidate with an extensive environmental record. When she took over Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment (a position she held under President Lula from 2003 to 2008), she went to work immediately to reduce Amazon deforestation. First off, she had to figure out how to do so cost effectively. Her plan to curb forest destruction, was estimated to cost R$ 400 million (about US$ 138 million), two thirds of the ministry’s total budget. Short on cash, she proposed integrating her agency’s deforestation reduction plan with other government departments.

In the end, “we only needed R$ 30 million of our budget (US$ 10.3 million), the rest came from 13 other ministries, including [the Ministry of] Agriculture,” explained the candidate at an August 2018 event at the Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock of Brazil (CNA). “The real-time satellite [forest] monitoring system [for instance] was already [in place] in the Ministry of Science and Technology; we only needed to use the same satellite base … and the logistics were provided by the Ministry of the Army.”

During her tenure, Amazon deforestation fell from 27,000 square kilometers (10,424 square miles) in 2004, to 18,000 square kilometers (6,949 square miles) in 2005, and then fell again to 14,000 square kilometers (5,405 square miles) in 2006, according to INPE.

Silva, a former rubber tapper, had humble beginnings. Born in 1958, she only became literate at age 16 when she moved to Rio Branco, capital of Acre state (rubber plantation owners didn’t allow schools until the 1970s). Later she majored in history and became an activist for the Amazon forest and for the rights of rubber tappers serving under renowned social movement leader Chico Mendes.

She was elected a councilwoman in 1988 and became a senator for Acre at age 35. While running the environmental ministry, she instituted a requirement for environmental licensing for hydroelectric projects and for oil block biddings. She also oversaw the creation of 62 Conservation Units, 31 of them in the Amazon.

However, businessmen and some in government, complained over the delays involved in granting permits for new infrastructure. Even President Lula publicly criticized Silva when a lack of licenses postponed the auction process for the Madeira River mega-dams.

Marina Silva campaigns in Nova Iguaçu during her 2010 presidential campaign. Image courtesy of Marina Silva – Flickr, CC BY.

In 2007, INPE detected an increase in deforestation, but Environmental Minister Silva blamed the prolonged drought and the spread of soybean and livestock production that came along with a rise in commodity prices. Reinhold Stephanes, then Minister of Agriculture, and Blairo Maggi, then governor of Mato Grosso and a prominent ruralist, disputed the deforestation numbers of the governmental institute, as well as President Lula.

Blaming diminishing government support for her environmental agenda, Silva resigned in May 2008. Now she is running for president for the third time. Her platform calls for “the alignment of public policies, especially [the] industrial, energy, agricultural, livestock , forestry… and infrastructure to the goals of the Paris [Climate] Agreement.”

She contends that, “the forest economy is the sector that can produce the most rapid and intense [climate change] mitigation results. The objective is to achieve zero deforestation in Brazil in the shortest possible time, with a limit date of 2030.”

At this year’s CNA event, Marina stated: “We managed to reduce deforestation by 80 percent for ten years [as] the economy grew. It is now difficult to explain how, [in] a shrinking economy, deforestation increases by more than 30 percent, especially on public lands.”

Faced with a less-than-friendly CNA audience of big ruralist agribusiness producers, the candidate expressed a desire for dialogue and compromise: “The gravity of the [economic] crisis is not greater, thanks [in due] to the contribution you have made to our economy.…  I reaffirm my conviction that Brazilian producers are ready to make a definitive transition from an extensive and low productive agriculture, to a competitive and sustainable one. ”

She also highlighted economic disparities between large landholders and small-scale farmers: “There is an enormous inequality [in rural land ownership], and access to technology is not available to all. The IBGE 2017 agricultural census shows that of the slightly more than five million [agricultural] producers [in Brazil], almost three million live in poverty, or in extreme poverty. To provide them support is an ethical imperative. ”

If Silva wins, she promises to disallow Brazilian presidents from running for a second term. She says, “I want to build a country in which politicians do not have that much power. Be suspicious when they do. It’s not the politicians, but the Constitution that holds the power.”

Fernando Haddad when Minister of Education. Image courtesy Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr.

Fernando Haddad PT Party (13 percent)

Former President Lula has held the highest of all presidential poll ratings throughout 2018. However, he is ineligible as a candidate because of corruption and money laundering convictions, and has been in prison for five months on charges that many Brazilians see as trumped up by the right wing. This month the courts again rejected his plea to be allowed to run.

On 11 September, Lula selected Fernando Haddad, his running mate, to replace him in the election, and asked his millions of supporters to vote for Haddad for president. As a result, Haddad saw a sudden surge in his polling last week, but how this request will shake out on 7 October is anyone’s guess.

Haddad, although he served as Minister of Education in the Lula and Dilma Rousseff governments, is not well known nationally. Graduated in law, with a master’s degree in economics, and a doctorate in philosophy, he was elected São Paulo mayor in 2013.

Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (right) with then mayor of São Paulo, Fernando Haddad, greeting people after a press conference at Novotel Jaraguá (SP). September 2016. Image courtesy Rovena Rosa / Agência Brasil.

At the time, the city had 12 million vehicles, and was known for its traffic congestion and air pollution. Haddad launched an initiative to increase bike lanes and to promote the use of bicycles by commuters. The policy was controversial and displeased citizens accustomed to using their cars. But by the end of Haddad’s term in 2016, a 400 kilometer (248 mile) bike lane network was built and in use by a growing legion of cyclists. Today the network has grown to 498 kilometers (309 miles).

With Haddad only stepping into Lula’s shoes this month, it is unknown where he stands on major issues, including the environment, deforestation and indigenous land rights.

The presidential election slated for Sunday, 7 October is likely to have no clear-cut majority winner with 50 percent of the vote, resulting in a 28 October runoff between the two leading candidates. Virtually no one is ready to predict the ultimate winner, but whoever it is, the future of the Amazon, and of Brazil, will be in her or his hands.

Brazilian National Congress. Image by Eurico Zimbres licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

Election likely to strengthen rurualistas

While the presidential election is important, so too is the congressional vote, with most analysts agreeing that the bancada ruralista is likely to gain greater dominance and power this October.

Ruralômetro reports that 248 congressional deputies who are running for re-election this year have introduced laws or voted for measures that have a negative impact on the socio-environmental sector. Of those 248 candidates, 138 (55 percent) officially count themselves as part of the bancada ruralista.

Similarly, Repórter Brasil reported last week that: “At least two-thirds, or 66.5 percent, of the federal House deputies who are candidates for re-election this year voted for, or introduced, bills that harm the environment, indigenous peoples, and rural workers.”

Presidential platforms (in Portuguese):

The Jair Bolsonaro political platform can be found here:

The Ciro Gomes political platform can be found here:

The Geraldo Alckmin political platform can be found here:

Plano de Governo

The Fernando Haddad political platform can be found here:

The Marina Silva political platform can be found here:

The Guilherme Boulos and Sonia Guajajara’s political platform can be found here:

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