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Ricardo Salles was elected federal deputy despite a track record of undermining environmental protections. Photo: Eduardo Knapp/Folhapress

The result of the first round of elections in Brazil poses an imminent risk to the preservation of the Amazon rainforest. With the new elected representatives in Congress and in state governments, there is only one certainty: whoever is the next president of the Republic, the country faces a war over the forest.

President Jair Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party (PL) became the largest in the House of Representatives by taking ninety-nine seats. Among the newly elected is the former Minister of the Environment, Ricardo Salles, who became a congressman for São Paulo, despite his history of offenses against environmental protection. The Liberal Party also came out on top in the Senate, winning 8 seats.

In the House of Representatives, the Amazon caucus — made up of politicians elected in the region — lost 13 deputies who had been regarded as somewhat green because they supported laws that benefited the environment, according to the Farol Verde platform. Among the exits was the first indigenous woman in the lower house, Joênia Wapichana (Rede-RR). Their places were taken by candidates aligned with the government. For example, the State of Amapá elected Silvia Nobre Lopes, who is a strong supporter of Bolsonaro’s project to exploit indigenous lands and protected areas. She was born in the village of the Wajãpi people, which she left when she was 14 years old. An actress, athlete and soldier, she introduces herself to the public as Silvia Wajãpi, although on the ballot she ditches the indigenous surname. Indigenous peoples do not recognize her as one of their representatives.

There are great risks facing the Amazon as the region becomes more pro-Bolsonaro, observes André Lima, who is a Politics and Legal consultant at the Democracy and Sustainability Institute. “We lost 13 green deputies in the Amazon region who were very good”, he laments. They have been replaced by members of congress aligned with the president. With the new configuration, we end up losing both in quantity, in other words, in the number of votes, as well as in quality – the bad votes will get worse.”

Marina Silva, who was elected federal deputy for São Paulo, brings to Congress the experience of someone who helped to reduce deforestation by 80%. Photo: publicity

However, some important pro-environment figures entered the House of Representatives, such as former Environment Minister Marina Silva, of the Sustainability Party, and the indigenous leader Sônia Guajajara, of the Socialism and Liberty Party. Both were elected federal representatives for São Paulo.

Marina, who was elected with 237,526 votes, brings to Congress the international respect and experience she gained as a minister who oversaw an 80% reduction in Amazon deforestation. Her background is in stark contrast to Ricardo Salles, who helped to dismantle environmental inspection bodies, undoing the work created by previous governments in tandem with civil society.

Salles received 640,918 votes, benefiting from the exposure he recently had as a minister, and from the government machinery of the Bolsonaro administration. His campaign received donations totaling 740,000 reais from four millionaire businessmen, including Marcelo Ometto and Antonio Eduardo Tonielo. Both of these donors have links to the sugarcane sector, which is a monoculture responsible for the degredation of nature.

Sônia Guajajara will also bring her international struggle to Congress, alongside another indigenous leader Célia Xakriabá, who was elected a federal representative for the Socialism and Liberty party for the State of Minas Gerais. Sonia received 156,966 votes, and Célia, 101,154.

“Very significant individuals, such as indigenous people, were elected, in addition to black congressmen and congresswomen linked to the struggle for rights. We are going to have a vigorous clash in the House of Representatives”, predicts Márcio Santilli, founding partner of the Socio-Environmental Institute.

But the future of the Amazon region will be decided by the choice of the country’s next president. “It’s one thing to have Lula as president, it’s another thing entirely with Bolsonaro,” he states. The former President and member of the PT (Workers’ Party) has already committed himself to the creation of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, and to the end of illegal gold-mining in the Amazon region. Lula has also signaled that he would give approval for the restructuring of supervisory bodies such as Funai, Ibama and ICMBio, which were scaled back in recent governments and almost destroyed during the Bolsonaro administration.

The big question if Lula is elected is how will a Workers’ Party president, negotiate with a congressional caucus that is hostile to environmental controls in the Amazon? The nine states that make up the Legal Amazon together have sixty-seven members in Congress, most of whom are closely aligned with the “ruralista” agribusiness lobby. One of them is Inspector Éder Mauro, a Liberal Party deputy from the State of Pará, a former police officer and a Bolsonaro supporter. In his 30-year police career, Éder was named in at least 101 complaints to the State of Pará’s Ombudsman including accusations of murder, torture and home invasions.

As a congressman, he stands out as an enemy of the environment, according to Ruralômetro, which is a tool created by the news portal Repórter Brasil that draws together analysis by 22 organizations. The idea is to assess whether a federal representative acts in a positive or negative way on a series of key issues, such as the environment, rural workers and indigenous rights. The platform serves as a political thermometer to measure the performance of congressman in the House of Representatives between 2019 and 2022.

Éder is an advocate of proposals to ease economic activities with an impact on indigenous lands, and to permit the possession of weapons anywhere on rural properties, rather than just at the ranch’s headquarters. This last bill became law in 2019. He is also a supporter of the so-called “Poison Bill” which would make it easier to register and sell pesticides, even those proven to be carcinogenic. The text for this bill has been approved by the House of Representatives and is now awaiting a vote in the Senate. SUMAÚMA tried to get in touch with the congressman, but he had not replied by the date of publication.

At least five states in the Amazon region will also have Bolsonaro supporters as governors. Four of them were reelected in the first round of the elections. In Rondônia, two candidates linked to the president are contesting the second round: Colonel Marcos Rocha (União Brasil party) and Marcos Rogério (Liberal Party). In the State of Acre, Gladson Cameli (Progressive Party) won a second term, having previously promised to make agribusiness the flagship of the state’s economy. In 2021, Acre surpassed 4 million head of cattle, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics. Four years earlier, it was 2.9 million. Data from MapBiomas reveals that in 2020, 84,925 hectares were deforested in the State of Acre. In the same year, the amount of land allocated to cattle and livestock breeding increased by 84,735 hectares – virtually the same amount.

In the State of Roraima, Antônio Denarium, of the pro-Bolsonaro Progressive Party, was reelected with 56.47% of the votes. An advocate of gold-mining, between 2021 and 2022, Denarium sanctioned laws in the state that were aimed at prohibiting the destruction of illegal mining machinery by inspectors and allowing the use of mercury – a highly toxic substance that can cause genetic alterations. Both of these steps were annulled by the Federal Supreme Court. Roraima includes the Yanomami Indigenous Land, which has experienced numerous cases of violence due to an invasion by many thousands of illegal gold-miners. Notwithstanding decisions by the courts, neither the federal government nor the state authorities have taken any action to remove the miners from the Yanomami territory. On October 2nd , two more indigenous people were the victims of violence associated with gold-mining, according to Dário Kopenawa.

Allies of Jair Bolsonaro also made significant gains in the so-called “Arc of Deforestation” – the frontier where predatory resource extraction enters and clears the forest. This is where he got his highest percentage of votes. His development project for the region helped to increase the funds raised for his campaign. According to the environmental journalism website oeco, President Jair Bolsonaro’s donors include roughly 180 environmental lawbreakers in the Legal Amazon. Information from Infoamazonia shows that he received 3,1 milhões de reais for his reelection campaign.

Some balance in the war against nature may also be achieved in the run-off of the presidential election. In the first-round, five of the nine Amazon states gave a majority to Lula. If he wins, his promised conservation policy – including the appointment of an indigenous minister for the defense agencies – could avoid the perfect storm that is brewing for the Amazon in the case of a possible second Bolsonaro mandate. That would be a disaster for the climate, for the forest and for future generations.

Translated by Mark Murray

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