Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

Bolsonaro’s Attacks on Brazilian Environmental Agencies: When “Money Talks” May Have the Last Word

Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, University of Brasília

Brazil’s environmental protection going downhill has been recently highlighted by major newspapers. The Economist, on its first cover of August, featured the following headline: “Deathwatch for the Amazon: The Threat of Runaway Deforestation”. The New York Times, just a few days before, published the report “Under Brazil’s Far-Right Leader, Amazon Protections Slashed and Forests Fall”. The French Le Monde followed suit right afterwards: “Deforestation record in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro’s dangerous game.” And, more directly, The Guardian published an editorial at that same week claiming that “Europe must act to prevent disaster.”. The international media made visible the outcome of a series of governmental attacks on longstanding and rather successful environmental policies in the Amazon’s huge territory. Under President Jair Bolsonaro’s government, an explicit dismantling of Brazil’s mechanisms and institutions of environmental protection is taking place, particularly the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), a well-known and respected governmental agency for monitoring the Amazon region, and the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), the anti-deforestation agency for combating in place any threats to the Amazon forest. Yet, such a movement is visibly reckless in face of the strategic position that Brazil holds as one of the world’s greatest agribusiness powers, and especially in view of the recently signed EU-MERCOSUR trade agreement, which sets out a number of obligations on environmental protection and is still in need of approval by the parliaments of MERCOSUR countries (Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay) and Europe. Is there, in such a move, any political strategy? And what are the possible consequences of such a strategy?

Bolsonaro’s behavior is intriguing in light of what is at stake. On the one hand, it looks like the typical populist behavior of scorning scientific data that contradicts political rhetoric, and, particularly in this case, the data are bad: one of the instruments INPE adopts to monitor daily deforestation as a means to help IBAMA’s local inspections, the so-called DETER, pointed out that the deforested area is 40.5% bigger from August 2018-July 2019 than the average of the three previous years. Another data indicates an increase of 83% of burnings of the rainforest between January and August 19, 2019, in comparison to the same period of 2018.

 Environmental protection has not only been attacked by President Jair Bolsonaro as a bothersome hindrance to development, but is also being used to defend the so-called “globalism,” a baseless concept that has gained strength among populists worldwide. The rhetoric also speaks volumes about such behavior. In a response to German Prime Minister Angela Merkel, who decided to withhold $39 million in funds aimed at conservation projects in Brazil, Bolsonaro said: “no need… They can use this money as they see fit. Brazil doesn’t need it”. He went even further by arguing that German’s “industry continues to be fossil, largely coal, and [Brazil’s] no, so they have a lot to learn from [Brazil]”. Norway followed suit. As the biggest donor of the so-called Amazon Fund, it halted about $33 million in payments since Brazil is not complying with the Amazon forest agreement. Bolsonaro was also very aggressive in his response: “”Isn’t Norway the one that kills whales up there in the North Pole? That also does oil exploration there?”. Not satisfied, he even published a fake video on Twitter showing a slaughter of whales in the Faroe Islands in Denmark, as if it were in Norway.

More recently, the situation reached such a serious point that the French President Emmanuel Macron posted on Twitter: “Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rain forest – the lungs which produces 20% of our planet’s oxygen – is on fire. It is an international crisis. Members of the G7 Summit, let’s discuss this emergency first order in two days!”. Bolsonaro rapidly reacted on Twitter, saying that “Macron seeks to take advantage of what is a domestic Brazilian issue and of other Amazonian countries for personal political gain.” His son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, did not mince his words on Twitter: “Macron is in idiot.”

On the other hand, his government has claimed to support free trade and is aimed at taking down the historical barriers of protectionism that have featured in the Brazilian economy. The EU-MERCOSUR trade agreement, which has been negotiated for over twenty years, came out apparently as a prize in his first year in office, and he has boasted about it as a sole achievement of his government. However, besides his rhetorically aggressive attacks on European countries, he has shown little support for the agreement. This was especially apparent after he cancelled a meeting with the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to get a haircut, instead. To make things worse, two days later, he met the US Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, when Bolsonaro commented thereafter that the EU-MERCOSUR trade agreement has some “pitfalls”. Such a statement not only looks unwise in view of the Brazilian interests in Europe, but also explicitly short-signed as it exacerbates a false choice between Europe and the United States – an in which Bolsonaro has already made clear his own preferences. Rubens Ricupero, who worked as the Brazilian Ambassador in Washington and as the Minister of Environment, correctly commented: “Bolsonaro is digging his own grave this way by cultivating gratuitous international antipathy and attacking Brazil’s interests which depend on the goodwill of France and Germany.”

The question beneath such volatile behavior is whether one could call it a political strategy; this is the same question one could replicate for other cases of populist governments elsewhere. This game of praising and then criticizing or vice-versa may have some strategic logic, however controversial and Machiavellian it sounds, if you are player who has some effective leverage in the negotiation, but it seems highly ill-advised if you are, instead, the player who has more to lose than the opposing party and especially in areas of international diplomatic affairs. Politically, it might work to divert the masses of a government’s supporters, who see in such aggressive statements a sign of “honesty” and “simplicity” which connects them more directly with the president. Rosana Pinheiro-Machado, a professor of social sciences and a columnist for The Intercept Brasil, drew a very interesting comparison between Bolsonaro and Trump and concluded: “The strategy, as such adopted by Bolsonaro at least since 2010 (much before he started to mimic Trump) is simple: you say any outrage on media – what no one dares to say. All the press will turn to you and you will earn a place in people’s memory, especially because this will echo the resentment of those who kept their prejudices in the closet.” However, economically, this strategy might prove disastrous, and what seemed a successful political strategy may become a shot in the foot when the consequences come due.

Institutions are the prime target of populists with such an authoritarian mindset and background as Bolsonaro’s. Just this month, besides those environmental agencies, Bolsonaro has taken further steps to subvert the selection of the next Brazilian Attorney-General, as he implied he will not select one of the three-name list of most voted candidates among federal prosecutors proposed by the National Association of Prosecutors, a tradition that began in 2003 in order to foster independence from politics. He is also making changes in the Council for Financial Activities Control (COAF), an intelligence body responsible for identifying potential irregular financial transactions and which had identified suspicious deposits involving Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, Jair Bolsonaro’s eldest son. More seriously, such changes come in the sequence of an injunction issued by the Brazilian Supreme Court’s Chief Justice Dias Toffoli, which halted most of the country’s laundering investigations until the Court, in a plenary session, decides whether such investigations violate banking secrecy as a derivation of the protection to privacy and secrecy of correspondence as set out in the constitutional text (Art. 5, X, XII). More recently, Bolsonaro fired the deputy of the Internal Revenue Service, and, right thereafter, removed the Chief of the Federal Police in Rio de Janeiro, his electoral state and where some investigations involving his family are underway, in total disregard of the tradition of such decisions being made internally and without direct interference of the government. He has also challenged the professionalism of Brazilian diplomats by saying that he will appoint his son, Eduardo Bosonaro, a Representative from São Paulo, as the future Brazilian ambassador to the United States despite his total lack of qualifications and visible nepotism.

Such moves are not unexpected. They follow the profile of an authoritarian populist facing some institutional constraints to his political project. Brazilian democracy is young, but it has since evolved institutionally and checks and balances, even though still fragile, exist and play an important role in preserving democracy. Bolsonaro’s way of attacking those institutions aimed at protecting the environment, combating corruption, and representing Brazil abroad, let alone the press – which has been mostly critical of such moves – is appalling and worrisome. Yet, since those attacks are so explicit, which is the paradoxical nature of this way of doing politics, they also become an easy target for backlash. Folha de S. Paulo, a major newspaper, just published that “members of the Brazilian Supreme Court and the heads of the Attorney-General office remind us that the prosecutors’ level of autonomy is huge and that Bolsonaro may be doing a wrong calculation by imagining that, by appointing someone of his family’s strict confidence, he will be able to control the entity as a whole.” There are also strong reactions in the Federal Police and Internal Revenue Service. The Advisory Board of the Senate recently found that Eduardo Bolsonaro’s appointment to the Brazilian embassy in Washington constitutes nepotism, and is thereby against a Supreme Court precedent forbidding such a practice, which may make his confirmation by the Senate even more difficult. Congress and the Supreme Court have already offered resistance to some of Bolsonaro’s measures.

Still, Bolsonaro’s strongest enemy might not come from those institutional reactions, even though they certainly play a part. Indeed, Bolsonaro’s popularity has shrunken to approximately one third of the electorate, which, if elections happened today, would be enough to lead him to a run-off, but maybe not to reelection. There is increasingly a perception that Bolsonaro’s volatile and aggressive behavior might be affecting the economy despite some liberal policies that helped him get the support of the market. Miriam Leitão, in her column for O Globo, a major newspaper, argued that “the risk of Brazil is to endure a perfect storm. On the one hand, the international crisis drives foreign capital away from the country and the fear of a global recession haunts the world. On the other, the reckless environmental policy is creating risks… Yesterday, the German press asked for what has been already said among European consumers: the boycott of Brazilian products.” The same journal, in its editorial, had the following headline: “Bolsonaro upsets agrobusiness.” The support of the financial market is also plummeting heavily. “Institutions matter”, said Douglass North as the motto of his institutional economics, but it is perhaps “money talks” that will have the last word in this game.

Suggested citation: Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, Bolsonaro’s Attacks on Brazilian Environmental Agencies: When “Money Talks” May be the Last Word, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Aug. 28, 2019, at:


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