Política Externa Brasileira Política Internacional

Presidential diplomacy reversed: how Bolsonaro’s attack on the environment is undermining Brazilian international power, by Larissa Basso

Since June, Brazil has been in the headlines for increased rates of deforestation and fires in the Amazon region and for President Bolsonaro’s reaction to domestic and international criticism. He claimed that National Institute of Spatial Research (INPE)´s data on Amazon deforestation was fake, then sacked the director who stood by it. He mentioned an ongoing “environmentalist psychosis”, “obsession with associating the environment to any issue”, and compared the Amazon forest to “a virgin that every foreign pervert lusts for”. He picked unnecessary fights with the donors of the Amazon Fund by claiming that Germany should employ resources to reforest its own territory and incorrectly accusing Norway of whaling. Later, he accused environmental NGOs of setting the Amazon on fire [1]. Although his behavior might appeal to a small (and decreasing) share of his constituency, it is not backed by the large majority (and increasing) of the Brazilian society and is undermining Brazil’s international power.

Let’s start with the facts. Although deforestation in the Amazon is no news, it is increasing in 2019 faster than in previous years. INPE’s data show that Amazon deforestation has been rising since 2012, year of the lowest rates of deforestation rates (4571km2) since 1988: 5,891km2 were deforested in 2013; 5012 km2 in 2014; 6,207km2 in 2015; 7,893km2 in 2016; 6,947km2 in 2017; 7,536km2 in 2018 (INPE, 2019). The numbers tend to be higher in 2019 because (i) INPE’s system that monitors deforestation in real-time (DETER) has been emitting more alerts of deforested areas in the first eight months of 2019 then in previous years and (ii) INPE’s consolidated annual rates of deforestation (PRODES system) have always confirmed the tendency showed by real-time alerts in previous years.

The rising rates in Amazon deforestation have both deep and immediate causes. The former cannot be blamed on Bolsonaro. There is a culture of illegal deforestation in the Amazon region, which emerged during the military governments (1964-1985).They considered the Amazon the last frontier for Brazilian economic growth, and securing national sovereignty over the territory was a priority. Any activity that modified the landscape, including clearing the forest and adding some cattle to graze, was enough to guarantee land ownership, creating a culture of illegal deforestation. Regulation has been improving, but some actors still uphold this culture and at times manage to get their interests through: in 2016, the federal government authorized the legalization of property titles of areas up to 2,500 hectares occupied between 2004 and 2011 (Provisional Measure 759/2016, later Law 13465/2017).

In addition, more legal deforestation was authorized since 2012, when the new Brazilian Forest Code was enacted (Law 12651/2012). During the negotiations of the law, a legal loophole in the obligation for Amazon landowners to keep forest coverage in 80% of their property was created. The new law requires them to keep the forest in only 50%, and not 80%, of their land if the property is located in a Brazilian state where 65% or more of the state territory is occupied by indigenous lands or public conservation units (art. 12, paragraph 5th of the law). Although the law requires the landowner to go through an administrative procedure to exercise this right, research has estimated that between 6.5 to 15.4 million hectares of forest became available for legal deforestation (Freitas et al, 2018).

These legal changes created a potential for deforestation that was ignited since Bolsonaro entered office due to his lack of priority for environmental issues. Clear signs of it can be seen, first, in administrative changes. Unsuccessful in merging the Ministry of the Environment with the Ministry of Agriculture due to strong opposition from Brazilian societal groups, Bolsonaro has nominated to key positions people that, totally or partially, align with the outdated view of nature as an obstacle to development and economic growth. Minister of the Environment Ricardo Salles is investigated for misconduct in environmental issues during his tenure as the head of the Department of the Environment of the State of São Paulo (see our post). The Brazilian Forest Service – removed from the Ministry of the Environment and placed it under the Ministry of Agriculture (Law 13844/2019, article 22, VI) – is now headed by Valdir Colatto, a member of the rural caucus who, in 2016, presented a project of law to decriminalize hunting, forbidden in Brazil since 1967 (Project of Law 6268/2016). Second, the administration has been reducing the budget for environmental law enforcement. While it is true that budgetary cuts are taking place for all sectors of the federal administration since January due to decreasing revenues, the measure weakens activities that are already underprovided in Brazil.

While several groups have been protesting the erosion of environmental protection in Brazil since Bolsonaro’s inauguration – manifestations of ex-Ministries of the Environment last May and again last 28 Aug are symbolic –, protests now reached a whole new level. It is so because President Bolsonaro made the strategic mistake of forgetting the position that the Amazon occupies in the Brazilian – and international – imaginary. In the 1990s, after Brazil became a democracy again and the environment rose in the international agenda, information about what was happening in the Amazon reached national and foreign audiences, tarnishing Brazilian international reputation and creating the first environmental movement of national reach (Hochstetler and Keck, 2007). Until it was substantially reduced after 2004, Amazon deforestation was the greatest Brazilian liability in foreign relations. Bolsonaro’s popularity has plummeted in a matter of weeks; politicians of his right-wing coalition have been distancing themselves from him regarding the Amazon situation; the agribusiness sector has started public relations missions to reduce the damage that could result to Brazilian exports.

Brazil has nothing to gain and all to lose from Bolsonaro’s environmental attack. The definitions of domestic and international matters have been blurred since technology has created a society connected globally and science has proven that our greatest challenges in this beginning of the 21st Century require cooperation to provide global public goods. Ignoring that the Amazon forest has a crucial role for precipitation patterns all over South America (Lovejoy and Nobre, 2018) and that it is among the ecosystems which disappearance will accelerate global warming (Steffen et al, 2018) aggravates even more the already dire predictions. On top of it, Brazil is more relevant in issues of planetary sustainability than in any other area of global governance (Viola and Franchini, 2018, p. 40), so playing against it reduces Brazilian international power. In fact, improving environmental protection in recent decades has contributed more than any other action to redeem Brazilian international image and upgrade the Brazilian status in the international system. Mr. President, as a defender of the Brazilian national interest, you should work to uphold it, not to destroy it.


[1] All quotes in the paragraph are free translations from phrases said by President Bolsonaro and printed in several media vehicles between 28 June and 02 August 2019. The other facts were reported also in different media vehicles, e.g.: BBC <https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/internacional-48809137>; Reuters <https://br.reuters.com/article/idBRKCN1U20NA-OBRTP>; UOL/Folha de São Paulo <https://noticias.uol.com.br/ultimas-noticias/afp/2019/08/01/bolsonaro-diz-que-dados-falsos-do-desmatamento-prejudicam-sua-imagem-e-do-brasil.htm>; DW Brasil <https://www.dw.com/pt-br/bolsonaro-se-engana-e-critica-noruega-com-v%C3%ADdeo-dinamarqu%C3%AAs/a-50074336>; O Estado de Sao Paulo <https://sustentabilidade.estadao.com.br/noticias/geral,bolsonaro-levanta-suspeita-sobre-ongs-por-queimadas-na-amazonia,70002976284>

[2] The Amazon Fund was created in 2008 (Federal Decree nr. 6527/2008) to receive donations to fight deforestation. Almost 1.3 billion dollars since 2008, 95% of it donated by Norway (Fundo Amazonia, 2019a), which were allocated in activities of legal compliance and monitoring of deforestation, as well as more than 100 initiatives of conservation or sustainable production by state governments, universities or civil society (Fundo Amazonia, 2019b). A collegiate body – composed of members from the federal administration, as well as from forest-based activities, social movements, NGOs, indigenous people, business sector, agriculture workforce and scientists – governs the Fund, and the resources are managed by the Brazilian National Development Bank (BNDES). The polemic around the Fund started because Bolsonaro administration was discussing reducing the number of representatives in the governing body, in order to speed up the decision-making process, and including compensations for expropriation of land in protected areas among the activities to be financed by the Fund. There is strong opposition to both proposals by donors, social movements and NGOs. The first proposal is opposed on the basis of the precedent created in changes made in CONAMA (the deliberative body, composed of representatives of the federal, state and municipal governments, business sector and civil society, that guide environmental policymaking in Brazil), which reduced the participation of states and civil society. Last May, Bolsonaro administration reduced CONAMA´s members from 96 to 23. While in the earlier configuration the federal administration had 31.25% of the votes, now it has 43.47%; representation of state governments was reduced from 28.12% to 21.73%, and civil society’s from 23% to 17.39% (our own calculations comparing Decree 9806/2019 and Decree 99274/1990). The second proposal is opposed on the grounds that by allowing resources to pay compensations for expropriation of land in protected areas deforestation could be encouraged.


  1. All quotes in the paragraph are free translations from phrases said by President Bolsonaro and printed in several media vehicles between 28 June and 02 August 2019. The other facts were reported also in different media vehicles, e.g.: BBC <https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/internacional-48809137>; Reuters <https://br.reuters.com/article/idBRKCN1U20NA-OBRTP>; UOL/Folha de São Paulo <https://noticias.uol.com.br/ultimas-noticias/afp/2019/08/01/bolsonaro-diz-que-dados-falsos-do-desmatamento-prejudicam-sua-imagem-e-do-brasil.htm>; DW Brasil <https://www.dw.com/pt-br/bolsonaro-se-engana-e-critica-noruega-com-v%C3%ADdeo-dinamarqu%C3%AAs/a-50074336>; O Estado de Sao Paulo <https://sustentabilidade.estadao.com.br/noticias/geral,bolsonaro-levanta-suspeita-sobre-ongs-por-queimadas-na-amazonia,70002976284>


FREITAS, Flavio L. M. et al (2018): Potential increase of legal deforestation in Brazilian Amazon after Forest Act revision. Nature Sustainability, v. 01, p. 665-670.

FUNDO AMAZONIA (2019a): Donations to the Fund, historical data. Available at <http://www.fundoamazonia.gov.br/pt/fundo-amazonia/doacoes/>, access 08 Jul 2019.

FUNDO AMAZONIA (2019b): General information and projects. Available at <http://www.fundoamazonia.gov.br/pt/home/>, access 08 Jul 2019.

HOCHSTETLER, Kathryn and Margaret Keck (2007): Greening Brazil – Environmental Activism in State and Society. Duke University Press.

INPE – Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (2019): Taxas anuais de desmatamento na Amazônia Legal. Available at <http://terrabrasilis.dpi.inpe.br/en/home-page/>, access 23 Aug 2019.

LOVEJOY, Thomas and Carlos Nobre (2018): Amazon tipping point. Science Advances, v. 04, n. 02, Feb 2018.

STEFFEN, Will et al (2018): Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene. PNAS, v. 115, n. 33, p .8252-8259.

VIOLA, Eduardo and Mathias Franchini (2018): Brazil and climate change beyond the Amazon. New York and London: Routledge.

About the author

Larissa Basso is a Brazilian lawyer, PhD in International Relations from University of Brasilia and Postdoctoral Fellow at Stockholm University.

How to cite this article

Cite this article as: Editoria, "Presidential diplomacy reversed: how Bolsonaro’s attack on the environment is undermining Brazilian international power, by Larissa Basso," in Revista Mundorama, 30/08/2019, https://mundorama.net/?p=25959.

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