Bolsonaro Wants to Plunder the Amazon. Don’t Let Him.

March 13th, 2019 - by Leilla Salazar-Lopez

Leilla Salazar-Lopez / The New York Times

(January 29, 2019) — The rise of President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil has put the environment and human rights in peril. His promises to open the Amazon for business could result in huge deforestation and the release of vast greenhouse-gas emissions. His threats to slash fundamental environmental and indigenous rights standards that help keep the Amazon standing are a threat to climate stability.

Mr. Bolsonaro, however, wouldn’t be the only one to blame for devastating the Amazon. Companies that accept his invitation to reap profit from Amazon destruction, and the financial institutions that provide the capital, will also bear great responsibility. And those poised to benefit from Mr. Bolsonaro’s reckless policies include American companies and financial institutions.

Two of the largest publicly traded agribusiness firms operating in the Brazilian Amazon – Archer Daniels Midland and Bunge – are American-based companies. Agribusiness, in particular soy and beef production, is a leading driver of forest loss and human-rights abuses in the Brazilian Amazon, and A.D.M. and Bunge are two of the largest soy traders in Brazil. As producers seek more and more land for growing crops and grazing cattle, they push ever deeper into the Amazon. According to a report published in 2014, an estimated 90 percent of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is due to agribusiness activities.

Where would these powerful agribusiness companies get the capital they need to bulldoze deeper into the Amazon, if they should take Mr. Bolsonaro up on his offer to eliminate environmental protections?

In no small part from American-based asset managers BlackRock, State Street and Vanguard, which are shareholders in all five of the largest publicly traded agribusiness companies operating in the Brazilian Amazon. As a group of researchers recently demonstrated, the “Big Three” asset managers hold 15 percent to 20 percent of all of A.D.M. and Bunge’s available shares (finance researchers call ownership above 5 percent of all shares “blockholding” and generally assume it to imply significant influence).

This means they have the potential to exert pressure on the very companies that could either moderate or enable Mr. Bolsonaro’s threats to the future of the Amazon – and the climate. Many Americans, in turn, have a direct relationship with those asset managers, since those firms manage many pension funds and retirement accounts.

Of course, Mr. Bolsonaro’s agribusiness-friendly agenda should not be seen in isolation. Previous Brazilian administrations also worked to undermine environmental and human-rights protections to benefit the industrial exploitation of the Amazon. It required the concerted efforts of Brazilian indigenous and social groups and their global allies to force governments and corporations operating in the Amazon to curb deforestation, which until recently had been relatively contained.

Long before Mr. Bolsonaro’s rise, numerous agribusiness companies made commitments to end Amazon deforestation from their supply chains. Both Bunge and A.D.M., for example, have committed to eliminate deforestation in their supply chains, although they haven’t always lived up to those promises.

In May 2018 Bunge was fined for activities related to illegal deforestation, and some deforestation-watchers have criticized its subsequent policy update as inadequate.

BlackRock, for its part, has supported the Paris Climate Accord and its chief executive, Larry Fink, has been called the “conscience of Wall Street” for his exhortations to companies to “benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers and the communities in which they operate.”

Yet Mr. Fink’s most recent letter to investors, published this month, makes no direct mention of climate change, and BlackRock’s statement after Brazil’s election in October appears to celebrate Mr. Bolsonaro’s win, lauding his commitment “to building on the reform agenda put in place over the past two years.”

Though the role of asset managers might seem far removed from the felling of trees in the Amazon rain forest, the world’s largest asset managers could play a pivotal role in safeguarding the global climate by way of their investments in companies operating in biomes crucial to climate stability like the Amazon rain forest. The world could have less than twelve years to turn this sinking climate ship around, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report makes clear.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s rise to power will test companies’ promises to be responsible. Will leading global agribusiness companies be complicit in Mr. Bolsonaro’s assault on the Amazon and its people, thus sacrificing their commitments, their reputation and our climate? And will financial institutions like BlackRock heed their own calls for companies to pursue purpose and not just profit? Or will they put short-term profits ahead of the planet’s future?

If these influential companies don’t take a clear and principled stand against Mr. Bolsonaro’s promises to open the Amazon for business, they will also bear responsibility for abetting his plunder of the world’s largest tropical rain forest.

As President Bolsonaro Takes Power, Brazil’s Indigenous Movement Prepares to Resist 

Christian Poirier / Amazon Watch

(January 1, 2019) — Since Tuesday’s inauguration, President Bolsonaro has unleashed a frontal assault on human rights that foreshadows the adversity Brazil’s minority groups and their advocates will face in times to come.

Bolsonaro opened his tenure by issuing an executive order stripping the mandate of indigenous agency FUNAI to title native territories and transferring it to the Agriculture Ministry. This brazen move, tailored to serve ultra-conservative factions within Brazil’s agribusiness sector, aims to definitively paralyze indigenous land demarcations and initiate a process through which industrial agriculture and extractive industry gain access to indigenous territories.

Meanwhile, Bolsonaro’s order granted his government the power to spy on and intimidate Brazilian and international organizations working to defend human rights and environmental protections in the country, claiming that NGOs are responsible for manipulating and exploiting indigenous and traditional peoples. These rollbacks send a chilling signal of the threats facing Brazil’s embattled social movements and the irreplaceable ecosystems they defend.

Lawyers at the Articulation of Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples (APIB) swiftly reacted to Bolsonaro’s unconstitutional order by filing a lawsuit with the Attorney General calling for FUNAI to have its mandate reinstated. This legal challenge and others targeting the government’s efforts to quash activism will likely end up before Brazil’s Supreme Court. However, damage inflicted before the country’s judiciary places needed checks on the Bolsonaro regime could be profound.

Today’s inauguration of right-wing zealot Jair Bolsonaro to Brazil’s presidency ushers in a dangerous era for human rights, environmental safeguards, and the rule of law in the world’s fourth-largest democracy. This is particularly true in the Amazon rainforest, where his government aims to unleash an assault on socio-environmental protections that is unprecedented since the restoration of Brazilian democracy, with dire consequences for the future of this critical region, its stewards, and global climate stability.

The anxious days following Bolsonaro’s election to the country’s highest office have already produced a string of incidents that illustrate the storm he and his incoming administration plan to unleash on the Amazon and its peoples. Yet Bolsonaro’s election has also foreshadowed how a diverse and forceful movement – from the grassroots to the global – will rise to counter his menacing agenda.

Since the October election, Mr. Bolsonaro has consistently employed divisive and insulting rhetoric to lay the groundwork for an assault on human rights and environmental protections. His comparison of indigenous peoples to “zoo animals” confined to “reserves” who should seek to be “human beings like us” by abandoning their lands and ways of life should not be dismissed as willful ignorance or common racism, but rather as a brazen display of how he and his cohorts aim to transform preserved indigenous territories into merchandise to be exploited on the open market.

Bolsonaro has already announced that one of his administration’s first tasks would be to “revise” the land titling process for the fertile, mineral-rich Raposa Serra do Sol indigenous territory in the Amazonian state of Roraima. Claiming that indigenous lands represent an obstacle to Brazil’s development, he said, “It is the richest area in the world. You need to exploit it in a rational way. And, alongside indians [sic], giving [them] royalties, integrating the indian into society.”

This false logic of assimilation as “integration” echoes that of Brazil’s military dictators – frequently eulogized by the president-elect – who were responsible for genocidal attacks against indigenous peoples. Again, these parallels are not accidental and are not lost on the country’s native population. Such declarations signal how industrial interests such as agribusiness and mining will enjoy unprecedented access to Brazil’s protected areas under Bolsonaro.

Joênia Wapixana, the first female indigenous representative elected to Congress, addressed Bolsonaro’s looming assault on native land rights in an interview with the Brazilian newspaper O Globo, saying “The demarcation of lands and protection of indigenous peoples are supported in [Brazil’s] Constitution. They are duties of the state, and they are not dependent on the will of any government.”

Mr. Bolsonaro clearly sees things differently, believing that he has a mandate from the Brazilian people to enact sweeping, unconstitutional change. To achieve these ends he has assembled a shamelessly corrupt Cabinet, conspicuously empowering members of the notorious ruralista congressional bloc who embody the worst tendencies of Brazilian agribusiness to steamroll rights and environmental protections for political and personal gain.

For example, his Chief of Staff Onyx Lorenzoni openly admitted to taking bribes from the scandal-ridden meat-packing firm JBS, while his Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina, head of the ruralistas, mysteriously increased her personal wealth 50,000 percent since first being elected to Congress in 2014. The manifold conflicts of interest represented by these political representatives of Brazilian agribusiness indicate who Bolsonaro’s government aims to serve.

Bolsonaro’s incoming Minister of Environment Ricardo Salles, who ran a failed congressional campaign calling for open violence against “the left and the MST [Landless Workers Movement],” has called climate change a “secondary” matter, and signaled he will slash his government’s “ideological” environmental enforcement operations. Shortly after his nomination, two members of the MST were brutally assassinated and reports emerged of how the lax enforcement of environmental crimes espoused by Salles has driven a catastrophic “epidemic” of toxic illegal mining sweeping the Brazilian Amazon.

Meanwhile, Bolsonaro announced that he will abolish the Ministry of Human Rights and shift the mandate of the indigenous agency FUNAI from the Ministry of Justice to his newly created Ministry of Women, Family, and Human Rights. This blatant demotion is aimed at meeting ruralista demands to undermine FUNAI’s critical mission to serve indigenous peoples.

Bolsonaro’s presidency is a disaster foretold. The impacts his institutional assault portends are immeasurable. And while strained social movements are bracing for the worst when his government takes power, they are also preparing a spirited response to forestall his plans.

Brazil’s National Indigenous Movement (MNI) is among those leading the charge, mounting resistance from street protests to court lawsuits and redoubling its efforts to broadcast its message to the global public. Speaking from Brussels, the country’s foremost indigenous voice Sônia Guajajara called for an EU boycott of Brazilian commodities linked to “social extermination” and environmental catastrophe.

With a government highly resistant to internal pressure, Brazil’s progressive movements are increasingly looking for international recourse and solidarity. It is clear that the struggle to defend indigenous rights and Amazon protections is not just a local matter. As such, it is our collective duty to to stand with Brazil’s forest protectors because their fate is so closely linked to our own.

Amazon Watch’s Complicity In Destruction campaign aims to answer this call by targeting the global supply chains and financial relationships that sustain today’s attacks on the Amazon and its peoples. We are doing so in close collaboration with the MNI, its local partners, and a broad coalition of international allies.

In such times of crisis we must pull together to stave off the onslaught of destructive government and industry. As we enter a precarious New Year we must take note: our collective future depends on unified and successful resistance.