Jair Bolsonaro could be a disaster for the environment, scientific research

Academic freedom in research spaces, the protection of the country’s biodiversity and Brazil’s role in the global struggle against climate change are among the key areas where a Bolsonaro government may have a disastrous impact, scientists fear.

October 27, 2018 by Sandipan Talukdar
Presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro said "the Amazon is ours" and plans to exploit the protected lands.

Far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro continues to maintain a lead in most polls ahead of the second round of the Brazilian presidential elections on October 28. While his misogyny, homophobia and militarism are a matter of record, equally worrying is his approach to science and research. Scientists and academics have expressed their concern and fear for the future of Brazilian science and research under a potential Bolsonaro administration. Academic freedom in research spaces, the protection of the country’s biodiversity and Brazil’s role in the global struggle against climate change are among the key areas where a far-right regime may have a disastrous impact, scientists fear.

Paulo Artaxo, a climate change researcher at the University of São Paulo (USP), told Science magazine, “There is no point sugarcoating it. Bolsonaro is the worst thing that could happen for the environment.”

Brazil has played a leading role in the global battle against climate change. The pioneering Earth Summit 1992, hosted by Brazil, saw world leaders meeting for the first time to sign a UN-backed convention on climate change. The Workers Party (PT) government in Brazil, during the mid-2000s, determinedly worked to reduce deforestation in the Amazon basin, which is known as the “Lungs of the World”. Brazil’s zero illegal deforestation pledge also sought to significantly reduce carbon emissions. Its ratification of the Paris Agreement of 2016 has also been seen as an important factor in the global campaign on climate change.

However, Bolsonaro has vowed to withdraw Brazil from this agreement and plans to eliminate the ministry of environment. He seeks to merge its functions with that of the ministry of agriculture, livestock and supply. While campaigning in the Amazon region, Bolsonaro, said that “too many protected areas stand in the way of Brazil’s development.” Bolsonaro is strongly backed by big agri-business giants and the cattle rearing industry which seek fresh lands to exploit.

Edson Duarte, the environment minister of Brazil, in a recent interview, said Bolsonaro’s plans of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement and scuttling of the environment ministry would pave the way for gangs of loggers and miners to rush to Amazon basin. This will expose the world’s largest rainforest and the indigenous communities which have preserved it all these centuries to grave threats. He said, “I am afraid of a gold rush to see who arrives first. They will know that, if they occupy [land] illegally, the authorities will be complacent and will grant concordance. They will be certain that nobody will bother them.”

Brazil’s indigenous communities in the Amazon are also worried of their rights being violated of such policies are implemented. Dinaman Tuxa, the national coordinator of Brazil’s Association of Indigenous Peoples, in an interview, said “He has already said that the federal government will no longer champion indigenous rights, such as access to the land. We are very scared. I fear for my own life.” He further added, “If he wins, he will institutionalize genocide”.

Bolsonaro’s science policies too have the country worried. According to the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo, Bolsonaro plans to more than double the R&D investment in the coming four years, but this money would be mostly spent on applied sciences in areas such as space technology and robotics rather than on basic research in universities.

Bolsonaro’s pick for crafting his science and education plans is a staunch defender of teaching creationism, who says that students need to know that Darwin existed, but not necessarily “agree with him.”

On the other hand, Bolsonaro’s main contender, the PT’s Fernando Haddad, has pledged to rebuild the national science, technology and innovation system. A former education minister, he proposes to increase investment on science and research and hike the country’s R&D expenditure to 2% of the GDP by the year 2030.

While Bolsonaro has promised to increase investment in R&D to 2.5% of the GDP by 2022, his plans involve greater reliance on the private sector in order to achieve this. Many researchers are skeptical of these promises. Fernando Peregrino, a science policy expert and the president of Confies in Brasila, told Science, “I have heard this promise many times before.” He felt that Brazil lacked both economic policies and fiscal stability to ensure such generous support for R&D.

Bolsanaro’s science vision advocates for a “greater balance” between “curiosity-oriented research and research focused on missions and goals”. “One of the political difficulties is that public research in Brazil still has a strong academic bias, without focus or specific priorities,” Bolsonaro’s campaign document says.
Responding to this narrow, achievement-centric vision of research, the president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, Luiz Davidovich, said, “Academic and intellectual freedom is something that needs to be preserved even if it is important to define strategic goals and national priorities.”