Stop Eco-Apartheid: The Left’s Challenge in Bolsonaro’s Brazil

Stop Eco-Apartheid: The Left’s Challenge in Bolsonaro’s Brazil

The horrors threatened by Brazil’s new president are compounded by a potential war on the Amazon. It is up to the left to build a coalition capable of overcoming it.

Members of the Munduruku tribe protest a planned hydroelectric dam on the Tapajos River in the Amazon rainforest, November 2014 (Mario Tama / Getty Images)

The horrors threatened by Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s new president, are compounded by the global climate stakes of a potential war on the Amazon. Roberto Schaeffer, a leading energy and environment scholar based in Rio de Janeiro, told me over Skype, “It could not be worse. Donald Trump would be a blessing for Brazil right now.” Bolsonaro has promised an orgy of destructive new development in the embattled Amazon rainforest, which would release gigatons of heat-trapping carbon. But the backlash has already begun. Brazilian social movements are mobilizing, and even key pro-Bolsonaro business leaders are telling him to back off on deforestation. This combined economic and environmental battle isn’t a sideshow—it’s the new center stage.

Nothing will affect the future of the left in the Americas more than climate change, both in its already inevitable effects, and in the Herculean, fifty-year effort we must make to keep those impacts remotely bearable. Every left-wing political party, indigenous nation, labor union, community group, racial and gender and housing justice movement will take part in this. The pan-American left’s chief task is to lead, by aligning its longstanding agenda of social equality with breakneck struggles to decarbonize the economy and cope with extreme weather. This imperative includes building a vast new clean energy sector, overhauling agriculture toward sustainable methods, reversing deforestation, and reorganizing urban life. Such a transformation isn’t on Bolsonaro’s (or Trump’s) agenda, but setting the terms for a transition away from carbon is increasingly a preoccupation for the global economic elite. A massive global investment in climate-related infrastructure is coming. It is through an epic battle over how, and how quickly, the built environment is transformed that the left will rediscover itself. The results of this struggle will be democracy or eco-apartheid.

Under eco-apartheid, longstanding environmental harms and the burdens of the no-carbon transition would be yoked to the necks of poor and racialized workers, while the spoils go to the rich—and especially, in Europe and the Americas, the white. Climate breakdown is certain to unleash unending racialized violence. But climate stabilization could also be achieved under an eco-apartheid scenario, with the affluent maintaining their privileges and hardening inequalities to keep down consumption among the rest, through state-sponsored violence and neocolonial dispossession. For the left, just blocking a new round of climate devastation would be hard enough. But it must do more. It needs to push toward a just transition, taking ownership of the climate agenda that will soon dominate the whole economy.

Bolsonaro’s election points toward eco-apartheid. He’s pronounced the Amazon open for business, pledging to reboot the construction of devastating megadams; neuter environmental police, who combat land grabbers and illegal miners; hack away at indigenous land reserves; and invite cattle barons to slash the forest’s rich canopy and graze their steers in the ashes. One-tenth of the living world’s capacity to absorb carbon from the air is located in Brazil. This “terrestrial carbon sink” is vital to avoiding runaway climate breakdown. Yet the Amazon, responsible for most of this absorption, is in a fragile state. A fifth has been deforested in the past several decades; another fifth is in degraded condition; much of the rainforest has shifted from absorbing greenhouse gases to releasing them into the atmosphere. If the damage gets much worse, the whole region could tip into a savannah state, drying up the flying rivers that feed São Paulo’s water reservoirs and dumping a motherlode of carbon into the sky. This would blow up the world’s chances of keeping global warming at a somewhat safe two degrees Celsius. It won’t help that the soy industry has opened a new frontier in Brazil’s Cerrado, a huge tropical savannah that is also a vast carbon sink.

Still, there is much that Brazilians can and will do to prevent the worst. International assistance will be key. Our best hope? For many Brazilian capitalists, shredding the Amazon would be economically ruinous. Several major mining companies and agricultural exporters have the most to lose—their international reputation as responsible stewards of the rainforest has helped them to hold onto international markets. State governments, like that of Pará in the north, may also still battle deforestation—as will, somewhat ironically, Brazil’s office of powerful public prosecutors, longtime champions of environmental protection, who also helped bring down Lula and the PT on corruption charges. Meanwhile, thanks to years of successful industrial policy, market forces also now buoy the country’s clean-energy sector. If deforestation and state violence are held in check, the Brazilian left and its international allies can prevent climate calamity and—hopefully sooner than later—restore a basic level of decency to politics in Brazil.

I want to be clear. Narrowly pragmatic efforts to keep the Amazon alive are justified. Some will seek to work with Bolsonaro’s government. The night of the election, Greenpeace Brazil issued a statement calling on the new regime to stick to its Paris pledges and slow deforestation. The tone was constructive. The millions—perhaps billions—of lives at stake demand such short-term tactics. But these engagements are no substitute for a broader progressive strategy of deconstructing and replacing this odious regime by democratic means.

Bolsonaro’s election virtually guarantees a bloodbath. He has promised impunity to an already murderous police force. His ally, João Doria, the new governor of São Paulo state, said upon his election that he would hire the best available lawyers to defend police accused of murder. (In the urban region of São Paulo, police already kill close to a thousand people a year.) In rural regions, in the past three years of declining left fortunes, the assassination of poor peasants in land conflicts has doubled. Bolsonaro has called the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) a terrorist organization. In his campaign, he declared: “I want to say to the MST scumbags that we’re going to give guns to agribusiness, we’re going to give guns to the rural producer, because the welcome mat for a land invader is a bullet, 247 caliber.”

Nothing says fascism like paramilitary violence against leftists and the stigmatized. Afrobrazilian, indigenous, immigrant, and LGBTQ people are all targets. The only question is: how much violence? And how can international solidarity help?

If Bolsonaro gets his way, blood will also soak the Amazon. Already, the rising murders of indigenous activists—the Amazon’s great defenders—are an index of deforestation, and a testament to the frontier spirit of large segments of agro-industrial capital. (There’s a reason Brazilians speak of a “bullets, bible, and beef” coalition of lawmakers, linking ex-army and -police officers, evangelicals, and agro-industrialists in one camp.)

Broadly speaking, most of the left’s agenda—which is focused on equality and improved living conditions for the low-consuming majority, in Brazil and elsewhere—is already climate-friendly. But aligning specific climate struggles with short-term efforts to protect vulnerable lives will be hard.


Adding to this challenge, the PT’s overall reputation is unjustly ruined. Its failures should not blot out its achievements. This holds for climate. Thanks especially to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who ruled from 2003 through 2010, Brazil’s climate victories won well-earned praise. Three factors led the PT to embrace strong climate policies. The first was a broad political commitment to sustainability and defense of indigenous livelihoods. From early 2003, Lula empowered his environment minister, the indigenous Amazon activist Marina Silva, to lead a broad regulatory overhaul that curbed forest clearance.

The next factor was economic strategy, shared by government and capital. In the 2000s, deforestation was hammering the reputation of Brazil’s soy exporters. Global public opinion and consumer pressure matter. In 2006, Greenpeace released a report, Eating Up the Amazon, on the soy industry’s role in deforestation, highlighting the complicity of McDonald’s and Cargill in particular. The soy industry announced a moratorium on deforestation, and these and other companies later pledged to never buy product from companies that deforested. Subsequent regulations, including a similar attack on deforestation caused by cattle-raising, and aggressive supervision from the country’s public prosecutors and expanded environmental police, were highly effective. Annual deforestation rates in the Amazon plunged, from nearly 10,000 square miles in 2004 to less than 2,000 in 2014. Since deforestation is by far the country’s largest source of emissions, these plunged in this period too, putting Brazil on track to lead the global South in absolute cuts to greenhouse-gas pollution.

Meanwhile, agriculture thrived thanks to a focus on increased productivity on already available land. In recent years, partly due to a weakening of forest law under Lula’s successor—the less environmentally inclined Dilma Rousseff—deforestation rates have started to climb again.

An analogous economic case for clean energy was clear. Under Lula and Dilma, several federal agencies and the government’s energy council and national development bank, BNDES, developed an industrial policy that blended carefully timed low import taxes, low-cost local subsidies, and targeted auctions, among other measures, to foster national wind and solar energy industries. Wind and solar are needed to provide a no-carbon compliment to the country’s main electricity source, hydroelectric dams, especially since climate change will reduce rainfall to the rivers feeding dams. Looming electrification of transportation and cooking will increase electricity demand. Only wind, solar, and sophisticated biofuels can forestall a huge expansion in natural-gas power plants.

Clumsy policy slowed utility and rooftop solar’s early growth. But in the last two years, both have started to spread. The government did better with wind farms, which have expanded fast, especially in the impoverished Northeast. Worldwide, the country ranks roughly eighth in GDP and sixth in installed wind capacity. And Brazil continues to be a leader in biofuels. That sector has a bad reputation in the United States, but in Brazil, sugar-cane derived ethanol helps power the country’s auto fleet, and could shift to powering ships and planes once cars and buses electrify. In the 2018 election, all presidential candidates—including Bolsonaro—pledged to invest lavishly in renewable energy. This, combined with the solid industrial policy developed under PT rule, and longstanding reliance on hydroelectricity, means that clean energy will dominate Brazil’s energy grid even in a worst-case scenario.

A third factor explains all these climate achievements: linking climate politics to inequality. In 2009, Brazil passed an aggressive climate change policy that made it the first large developing country to pledge significant, absolute short-term reductions in its greenhouse-gas emissions. Lula made this happen. A climate scientist close to Lula told me the turning point was Lula’s realization that the poor who would suffer most from climate change—especially in Brazil’s Northeast, where Lula was born, and in sub-Saharan Africa, a focus of his foreign policy. After climate policy stagnated under Dilma, the PT’s 2018 presidential candidate Fernando Haddad ran on very strong climate policies, including a zero-deforestation pledge.

Still, PT governments were far from rejecting fossil fuels outright. Two core problems with the PT era’s climate policies stand out. First, the easiest environmental policies are those that don’t threaten the massive fossil fuel industry—in Brazil, the state oil company—and the auto sector. Lula’s government encouraged both, promising to extract every drop of dangerously deep offshore oil to fund education and health care, and heavily subsiding car purchases. (At least Brazil’s oil is relatively pure. If oil must be burnt for fifteen more years, energy scholar Schaeffer told me, Brazil’s would emit less carbon than the sludgier stuff from places like Canada’s tar sands.)

The second problem is that capital is a treacherous partner. When both the global economy sours and demobilized workers lose their leverage over companies, business leaders turn on their erstwhile allies. Brazil’s business class torpedoed Dilma’s PT government, even when she betrayed her own social base in 2015 by appointing a pro-austerity, Chicago School–trained economist as finance minister.

The leading business sectors—manufacturing, agro-industry, finance—supported the judicial coup led by Michel Temer, Dilma’s vice-president from a center-right party, with support from the country’s traditional center-right PSDB party. But the attempted drone strike became a failed kamikaze mission. The prestigious, ruling wing of the center-right crumbled, with the PSDB faring especially poorly in this year’s election. Meanwhile, the business class fell in with Bolsonaro, starting with agro-industry. Later, he wooed the financial sector by appointing as his economic guru an even more fundamentalist Chicago School economist, Paulo Guedes. (Guedes earned his stripes teaching economics in Pinochet’s Chile.) The PT was beaten, but survived in decent shape; it still has more seats in the lower house than any of the other thirty-five parties, though a broad coalition of conservative parties now has a large majority, anchored by Bolsonaro’s far-right allies.


It is difficult to overstate how contradictory and unstable Bolsonaro’s coalition is. Therein lies the left’s hope. And the Amazon’s. Bolsonaro would be nowhere without the unified support of business. Yet until this year, he was a statist social conservative, against social spending for the poor but in favor of national industry and much of the welfare state, and against the large-scale privatizations that he now supports. Most of the army, another key ally, likewise prefers an interventionist state. It is unclear how much of Bolsonaro’s lower-middle-class support, likely less faithful to him than the wealthy, supports his hard neoliberal agenda. But since Bolsonaro’s economic plans amount to a deepening of Temer’s—the most unpopular president in the country’s history—there’s reason to suspect his popularity will erode. A deep global economic slump, widely expected in 2019 or 2020, will hurt him.

Bolsonaro could fall fast—it’s happened twice before in Brazil to similar presidents. His inner circle could also unleash terror and suspend the country’s democracy in order to hold onto power. Only chaos is certain.

The Bolsonaro coalition’s fissures could limit the damage he does to the Amazon. New megadams, new small and mid-sized mines, cattle raisers big and small, and politically connected land-grabbers are the big threats. Yet the economic power of these interests isn’t overwhelming. Large mining companies that operate in the Amazon, like Vale, have a decent record in helping block deforestation. More important, the technologically advanced soybean industry, Brazil’s most important exporter, now leans on its rainforest-friendly reputation to access international markets and major restaurant-chain buyers. Other modern sectors of agriculture are in the same boat. In recent weeks, these interests have broken ranks with business allies and called on Bolsonaro to respect the country’s climate commitments. Backtracking from recent pledges, Bolsonaro reversed his promise to pull out of the Paris Agreement, and agreed not to merge the environment and agriculture ministries.

It would be naïve to expect that alone, the enlightened self-interest of soy and allied capitalists will automatically defend the Amazon. The soy industry is already slipping. But as the history of successful battles against deforestation in the 2000s shows, Brazilian campaigning combined with concerted international pressure could check deforestation. Even fiercer campaigns are needed against the cattle industry in particular. Ideally, stopping a resurgence in deforestation of the Amazon could also build momentum for protecting the adjacent Cerrado savannah.

Meanwhile, Amazon scholars and activists have been contemplating a new generation of environmental policies in the region that would do even more to reduce its poverty and fund ecologically safe, but economically dynamic, ways of building wealth in the forest. I discussed this at length with Beto Veríssimo, co-founder of the think- and do-tank Imazon, who is experimenting with phrases like a “Marshall Plan for the Amazon.” Led from the region, but aggregating global investments, the idea is to foster a swath of new industries in the mold of the hyper-specialized, so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution”: genuinely cooperative biotech; harvesting some of the Amazon’s hundreds of thousands of mushroom species, and berries similar to açai; finding new uses for unusual woods; the list goes on. The common thrust is science- and technology-intensive production that would maintain biodiversity, facilitate reforestation, provide impoverished local residents with work, and link rural production with sophisticated knowledge centers in the Amazon’s large and mid-sized cities, where the great majority of the region’s inhabitants now live. Breathing new life into the continent’s great rainforest could be the achievement of an innovative economic democracy.

Whether such a program could begin in the next four years is doubtful. Now is a good time to plan regardless. There will be international solidarity with locals in defending indigenous and other residents against land-grabbers and other intruders. But defense alone won’t revitalize the forest in a way that attacks the region’s deep poverty and inequality. As soon as a new regime as possible, a broad coalition should be ready with a plan.

There is an analogy with wind power, whose method of development in Brazil stands to improve substantially. At the macro level, the situation is excellent. As Schaeffer put it to me, state policy was designed to help the infant industry “grow into a big guy, who can walk on his own.” It’s succeeding. But a closer look finds trouble. Kathryn Hochstetler, a scholar of Brazilian environmental politics, estimates that a quarter of the wind farm projects in Brazil are opposed by nearby communities. Opposition is concentrated in the poor, windy Northeast. According to reports, and an off-the-record conversation I had with a senior environmentalist, big companies are often bullying poor residents off prime wind-rich land, bringing in their own materials and workers, cutting deals with authoritarian local political bosses, and siting turbines on environmentally delicate plots. This kind of development piles all the costs of the transition onto poor and racialized populations—a step down the road toward eco-apartheid.

More of this top-down infrastructure building will undermine the energy transition in Brazil just as it has all over North America, where hundreds of anti-wind groups have arisen, like Ontario’s charmingly named “Mothers Against Wind Turbines.” This isn’t inevitable. There are countless examples, especially in northern Europe, of much more participatory and decentralized strategies. In Brazil, where practices of participatory economic planning abound, the left has a brief window to develop new rules that it could pass in the northeastern states where the PT still governs, and nationally once Bolsonaro’s gone.

Bolsonaro’s regime, on the other hand, could ruin clean energy’s social potential, just as his likely embrace of Amazon biotech development would let multinationals exploit and thieve. Yes, it’s easy to imagine Brazil’s new government shredding its climate commitments, exposing its people to yet drier droughts, fiercer landslides, more baking heat. But it’s also possible to imagine the regime fumbling toward a more insidious kind of eco-apartheid, where the worst tendencies of the green economy and extreme-right social policies merge. Indeed, this is a threat all over the world.

Equality and sustainability are beautifully reinforcing. Fascism and decarbonization would make a lurching, bloody partnership—but one that’s equally plausible. This is why the short-term tactics to defend the Amazon must be embedded in a broader social and political project to dismantle Brazil’s fascist experiment and replace destructive capitalism with a new economic model.


Lula’s PT was born in struggles on factories’ shopfloors in São Paulo’s great industrial suburbs. These insurgent workers re-democratized their unions, then founded a Workers’ Party that helped re-democratize the country. Brazil’s economic regime has changed. It retains a diverse industrial base. But most of its big export moneys now come from soybeans, oil, iron ore, beef, chicken, coffee—in short, raw or roughly processed commodities, mostly sold to China, whose companies are buying up Brazil’s infrastructure, with a special focus on its electricity grid. Alongside this primary resource sector, an enormous service sector dominates Brazil’s great cities. Informal stallkeepers hawk pirated soccer jerseys in car-choked streets shadowed by office buildings.

As the PT’s defeated presidential candidate Fernando Haddad said in his election-night concession speech, the great majority of the party’s voters are unorganized. Millions of other poor, working-class, and lower-middle-class voters, suffering a stagnating economy and growing street violence, voted for Bolsonaro to shock a broken system out of its complacency. In cities, suburbs, favelas, farm fields, factories, forests, and mines, the left must reorganize itself, as extreme weather proliferates and bloodshed spreads. Old formulas won’t apply. There are some worthwhile lessons in the PT’s early climate successes. But the biggest lesson is that they failed to sufficiently align those forest and energy policies with clear, short-term projects to attack inequality. The national PT also failed to truly invest in climate-friendly housing and transit policies in the country’s congested, polluted cities. Now the left must learn to fuse its social and economic agendas with aggressive and egalitarian climate politics. Haddad’s campaign, with its strong climate justice and urban agendas, was a decent start. There are still mistakes to correct. New ideas and organizing to debate and develop. And there is a country—and a continent, and a world—to rebuild.

Daniel Aldana Cohen is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, and a 2018–19 Member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

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