Jair Bolsonaro.
Photo: Isac Nóbrega/PR

Jair Bolsonaro’s environmental policy has drawn substantial criticism, but is backed fundamentally by political and economic interests. In general, Bolsonaro has pursued policies that promote fossil fuel and agricultural production, often forgoing environmentally driven policies. On the global stage, Bolsonaro is a controversial figure because of the defense of his administration amid the 2019 Amazon forest fires, which Brazil struggled to control. The fires of 2019 were unusually frequent, and many blamed years of deforestation, which brought Bolsonaro’s own new—but similar—environmental policies into the international limelight. Bolsonaro cut Brazil’s environment budget in April 2021 and has diminished the role of environmental ministers in the Brazilian government, often uplifting agriculture officials in their place to secure certain political and economic objectives.

With respect to politics, the states that benefit most from fossil-fuel production represent a key region for Bolsonaro in the 2022 elections. Regarding the economy, Bolsonaro relies on the support of the fossil fuel and agribusiness industries that have an interest in scaling back regulation.

Oil and Politics

Most of Brazil’s oil is produced in the coastal states of Rio de Janeiro and Espírito Santo, in the politically salient southeastern region of Brazil. This region is a key economic and population center, and an area Bolsonaro won in 2018. In addition to Rio, this region includes São Paolo, the most populous city in Brazil and the place where Bolsonaro grew up.

This region benefits directly from policies that favor oil production. Most importantly, more than 30% of fiscal revenue from oil goes directly to the states and municipalities, rather than the national government. Moreover, the oil industry provides jobs and energy.

Bolsonaro supports oil production here for the political reason that this region will matter greatly for his reelection prospects. Furthermore, this action aligns with Bolsonaro’s conservative ideology, which calls for a diminished role of the national government in favor of uplifting lower levels of government. As oil production gives back to Rio de Janeiro and Espírito Santo directly, with the national government serving as a secondary beneficiary, it reinforces the power of states and municipalities.

Business Interests

The fossil fuel and agribusiness industries have a direct interest in environmental policy that scales back regulations and, ideally, gives them autonomy and control over their activities. Beyond the oil production mentioned above, Brazil is also increasing production and consumption of natural gas, as offshore reserves have been developed in recent years. Petrobras, a major state-run company, oversees much of this development, and influences Brazilian politics greatly due to the central role it plays in Brazil’s economy. Even as Bolsonaro has hinted at Petrobras’s potential privatization, the country relies heavily on this industry in the short-term, and not only for the jobs, energy, income, and tax revenue it provides. 

On the international relations front, Bolsonaro must navigate the relationship between Petrobras and China, as the PRC has invested serious amounts of capital into the company for over a decade, under agreement that Brazil will provide petroleum to China in return. Bolsonaro’s personal relationship with Xi Jinping is complicated, compared with past Brazilian leaders. Bolsonaro’s supporters and members of his family have criticized Xi publicly, but the two leaders have recognized the importance of cooperation on issues like the coronavirus pandemic and foreign investment. Petrobras continues to do business with China.

Moreover, Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of beef, with the agriculture industry representing a key sector in the domestic economy. The beef sector is particularly important in the Amazon region and the “Cerrado” (tropical savanna), areas Bolsonaro also won in 2018. Expansion of this sector is partly behind deforestation efforts in the Amazon, as well as Bolsonaro’s desire to merge the Ministries of Agriculture and Environment.

Soybeans are another key Brazilian product, representing over a quarter of national agricultural production. The soy industry collaborates closely with Bolsonaro, and he supports them ideologically, in his focus on economic growth and enhancement of the private sector. Soybean production tends to take place in regions simultaneously claimed by traditional indigenous groups, complicating the politics of Bolsonaro’s environmental policy in this realm. However, Bolsonaro successfully ceded control of indigenous land demarcation to the Agriculture Ministry in 2019.

Political Ramifications:

Agribusiness tycoons powered much of Bolsonaro’s 2018 campaign, and will factor in his reelection. The farm lobby has substantial money and power to affect policy, and much of what Bolsonaro has done with respect to the environment is to further their interests. Exportation and favorable trade matter to these actors. This was highlighted in the way that Bolsonaro’s response to the 2019 Amazon fires ultimately came on the heels of a European threat to pull out of trade deals.Among Brazilians, Bolsonaro’s pro-business attitude comes somewhat into conflict with the population’s broader feelings toward his environmental policy. According to recent surveys ahead of the October 2022 elections, Brazilians are concerned about climate change and the risks it poses for Brazil. These have indicated that Brazilians believe sustainable environmental policy and protection of the Amazon should be key voting issues.