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What Brazil's election means for human rights and the environment

October 20, 2022
tags:#Brazil, #Jair Bolsonaro, #Lula da Silva, #election, #human rights, #environmental justice
by:Ellen Nemitz
The results, which are still hard to predict, could determine the future of human rights and environmental policies that would reverberate across borders. 

"Lula is not the door to heaven, but he is certainly the door out of hell," reads a social media post shared by Brazilians referring by "hell" to the current far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro.

The comparison reflects the position of many specialists: Bolsonaro has deteriorated social and environmental policies and his re-election would be potentially perilous for the country's development and social welfare.

Over the past four years (2019-2022), Bolsonaro dedicated himself to a hyper-conservative agenda, which includes easing access to guns and weakening mechanisms granting civil society oversight on public policy, as well as collaborating with the wealthiest and most religious sectors of society represented by the so called "beef, bible and bullets' bench."

Moreover, the Covid-19 pandemic was marked by his administration's opposition to implementing sanitary measures and administering vaccines and the spreading of misinformation. Bolsonaro and his family were also accused of several corruption schemes, although none of them ever resulted in a formal trial. 

Lula, on the other hand, made himself famous for his public policies boosting education and housing and combating poverty and hunger. After leaving the presidency, he was arrested on corruption charges, but was released from prison after the Supreme Court tossed the convictions for  lack of impartiality on the trial judge's part

As the runoff election between the two candidates draws near (30 October), FairPlanet spoke to NGOs and experts to find out what each outcome could mean for the country in terms of social and environmental policies and foreign relations.

Human rights: from social programmes to budget cuts 

Lula took office after two consecutive terms of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a right-wing politician who helped develop and stabilise Brazil's economy.

Lula's priorities, thus, was to better distribute the country's wealth and eradicate poverty. Social programmes such as Fome Zero (Zero Hunger), Bolsa Família (Family Grant) and Minha Casa Minha Vida (My House, My Life) were responsible for the improvement of people's quality of life - an achievement that is now touted as his main campaign slogan. 

Human rights were also a priority for the former president.

"In the Lula and Dilma [Roussef, 2010-2016] administrations, there was a much greater possibility of social participation, with the holding of conferences and the existence of human rights councils that allowed the participation of thousands of people across the country," Darci Frigo, coordinator of the NGO Terra de Direitos and president of the National Council for Human Rights, told FairPlanet.

The path built by these two governments was interrupted by Dilma's impeachment in 2016, which was viewed by many as a coup. Michel Temer, her vice-president who assumed the position for two years, launched a social security reform process and implemented a labour reform, which took away rights from workers. 

Bolsonaro doubled-down on the initiative during his time in office, further weakening the state and eroding the government's ability to execute public policies, according to Frigo.

"The progressive investment in education, health and social policies for the most vulnerable sections of the population is impacted by budget cuts," he said. "At the same time they also suffer from a change in policy focus."

Despite there being a financial aid programme to help certain vulnerable families, high unemployment rates, labour informality and low income rates exacerbated inflation, which in turn affected food prices and led to a resurgence of hunger in the country: Currently 33 million people in Brazil are food insecure. 

Bolsonaro's crusade against progressive agendas also impacted women and girls, the LGBTQIA+ community, black and indigenous peoples, as well as other historically marginalised groups.

Victoria Sonnenberg, programmes manager at the Arueras Institute, told FairPlanet that the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights implemented only half of its planned policies involving women, children and adolescents, the elderly, people with disabilities, LGBTQIA+, quilombolas and indigenous people and the promotion of racial equality.

This was done a conservative agenda that opposes sexual and reproductive rights for women, among other freedoms. 

In comparison, during the preceding Lula and Roussef administrations important advances were made in these spheres, such as the creation of monitoring channels for human rights violations and the implementation of a law to combat the violence against women (Maria da Penha Law).

"We also had the creation of the National Policy Plan for Women," Sonnenberg recalled, "which contained in its guidelines a reaffirmation of the Brazilian government's commitment to the incorporation of gender and race perspectives in public policies in a transversal and integrated dimension among all federative entities."

Toni Reis, president of Aliança LGBTQIA+ (LGBTQIA+ Alliance), confirmed that none of the rights guaranteed by the Supreme Court - such as same-sex marriage and adoption - were revoked over the past four years, but emphasised that there has been a coordinated effort to erase the topic from public discourse: a sharp change of attitude compared to previous administrations dating back to the 1980s.

"What we expect is to have dialogue, participation," he told FairPlanet. "[Lula] and his party respect democracy and other powers, and have public policy proposals to mitigate violence and discrimination against our community."

On the topic of racial equality, Coalizão Negra por Direitos (Black Coalition for Rights) published an open letter in which they posit the end of racism as an underlying condition for democracy and refer to the Bolsonaro administration as genocidal and lenient.

The group was among the signatories on a request sent to the Supreme Court to investigate the actions and omissions that threaten Brazil's black population. Moreover, the coordinator of Terra de Direitos said that there are more than 220 complaints against Bolsonaro being processed at different stages of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

"This reveals that human rights organisations recognise that the Brazilian State is no longer able to defend those who defend human rights and that human rights policy no longer exists."

The future of the Amazon and other biomes 

Greenpeace Brazil analysed the official data about deforestation in the Amazon Forest and compared the stats recorded during Lula and Bolsonaro's administrations. It found that between 2003 and 2010, there was a decrease in the reported deforestation by 68 percent, thanks to the Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Amazon and the creation of protected areas.

Bolsonaro, on his part, was responsible for a 73 percent increase in deforestation of the Amazon. Darci Frigo of Terra de Direitos highlighted that the elevated deforestation rates affect Brazil's additional five biomes (the Atlantic Forest, Pantanal, Cerrado, Caatinga and Pampas) due to the weakening of monitoring entities and the waving of fines for violators of environmental laws. 

In addition, Bolsonaro's administration actively incentivised illegal mining operations on indigenous lands and fomented general disrespect for tribal rights.

"As a Federal Deputy, [Bolsonaro] was the author of the first draft of a legislative decree with the objective of undoing the demarcation of an indigenous land," said Adriana Ramos, the advisor to the Socio-Environmental Policy and Law Program at Instituto Socioambiental (Socio-Environmental Institute). "And he has always made his opposition to any environmental protection policy evident."

For this reason, Ramos is not optimistic about a possible new Bolsonaro term, in which she expects to see the "deepening of this trend with the worsening of strategies to dismantle environmental policies and institutions," seeing as "there are numerous legislative proposals presented by the government itself or by its allies that exacerbate the attack on protected areas." 

On the other hand, she said, Lula could spearhead the resumption of an agenda committed to the environment. But, she warns, alliances already announced by him indicate that "decisions will not be easily consensual," and Congress will impose some barriers due its ties to the agribusiness sector: "More than ever, a strong power of articulation will be necessary so that the environmental agenda can be implemented."

Foreign relations: Brazil's increasing isolation on the world stage

According to Paulo Velasco, professor of international relations at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, Bolsonaro has failed to maintain good relations with other countries, and particularly with Latin American nations headed by leftists leaders.

This marks a drastic change compared to when Brazil constituted a strong actor in the region, he explained, playing a key role in global financial negotiations and helping to strengthen the Mersocul and Brics commercial blocs during Lula's terms.

Moreover, Bolsonaro's ongoing denialism of Covid-19 and his blunt disregard for the environment - combined with his administration's methodic dismantling of human rights instruments and controversial alliances - further compromised Brazil’s standing globally.

In the 2000s, Lula inherited an internationally-respected and stable Brazil, as well as an economic boom that attracted foreign investors: a confluence of factors that made it easier to build positive relations with other nations compared to now.

"I see a dark future," said Velasco. "With Bolsonaro, there would be no lurch, it will be more of the same. Lula would face difficulties with a combination of a fiscal bomb, low economic development, the war on Ukraine, a global inflation, the recession in Europe and a Congress dominated by the beef, bible and bullets bench."

Envisioning the next four years

Where the experts approached by FairPlanet were unanimous in saying that a new Bolsonaro government would be pretty much a continuation of his last term, they were murkier on whether Lula would be able to implement, at least initially, an agenda similar to the one he pushed during his first years in office. 

As mentioned by professor Velasco, conditions on the ground have changed fairly drastically.  

Constitutional Amendment 95, which capped investment increases in some social policies, is highlighted as the major barrier for the resumption of Lula's welfare project, unless revoked.

"It is necessary that the Brazilian State have the investment capacity to generate employment for people," said Frigo, referring chiefly to Brazil's unemployed and to workers in the informal labour market.

Reflecting on Lula's human rights agenda, Victoria Sonnenberg is optimistic, saying she predicts there will be a return to the previous stage given his concrete proposals and established alliances.

Victoria Sonnenberg of theArueras Institute also underscores that women and girls' rights are inextricably linked to other factors, such as the environment, employment and income level and education. By joining the forces of different ministries, "these policies are also thought of in an intersectoral and transversal way, promoting the coordination of these policies among the federative entities, in a capillarised way, supporting states and municipalities," she said.

For Frigo, Lula would need to invest in conversations with different sectors and political groups to guarantee the approval of the necessary projects.

"On the one hand," he assessed, "if elected, the Lula government will suffer the impact of receiving a dismantled state; it should take time to rebuild the public machine so that he can invest in social and human rights areas.

"But on the other hand, after eight years of mandates of the Lula government and those of the Dilma government, there will be greater experience to choose structuring human rights policies."

Image by R4vi.

Article written by:
WhatsApp Image 2019-07-19 at 22.26.02
Ellen Nemitz
Embed from Getty Images
"Lula is not the door to heaven, but he is certainly the door out of hell."
Embed from Getty Images
"In the Lula and Dilma [Roussef, 2010-2016] administrations, there was a much greater possibility of social participation, with the holding of conferences and the existence of human rights councils that allowed the participation of thousands of people across the country."
Embed from Getty Images
"The progressive investment in education, health and social policies for the most vulnerable sections of the population is impacted by budget cuts."
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