Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Future of the Environment under Populist Leaders and the Exampl

Originally Published in the December 2019 Journal, Breaking the Silence, Pg. 15

*Editorial Note: this article was written preceding the resignation of Evo Morales*

Bolsonaro and Morales’ interaction with the Amazon rainforest is a critical example of the danger that populist leaders can pose to the environment.

As a future plagued by the negative effects of climate change looms nearer, with extreme weather and rising sea levels already posing serious threats, it is becoming more pertinent than ever that international action is taken to mitigate climate change. The international community recognized this in 2015, when almost every nation adopted the Paris Agreement to limit the global temperature increase to a maximum of 2 degrees Celsius. However, the globe is facing a unique political challenge to reaching the goals of this agreement; rising populism is becoming a significant hurdle to solving the climate crisis and other environmental issues. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro and Bolivia’s President Evo Morales exemplify the ability for populist leaders to impair global efforts to protect the environment and climate by sacrificing long term sustainability in exchange for short term gain.

In early 2019, the Amazon rainforest began burning at a rate not seen for a decade. The Amazon is the largest continuous rainforest in the world, home to about 10 percent of all known animal species. It spans a portion of nine countries in South America, and it is one of the largest carbon sinks in the world. The Amazon alone absorbs and stores around two billion tons of carbon dioxide each year, or 5 percent of total emissions worldwide. However, burning the rainforest releases large amounts of carbon and prevents more from being stored. If the Amazon continues to shrink substantially or disappears, the consequences to global climate stability would be disastrous. Locally, sporadic and extreme flooding and droughts would widely increase, leading to more poverty in the region and disproportionately impacting indigenous groups.

The vast majority of the Amazon rainforest lies in Brazil, squarely under the control of far-right populist President Bolsonaro. Promoting economic growth was one of his core campaign promises, which earned him an endorsement from Brazil’s farming lobbyist group. Each year, farmers in Brazil slash-and-burn areas of the rainforest for agricultural purposes. However, this year there have been more intense and frequent fires than usual. The Amazon Environmental Research Institute claims the burning is directly correlated with intentional fire setting. This has led many to believe the burning may be so severe due to the rhetoric, lack of enforcement, and deliberate dismantling of environmental protections and institutions by the Bolsonaro administration. Brazil’s primary environmental enforcement agency, IBAMA, issued 20 percent fewer fines from January-July of 2019 than during the same period in 2018. Not coincidentally, the current amount of forest burning in conservation areas in 2019 is twice the average from 2010-2018.

When Bolsonaro was subjected to international criticism for standing by while the forest burned, causing fatalities and illegal logging, he vaguely blamed non-governmental organizations for setting the fires to undermine his government. He also suggested that a wildlife refuge near Rio de Janeiro could be turned into a “Brazilian Cancún,'' referring to the highly developed and tourism-dependent city in Mexico. Furthermore, he rejected aid to fight the fires from some of the richest democracies in the world, perhaps due to a personal feud. While he has claimed he will take a “zero tolerance” approach to environmental degradation, his record strongly suggests he will do otherwise.

Brazil has received the most media attention, but its neighbor to the southwest is experiencing extreme fires while comparatively evading international attention. Bolivia’s populist, far-left president Evo Morales campaigned on promises of environmental democracy and was elected largely by the country’s indigenous majority as a ‘man of the people.’ He charmed the population with his modest background as a coca leaf farmer and the prospect of being the first indigenous president. However, Morales has not represented the interests of his base on numerous occasions, most notably when he failed to protect Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory by allowing a highway to be built through the area. Like Bolsonaro, Morales has promoted an agricultural boom since he took office, issuing a decree allowing slash-and-burn farming. Many speculate this could be a major contributing factor to the forest fires in Bolivia, which are hitting the Amazon Basin as well as the Bolivian grasslands and other forests. The Defense Minister of Bolivia, Javier Zavaleta, baselessly blamed “saboteurs” for the fires. While Morales eventually accepted international aid to fight the fires, it would be willful ignorance to assume he is truly fighting for environmental protection.

This assault on the environment under both President Bolsonaro and President Morales should not come as a surprise. A study conducted by the Guardian in March of 2019 analyzed the speech of 140 world leaders and, based on their rhetoric, ranked them from 0-2, with 2 representing the highest degree of populist speech. Bolsonaro and Morales both appeared on the scale, with Bolsonaro receiving 0.5 or “somewhat populist” and Morales 1.5 or “very populist.” Populist leaders frequently take actions that result in short-term benefits for a particular subset of the population but may harm the nation in the long term. Such shortcomings stem from the anti-elitist motivations by which constituencies elect populist leaders. However, climate change demands long-term mitigation efforts in collaboration with other nations. Historically, most actions to limit greenhouse gas emissions have been top-down and driven by elite actors in conjunction with international governments and non-governmental organizations. Therefore, many of the characteristics of populist leadership appear to directly oppose environmental protection and climate change mitigation.

While Bolsonaro and Morales differ on other issues, it is clear that one of the world’s most important environmental resources is trapped between two volatile leaders. Bolsonaro and Morales’ interaction with the Amazon rainforest is a critical example of the potential danger that populist leaders can pose to the environment. In recent years, some of the world’s largest producers of greenhouse gases have elected leaders that many would consider populist, including the United States, India, Mexico, and Indonesia. When adopting the Paris Agreement the vast majority of nations indicated that progress in environmental health and combating climate change was important. The nations still committed to protecting the environment should turn their attention to populist leaders worldwide, if their leaders have not already followed suit.

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