Bolsonaro’s troubled legacy on science, health and the environment

Four years ago, scientists across Brazil feared the worst when Jair Bolsonaro was elected as the country’s next president. Bolsonaro had promised, for example, to withdraw Brazil from the Paris climate accord, disband the environment ministry and reduce the scope of protected areas if he wins. Although he has failed to deliver on some of those promises, the president has repeatedly clashed with Brazil’s scientific community and caused lasting damage, critics say. He has, for example, fired government officials who disagreed with him on issues such as increasing rates of deforestation and health measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, which has so far killed almost 700,000 people in Brazil.

Bolsonaro is now seeking a second term and Brazilians will head to the polls next week to vote. Before the election, Nature looks at the impact Bolsonaro is having on science, health and the environment.

Environmental destruction

One of the biggest impacts of the current government is on the environment. Data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) shows that deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has increased since the beginning of 2019 — last year it reached its highest level since 2008 (see “Deforestation Increases”).

Source: INPE/Terrabrasil

The trend began early in Bolsonaro’s tenure. By mid-2019, INPE reported that deforestation had increased sharply. Without evidence, the president accused the agency of falsifying deforestation data and said it was trying to harm the government. Physicist Ricardo Galvao, head of INPE at the time, stood up for the agency’s data and Bolsonaro fired him shortly after.

Even before Bolsonaro took office, he made his goals clear when he promised to end what he called the country’s environmental fines “industry” and disband the Environment Ministry – his team’s idea was to spread out its responsibilities among other ministries.

Although Bolsonaro did not explicitly dissolve the ministry, his administration carried out a plan “to dismantle the environment ministry from within,” says Sueli Araujo, former president of the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), the agency responsible for monitoring and fining violations of Brazil’s environmental laws.

The president kept his promise about the fines. In January, Bolsonaro saw an 80% reduction in IBAMA fines for rural properties.

“The result has been an explosion in rates of deforestation, feral cat mining and encroachment on public lands, followed by major social conflict,” says Araujo, who is now a public policy specialist at the Climate Observatory, a coalition of organizations focused on climate change. and the environment.

According to a report by the Hutukara Yanomami Association, an advocacy organization that represents the Yanomami people in Brazil, illegal mining increased by 46% in the territory of the Yanomami indigenous people in Roraima state in 2021 compared to the previous year. Federal prosecutors in Roraima asked a federal court to compel the national government to take action against mining operations that threaten the region’s indigenous population and have created what prosecutors called a “humanitarian crisis.”

Critics of Bolsonaro’s government say his lax enforcement of environmental laws has also led to a huge increase in forest fires, often started by people clearing land for agriculture. By August 2019, just a few months into Bolsonaro’s presidency, INPE reported that the number of fires had increased by more than 80% compared to the previous year. Bolsonaro suggested that environmentalists may have started the fires, although local media reported that the farmers who coordinated the burning believed their actions were supported by the president.

“In terms of environmental policy, the deconstruction of governance and monitoring processes will require time and resources to reconstruct,” says Mercedes Bustamante, an ecosystem ecologist at the University of Brasilia and author of a report for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “Ecosystems are destroyed as a result of such deconstruction, and this can lead to irreparable damage.”

President Bolsonaro’s office did not respond Naturerequests for comment.

Budget free fall

The government has also made significant cuts to research. In 2021, the total budget approved for science and technology in the Ministry of Science is effectively the lowest in at least two decades, according to numbers compiled by the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC) in São Paulo (see “About funding rock’).

Above the funding scale.  Bar chart showing the decline in science funding during Bolsonaro's presidency.

Source: Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science

The Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation funds agencies such as INPE and the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), which provides grants for research, equipment and materials. Another important source of support for science comes from the Ministry of Education. Grants from a foundation called the Coordination for the Advancement of Personnel in Higher Education (CAPES) sponsor training for new researchers.

In 2020 and 2021, combined grant funding for CNPq and CAPES was around 3.5 billion reais (US$680 million) per year, the lowest since 2009. The two agencies lost 45% of their grant budget during the Bolsonaro government (2019-2019 22), compared to 2015-18.

According to SBPC president Renato Jeanine Ribeiro, this is not the only problem. “In addition to budget cuts, there is an ongoing campaign to try to undermine the morale of public higher education, culture and public health,” said Ribeiro, who is Brazil’s former education minister.

Bolsonaro has criticized Brazil’s universities and “spreads lies such as that public universities are places of sex, disorder and confusion,” Ribeiro said. In 2019, Bolsonaro attacked their quality and said most students there “do everything but don’t study”.

State universities struggle to make ends meet. Some are likely to run out of money to pay bills and staff this month or next, “which means they may be forced to close their doors, even temporarily,” Ribeiro says.

Health crisis

One of the big challenges Brazil will face in the next few years is the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, says Isabela Soares Santos, a health policy researcher at Brazil’s National School of Public Health at the Osvaldo Cruz Foundation in Rio de Janeiro. .

Many health experts say Bolsonaro and his policies have greatly worsened the toll that COVID-19 has taken on Brazil. As the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus spread around the world in early 2020, Bolsonaro dismissed its dangers, calling it a “little flu” and a “fantasy.” He promoted herd immunity through natural infection and promoted the use of treatments that have been shown to be ineffective against COVID-19, such as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin. He also ignored the scientific advice of researchers and public health officials and fired Health Minister Luis Enrique Mandetta in April 2020 because he advocated measures such as physical distancing to slow the spread of the virus.

Among other actions, in March 2020 Bolsonaro signed a decree that included churches and lottery vendors as essential services that should not be interrupted by restrictions on operations that are set primarily at the state and city level.

Santos says President Bolsonaro’s support for ineffective solutions and his rejection of protective measures have paved the way for Brazil’s high number of COVID-19 deaths – more than 685,000 so far. Brazil had one of the highest death rates relative to population size.

But the issue is deeper. “The virus worsens pre-existing chronic conditions and creates other conditions, such as prolonged COVID,” she says. “We are all paying this bill and it is something the next government will have to deal with head on.” It will take years to rebuild what has been damaged,” says Santos.

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