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Environmental Policies Of Brazil's New President Jair Bolsonaro Alarming Scientists


Brazil's new president is promising to bring dramatic changes to his country. Jair Bolsonaro capitalized on voters' frustration with corruption, violence and economic turmoil. He's a far-right politician who promises to loosen environmental regulations, including in the Amazon rainforest. This alarms scientists like Suzana Padua. She's president of the Institute for Ecological Research in the state of Sao Paulo, and she joins us now. Welcome.

SUZANA PADUA: It's a pleasure to be here.

SHAPIRO: What are Bolsonaro's plans on environmental policy?

PADUA: One of the things that he is considering is to put together the Agriculture Ministry and the Environmental Ministry. This is in a way like giving your chicken to the fox because (laughter) there's a huge pressure on the ruralist side. They are very powerful landowners, and they want to deforest more usually for cattle and soy. There's an international pressure on this. So the idea of putting these two ministries together is very scary. It's a threat to the environment.

SHAPIRO: When you say there's pressure on Bolsonaro, do you mean pressure to cut down more trees to produce more beef and soybeans, or do you mean pressure to preserve the environment and maintain the Amazon rainforest?

PADUA: What we see is pressure to deforest more and have cattle.

SHAPIRO: Just in terms of practical consequences, if Bolsonaro does say the Amazon rainforest is now open for logging and mining and agriculture, what would the immediate real-world impact of that be?

PADUA: I think the First World would definitely come with a lot of pressure, and I'm hoping for that. But I don't think he's going to get to that point. He has been choosing ministers in a way that are respected. Today he chose Sergio Moro to be the minister of justice, and he's the symbol of anti-corruption. So he's been trying to choose good ministers in finance and so forth. I don't think he wishes to put down the forest. I don't - I really don't think - I've never seen him...

SHAPIRO: So if I interpret what you're saying correctly, it sounds like you believe that maybe his more extreme campaign promises were just campaign promises and he'll moderate his views now that he's in power.

PADUA: I hope so. Until yesterday, he was saying that the two ministries would be joint, but now he's coming back again. So I think it's not decided.

SHAPIRO: Explain for us how much is at stake here. If he does loosen restrictions on deforestation - if he does open the Amazon rainforest up to logging and mining and agriculture, what are the global consequences of that?

PADUA: It's a huge threat because the Amazon is really a source of balance of the whole water system and rain system. We see already with the deforestation that occurred - many scientists make it responsible for the crisis of water in the rest of Brazil itself, so desertification, all the soil being eroded. It could be a loss that it - I cannot imagine and I cannot bear with because I think the world doesn't deserve it.

SHAPIRO: You've been an environmental researcher in Brazil for years. Can you give us some insight into the kinds of conversations that are happening within the scientific community right now?

PADUA: I've been having meetings with many scientists. And all the environmentalists in Brazil are really very skeptical and scared. Scared, I think, is the best word. You know, they - everything that we have achieved took us 30 years, even in the constitution. So I don't - it's in the constitution. So I don't think he's going to have the courage to go against all that. There's a great deal of pressure, but I don't think that it's going to get to that extreme.

SHAPIRO: Suzana Padua is co-founder and president of the Institute for Ecological Research in the state of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Thanks for joining us today.

PADUA: Oh, thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: And she joined us via Skype.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAM DA SILVA'S "BEM TRANQUILO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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