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

Four years ago, scientists in Brazil feared the worst when Jair Bolsonaro was elected the country’s next president. Bolsonaro had promised, for example, to pull Brazil out of the Paris climate accord, dismantle the environment ministry and reduce the extent of protected areas if he won. Despite failing 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 soaring deforestation rates and health measures to curb the COVID-19 pandemic, which has so far killed nearly 700,000 people in Brazil.

Now Bolsonaro is seeking a second term and Brazilians will head to the polls next week to vote. Before the elections, Nature examines the impacts Bolsonaro has had on science, health and the environment.

Environmental destruction

The environment is one of the main impacts of the current government. 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 “Increase in deforestation”). deforestation”).

Source: INPE/Terrabrasilis

The trend started at the start of the Bolsonaro administration. In 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 Galvão, then director of INPE, defended the agency’s data and Bolsonaro fired him soon after.

Even before Bolsonaro took office, he made his goals clear by promising to end what he called “an industry” of environmental fines in the country and dismantle the environment ministry – l his team’s idea was to distribute its responsibilities among other departments.

Although Bolsonaro did not explicitly disband the ministry, his administration implemented a plan “to dismantle the environment ministry from the inside”, says Suely Araújo, former president of the Brazilian Environment Institute. and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), the agency responsible for monitoring and sanctioning violations of Brazilian environmental legislation.

The president kept his promise regarding the fines. In January, Bolsonaro celebrated an 80% reduction in IBAMA fines on rural properties.

“The result is an explosion of deforestation rates, uncontrolled mining and the invasion of public lands, followed by great social conflict,” says Araújo, who is now a public policy specialist at the Observatory of the Climate, 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 of Brazil, illegal mining increased by 46% in Yanomami indigenous territory in Roraima state in 2021, compared to the ‘last year. The federal prosecutor’s office in Roraima has asked a federal court to compel the national government to take action against mining operations, which threaten indigenous peoples in the area and have created what the prosecutor’s office called a “crisis humanitarian”.

Critics of the Bolsonaro government say its lax enforcement of environmental laws has also led to a sharp rise in wildfires, often started by people clearing land for agriculture. In August 2019, just 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 environmentalists may have started the fires, although local media reported that agricultural producers who were coordinating the blaze believed their actions were supported by the president.

“In terms of environmental policy, deconstructing governance and oversight processes will take time and resources to rebuild,” says Mercedes Bustamante, ecosystem ecologist at the University of Brasilia and author of the Intergovernmental Panel report. on climate change. “Ecosystems have been destroyed as a result of such deconstruction, and it can lead to irreparable damage.”

President Bolsonaro’s office did not respond to Nature‘s requests for comments.

Free fall of the budget

The government has also made substantial cuts to scientific research. In 2021, the total approved budget for science and technology in the Ministry of Science was actually the lowest in at least two decades, according to figures compiled by the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC) in São Paulo ( see ‘On cliff financing’).

Over the funding cliff.  Bar chart showing 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 Development of Higher Education Personnel (CAPES) sponsor the training of 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 values ​​since 2009. The two agencies lost 45 % of their subsidy budget under the Bolsonaro government (2019-22), compared to 2015-2018.

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

Bolsonaro criticized Brazilian universities and “spread lies such as public universities are places of sex, disorder and confusion,” says Ribeiro. In 2019, Bolsonaro attacked their quality and said most students there “do everything but study”.

Public universities are struggling to make ends meet. Some may run out of funds to pay bills and staff this month or next, “meaning they could be forced to shut down, even temporarily,” says Ribeiro.

Health crisis

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

Many health experts say Bolsonaro and his policies have dramatically exacerbated the toll 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 touted the use of treatments that have proven ineffective against COVID-19, such as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin. He also ignored scientific advice from researchers and public health officials and fired Health Minister Luiz Henrique 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 an executive order that included churches and lottery retailers as essential services that should not be interrupted by restrictions on operations, which were primarily set at state and local levels. cities.

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

But the problem is deeper. “The virus worsens already existing chronic diseases and creates other conditions, like the long COVID,” she says. “We are all footing this bill and it is something the next government will have to tackle head-on. It will take years to rebuild what has been damaged,” says Santos.

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