Amazon fires scorch Bolsonaro’s reputation abroad, but not in Brazil

President Jair Bolsonaro has drawn sharp criticism at the international stage for his handling of wildfires raging in the Amazon, but at home few Brazilians are angered by his reluctant response. Many of his fellow citizens share his aversion to what they see as foreign meddling in how to strike a balance between protecting and developing the Amazon rainforest.

The vast region is regarded at home as a key national asset but is seen globally as a crucial bulwark against climate change. But, opinions in Brazil may change if trade sanctions or boycotts start to weigh on an already weak economy, politicians and analysts say. This year, a surge in the number of fires in the Amazon has sparked international outrage and protests in front of Brazilian embassies.

Environmentalists claim most of the fires were illegally set by land speculators and ranchers seeking to expand pastures in the Amazon who feel emboldened by Bolsonaro’s criticism of excessive environmental protections. Bolsonaro has denied the fires were deliberate and repeatedly told European countries in particular not to interfere.

An opinion poll this week found almost 60 percent of Brazilians considered Bolsonaro’s government to have done a great, good, or normal job, indicating they were still willing to give the president the benefit of doubt, said Leonardo Barreto, head of Brasilia-based consultancy Capital Politico.

“Ironically, this crisis may have increased Bolsonaro’s popularity because of his nationalism grounded in the threat of losing control over the Amazon to foreigners,” said Welber Barral, a lobbyist and former Brazilian foreign trade secretary. Many Brazilians believe the Amazon contains untold riches in minerals that are coveted by other nations, from gold to niobium. This belief, long a central doctrine of Brazil’s armed forces, feeds suspicion of any role by foreigners in the Amazon, even non-governmental organisations that work to protect the environment and indigenous tribes.

However, Bolsonaro was criticised by politicians in Congress — even by some allies — for taking too long to act in tackling the fires and wasting time on the slinging match with Macron, who accused him of lying about the rate of deforestation in the Amazon. The biggest problem facing Bolsonaro was the lack of any solid recovery in Brazil’s economy on his watch, Barbalho said.

Now the Amazon crisis had damaged Brazil’s image abroad and that could ricochet on the economy, he warned. Some countries have already threatened sanctions because of Bolsonaro’s environmental policies and consumers may decide to boycott Brazilian beef.

“That would directly affect one of Bolsonaro’s main — if not the main — electoral base, the agribusiness industry, which has backed him from the word go,” political risk analyst Barreto said. Barreto added Bolsonaro’s administration will stand or fall on its economic record, especially an unpopular overhaul of the pension system that is winding its way through Congress.

The global outcry over the fires in the Amazon and Bolsonaro’s environmental policies could also start to influence investors.

In the first sign of a backlash, the US parent company of apparel and shoe brands Timberland, Vans and the North Face said on Thursday it will no longer buy leather from Brazil due to concerns about the environment. Companies in Europe and elsewhere could be pressed by their shareholders to stop investing in environmentally sensitive regions of Brazil, in sectors such as mining, Barral said.

That would not help growth prospects for Brazil, which economists have reduced to just 0.8 percent for this year. – Reuters