On 2 August, Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies voted by 264 to 227 to block the Supreme Court’s right to rule on allegations of obstruction of justice and conspiracy levelled against President Michel Temer.
It was an unequivocal political victory for the president, who clings onto power in part due to his support among the business community and agribusiness sector – even though his victory itself came at high fiscal and environmental costs.
A productive sector
The agriculture and food industry accounted for a combined 34% of Brazilian exports in June; while sectoral exports increased by 15% this year according to the national bureau of statistics, IBGE. However, as is the case with almost everything in Brazil, agriculture is highly unequal. The 0.002% wealthiest rural producers receive 23% of available state-subsidised credit, while the poorest 20% of producers receive just 2.4% of these funds.
As part of his strategy to survive a deepening political crisis, President Temer has issued costly executive orders and sped up the payment of legislative amendments to the federal budget. The day before the vote on his political future, he issued an executive order granting US$2.4 billion in tax breaks to private agricultural enterprises, in spite of Brazil’s precarious fiscal scenario.
A deep economic depression sees the country’s annual deficit stand at US$50.2 billion. To combat this downturn, the federal government launched a programme of incentives for public servants to voluntarily resign in order to curb public spending by up to US$300 million per year.
However, as the heat increased on the Temer administration and the congressional vote on his political future loomed, it paid out US$1.2 billion in budgetary amendments in June and July – a 40-fold increase on the amount spent during the first five months of 2017 combined. When survival is at stake, it seems that Temer will funnel money to wherever it shall accrue him the most political capital.
Temer’s struggle for political survival will also reverberate in Brazil’s carbon emissions. Easing regulations and surveillance on deforestation had been another way of securing the votes of agricultural interest groups in the lower chamber.
Highlighting the prevalence of congressional factionalism in Brazil, 200 of the 513 national deputies belong to the Agricultural Parliamentary Front, spread across 18 different political parties. It is virtually impossible to pass any important legislation without negotiating with and appeasing this group.
Their main goals are to obtain tax breaks from the government and curb restrictions on new lands for cattle ranching, mining and soy farming. These lands are largely located in the Amazon rainforest. As a way to curry favour with this pivotal congressional bloc, President Temer issued an executive order granting amnesty for every plot of public land taken over illegally for agriculture between 2004 and 2011.
As land invasions are the main driver of deforestation, Temer’s decision will contribute to increasing Brazil’s carbon emissions. The president also agreed to an old request from the agricultural sector to allow logging, mining and farming in a 350,000 hectare area inside the Jamanxim National Park, located in the Amazon.
Neglect for Brazil’s forests
The Brazilian Climate Observatory, a network of 40 NGOs, say that big landowners frequently invade the territory of national parks to clear land, and this latest move on the part of the Temer administration is giving incentives to impunity.
In many parts of the Amazon region, wood producers, cattle ranchers and soy growers “denounce” international environmental NGOs, such as WWF and Greenpeace, as “agents of foreign interests”. This discourse gains traction in some sectors: local communities often rely on jobs created by agriculture, even though they are extremely poorly paid.
In turn, part of nationalistic right-wing – and some left-wing figures – call against “imperialism in the Amazon forest”. To counter this, leading right-wing figures such as presidential pre-candidate Jair Bolsonaro, are proponents of widespread deforestation.
Working the system
Temer knows how Congress works better than almost anybody in Brazil. He was the Speaker of the House for three terms between 1997 and 2010, and president of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro, or PMDB), the largest party in Brazil, from 2001 to 2016.
It is also the most fragmented party in the country, often running as a confederation of multiple regional interests. Indeed, it is a catch-all party that requires state mechanisms such as funding and key positions in ministries and state-run companies to exchange for the the loyalty of its members in legislative votes.
As political commentator Maria Cristina Fernandes put it, ex-President Dilma Rousseff was an amateur coalition builder in comparison with Temer. Even though he is the most unpopular President in Brazil’s recent democratic history, Temer is a fine operator inside the institutions and he knows how to use his executive mandate to his advantage.
The increasing dependence on agribusiness support is a political calculation of Temer to stay in the presidency. In this scenario, climate change and fiscal solidity are far from top priorities: that remains his own political survival.