‘Tropical Trump’ victory in Brazil stuns scientists

Jair Bolsonaro will be the country’s next president, leaving researchers worried about the future of science, the environment and democracy.

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Bolsonaro supporters cheer and hold up balloons showing Bolsonaro's likeness after hearing the results

Supporters celebrate Jair Bolsonaro's win in Brazil's presidential election on 28 October.Credit: Sergio Lima/AFP/Getty

Former military officer Jair Bolsonaro rode a wave of anti-establishment anger to victory in Brazil’s presidential election on 28 October, leaving many researchers stunned and worried about the future of their country.

It’s a major, major disaster for Brazil, not a temporary blip,” says Paulo Artaxo, an atmospheric physicist at the University of São Paulo.

Bolsonaro, a congressional representative from Rio de Janeiro known as the ‘Tropical Trump’, captured around 55% of the vote in a runoff election against Fernando Haddad, former mayor of São Paulo. None of the 13 presidential candidates garnered a majority during the first round of voting on 7 October, which prompted the runoff between the top two candidates.

Bolsonaro capitalized on Brazil’s flailing economy and a long-running political corruption scandal that landed popular former president, Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, in prison earlier this year. Bolsonaro promised to crack down on rising levels of violent crime and government corruption, roll back environmental regulations and promote economic development.

The right-wing politician has also voiced admiration of the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985. And Bolsonaro’s choice for vice president, retired general Hamilton Mourão, has talked about potentially using military intervention to quell political instability.

Threatening the environment

Although Bolsonaro has backed down from an earlier promise to pull Brazil out of the 2015 Paris climate accord, he has said that he will merge the environment and agriculture ministries as part of a broader effort to loosen regulations on the agricultural industry.

The move would align with attempts by the conservative rural caucus in Brazil’s Congress to roll back government efforts to rein in deforestation in the Amazon — Brazil’s largest source of carbon emissions. The rate of deforestation in the Amazon driven by agriculture plummeted by nearly 84% between 2004 and 2012, when it reached a historic low of 4,571 square kilometres. But the amount of forest being cleared for ranching and farming has started to rise in the past few years.

Based on satellite data, Brazilian scientists estimate that some 6,947 square kilometres of the Amazon was cleared in 2017 — an area roughly the size of Delaware. That's a 52% increase over 2012 levels, and many scientists expect a major spike under Bolsonaro.

Jair Bolsonaro

Jair Bolsonaro waves to supporters during a September rally.Credit: Andre Coelho/Bloomberg/Getty

Samara Carbone, an atmospheric scientist at the Federal University of Uberlândia in Minas Gerais, says that many of her students are worried about job prospects in the environmental sciences under a Bolsonaro presidency. Some have even talked about switching fields. She wonders about her own future too, including her job safety. Carbone even wonders whether she might one day leave Brazil in search of other opportunities.

“I'm afraid of living in a place where I cannot freely express my ideas and opinions, where universities, schools and hospitals won't be open and free to everyone, where our natural resources are no longer preserved,” she says.

University raids

Just days before the run-off election, Brazilian media reported raids by police and election authorities of at least 17 universities, which were purportedly intended to crack down on illegal campaigning. It’s against the law for academics in Brazil to advocate for particular candidates and for students to campaign in public spaces such as universities. Authorities interviewed students and professors and confiscated computer hard drives, flyers and banners.

Students and academics have criticized the raids as efforts to suppress intellectual freedom, arguing that many of the materials seized made no specific mention of either Bolsonaro or Haddad.

Students have the right to engage in political discussion about democracy and the threat of fascism, says Eliane Alves, a Brazilian biologist at the Max Planck Institute in Jena, Germany, who studies interactions between the forest and atmosphere in the Amazon. “In my opinion, this is censorship, and it smells like dictatorship.”

The rise of Bolsonaro has caught many off guard. “It’s very hard to understand what’s going on,” says Artaxo. “Brazilian society was always characterized by tolerance, but here we are, shooting to the extreme right.”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07220-4

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