In Brazil’s presidential race, the stakes for science and the environment are huge

Brazil’s presidential race is much closer than the polls predicted—and scientists are fretting. Many fear that another term for President Jair Bolsonaro, the right-wing former army captain who frequently attacked science, would bring irreversible damage to science, education, the environment—and even to Brazilian democracy itself. Bolsonaro has cast doubts on the Brazilian voting system and signaled he will not recognize the results if he loses.

His rival, leftist former President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, comes with his own baggage: He was convicted on corruption charges in 2018 and spent 18 months in prison before his sentence was annulled. But he has promised to invest more in science and to chart a greener course than during his first presidency, from 2003 to 2011.

In September, polling data suggested Lula had a comfortable lead and might even win an absolute majority in the first round on 2 October. But he only received 48% of the vote, whereas Bolsonaro did better than expected with 43%, necessitating a 30 October runoff. “I’m worried,” says Luiz Davidovich, a professor and physicist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro’s main campus and former president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences. “What is at stake now is democracy itself, the freedom of thinking, and the survival of science in Brazil.”

Bolsonaro’s government made deep cuts in science and education budgets. He also ridiculed evidence-based COVID-19 measures such as vaccination and social distancing while promoting unproven treatments such as hydroxychloroquine. Last year, a parliamentary inquiry recommended Bolsonaro be charged with crimes against humanity for his administration’s botched response to the pandemic, which killed more than 600,000 Brazilians.

Bolsonaro’s administration promoted development in the Amazon and often turned a blind eye to illegal deforestation, resulting in the loss of 31,000 square kilometers of vegetation, an area the size of Belgium, during his 4 years in power. (According to the independent research group MapBiomas, only 2.4% of satellite-based deforestation alerts issued by federal environmental agencies between 2019 and 2021 resulted in follow-up inspections or enforcement.) The government created new rules that weakened environmental inspections, and in March, Bolsonaro proposed a new law allowing mining concessions inside Indigenous reserves. The bill, which critics say violates Indigenous sovereignty rights guaranteed under Brazil’s constitution, was fast-tracked and is now under consideration in Congress.

The government has also weakened federal agencies and institutions in charge of monitoring and acting on deforestation, such as the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources and the National Space Agency. Even a new government would “have a hard time to stop the destruction and rebuild the institutions,” says Mercedes Bustamante, an ecologist at the Federal University of Brasèlia and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

During Lula’s presidency a decade ago, science funding grew, especially during his first term. Lula also presided over a booming economy that lifted millions out of poverty, but his administration was tainted by accusations of corruption, culminating in the impeachment of his successor Dilma Rousseff in 2016 and Lula’s arrest and conviction for corruption and money laundering in 2018. His 12-year sentence was annulled in 2020 because the judge who convicted him was deemed partial, but Lula was never officially absolved. He proclaims his innocence and argues his prosecution was politically motivated.

Regardless of his past, many scientists and environmental advocates believe he is the better alternative. Whereas Bolsonaro’s election platform is vague on science, calling for more private funding for technological innovation in companies, Lula’s platform describes science as “strategical and central to transforming Brazil into a truly sovereign and developed country.” The former union leader often boasts about opening more public universities than any other president and promises new investments to foster scientific and technological development. His campaign has pledged to follow a “zero deforestation” policy, combat illegal land use, and restore degraded areas. His platform says Brazil will honor its commitment to reduce carbon emissions under the 2015 Paris agreement. (Bolsonaro’s government has been criticized for its permissive approach to calculating those carbon emissions.)

Lula didn’t always prioritize the environment. Marina da Silva, his former environment minister, left his government in 2008 because she opposed Lula’s development plans, including the construction of the Belo Monte hydropower dam, a massive project in Para state. But Lula recently won back her support by adopting several points of da Silva’s environmental agenda, including the pledge to make Brazil a leader in the fight against climate change.

Davidovich has some faith that Lula will honor his promises. In June, he and colleagues at the Brazilian Academy of Sciences prepared a report containing science, education, and environmental policy advice for the next government. Lula sent a representative to discuss his plans with the group—the only candidate to do so. “This is a very positive sign,” Davidovich says. “It shows they are open for dialogue and interested in science and innovation.”

Repairing Brazil’s image abroad would be one of Lula’s most important challenges, says physicist and ecologist Paulo Artaxo at the University of São Paulo’s main campus. “Brazil will have to go back to be an important player in the international scenario, not only in climate and environmental issues, but as a leader in Latin America,” he says.

But a Lula government would be severely constrained. The Brazilian Congress has already approved the budget for 2023, which contains major cuts for science and education that the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science, in an open letter last month, called a “suicidal strategy” for science. As a last-minute act, Bolsonaro also approved by decree a cut of 1.2 billion reais ($225 million) to the National Fund for Scientific and Technological Development. The cut could hamper operations at Sirius, a recently completed accelerator that will generate intense radiation for biology and materials studies.

The composition of the new Congress elected on 2 October would also hamper a Lula government. No party won an absolute majority, but Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party has the largest number of seats in both houses of parliament, tipping Congress further to the right. If Lula becomes president, his Worker’s Party would have to form difficult alliances with center-right parties to govern.

That’s still much better than another term for the sitting president, Bustamante says. “This election is not about what a new government can build; it is about what is left for us to protect,” she says. “Four more years of Bolsonaro would be to put a final nail in the coffin for science and the environment in Brazil.”

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