Brazil trade with U.S. sees worst result in 11 years

The most notable change in Brazilian foreign policy since the election of President Jair Bolsonaro in 2018 has been the country’s full alignment with the U.S. However, this shift in allegiances has yet to result in any concrete gains for Brazil — in fact, bilateral trade with the U.S. has just seen its worst result in 11 years. Between January and September of this year, accumulated trade between the two countries hit USD 33.4 billion, a 25 percent drop from the same period in 2019. 

Regardless, the U.S. remains Brazil’s second-largest trading partner, accounting for 9.7 percent of Brazilian exports and 12.3 percent of revenue. Only China detains a larger slice, buying up over one-third of Brazil’s exports.[restricted]

According to data from the American Chamber of Commerce in Brazil (AmCham Brasil), 2020 is shaping up to end with a Brazil-U.S. trade deficit of between USD 2.4 and 2.8 billion — the worst result in five or six years. The findings are presented in AmCham Brasil’s latest Brazil-U.S. Trade Monitor, published this week.

Sluggish trade: pandemic to blame?

The AmCham Brasil report singles out three leading factors to explain the sharp downturn in bilateral trade. “The combination of the severe effects of the economic crisis caused by the [Covid-19] pandemic, the fall in global oil prices, and trade restrictions in specific sectors – such as the steel industry, account for a large part of the contraction in bilateral trade,” explained AmCham Brasil’s executive vice president, Abrão Neto.

Mr. Neto went on to say that the delayed effect of the pandemic on imports was due to the customs clearance of orders made and shipped before the crisis continuing to be carried out in the early stages of the pandemic. Furthermore, a large part of Brazil’s trade with the U.S. is made up of intra-company exchanges, which may have taken some time to reflect the drop in demand.

“It was a severe blow for bilateral commerce, but our assessment is that the worst is behind us,” said Mr. Neto. AmCham Brasil is confident in the recovery of international goods and services trade, and of the demand this will bring to Brazilian and U.S. exporters.

Amid the unforeseen Covid-19 crisis, another factor set to reclaim importance is the trade war between the U.S. and China. “This will continue for some time and the entire world is factoring it into the equation as a variable,” said Mr. Neto. However, it is stressed that tensions between the two countries are unlikely to be specifically crucial in Brazil-U.S. relations, but it will have an effect on global trade as a whole.

In September of last year, the International Monetary Fund (FMI) predicted growth of just 0.8 percent for the global economy in 2020, as a result of the China-U.S. trade war. This, of course, was before the Covid-19 pandemic came to decimate all forecasts for this year.

Difference between the U.S. and China

Brazil’s export portfolio to the U.S. — with 87.2 percent comprising products with higher added value — goes some way to explaining the fall in trade seen in 2020. For instance, the trend is drastically different in Brazil-China trade, which saw an uptick due to agricultural commodities.

The one commodity that did have an influence on Brazil’s trade balance with the U.S. was oil, prices of which have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels after collapsing in March. In total, oil and fuel make up for 8.9 percent of all Brazilian exports to the U.S.[/restricted]


Brazil captured a notorious drug boss — then let him go

In September 2019, Brazilian police arrested 43-year-old André Oliveira Macedo — a drug kingpin best known as André do Rap — after being on the run for six years. As one of the top brass of the First Command of the Capital (PCC) — Brazil’s largest organized crime gang — André do Rap was hiding out in a luxury mansion in the Rio de Janeiro beach town of Angra dos Reis.

The investigation that led to his arrest was long and painstaking, involving the collaboration of law enforcement agents from Italy and the U.S., as a result of André do Rap’s involvement with transnational drug trafficking. When he was taken in, several of his luxury possessions were seized, including a helicopter, yacht, and a 4×4 Hyundai Tucson.

However, after just one year in custody, André do Rap was set free on a legal technicality. And before the Supreme Court could rectify this mistake, he was already at large, with authorities believing the drug boss has now fled the country.[restricted]

Slipped through their fingers

André do Rap was a key figure within the international expansion of the PCC and its consolidation as South America’s widest reaching drug cartel. His role was to oversee the trafficking of immense quantities of cocaine from the Port of Santos, in São Paulo state, over to Calabria in southwest Italy. From there, the product was picked up by the PCC’s notorious Italian allies ‘Ndrangheta and distributed Europe-wide. 

But despite a sentence of over 25 years in jail for international drug trafficking, André do Rap walked out of jail last Saturday, thanks to a court order by Supreme Court Justice Marco Aurélio Mello. His lawyers claimed that their client’s preventive detention had not been renewed within the legally stipulated time frame of 90 days — a new rule introduced by the so-called Anti-Crime Bill, ratified by President Jair Bolsonaro in January. Finding this to be true, Justice Marco Aurélio ordered his immediate release.

Indeed, the Supreme Court justice acted according to the law, later affirming in an interview to TV Globo that he made the decision as a member of the Supreme Court, “not as the citizen Marco Aurélio Mello.” “The law is there to be complied with and followed,” he added.

Unsurprisingly, the decision divided opinion among the Supreme Court, legal scholars, and politicians, once more exposing the complexity of Brazil’s penal system.

Shutting the barn door after the drug dealer has bolted

Justice Marco Aurélio Mello’s decision caused such an immediate stir that Chief Justice Luiz Fux moved to suspend his colleague’s decision the very same day, ordering André do Rap to return to preventive detention immediately. He also put the case on the Supreme Court’s docket for Wednesday afternoon, where a majority of justices are expected to vote against Justice Marco Aurélio Mello’s decision.

However, in the interim between the release order and Chief Justice Fux’s suspension, André do Rap had already walked out the front door of a São Paulo penitentiary, where he was driven off by a luxury car after informing authorities he would be staying at a house in the coastal São Paulo town of Guarujá. Once his re-arrest was ordered, police could not locate him in Guarujá, nor at the homes of his family and friends. The Federal Police believes he has fled to Paraguay or Bolivia, where the PCC has established operations.

Political backlash after drug

In Congress, a group of supporters of President Bolsonaro are maneuvering to submit bills to remove the mandatory review of preventive detentions from Brazil’s penal code. Figures close to the president say that Justice Marco Aurélio Mello made an error in his decision, claiming he should have assessed the case at hand and ruled that release was not an option, due to the significant danger posed by the prisoner.

Former Justice Minister Sergio Moro, by way of his press office, declared that he was against the inclusion of the mandatory 90-day review of preventive detentions in January’s new penal legislation. “The article was not in the original draft of the Anti-Crime Bill and I, as Justice Minister, was opposed to its insertion for fear of automatic releases of dangerous prisoners as a result of the mere passing of time.”

Domino effect

At least two individuals in prison for international drug trafficking have already made similar requests for release to the Supreme Court. One, arrested in 2016, is serving a 33-year sentence, while the other is facing 35 years.

As added intrigue to the existing fiasco, online magazine Crusoé revealed that the law firm providing André do Rap’s defense has a former aide to Justice Marco Aurélio Mello among its partners. Asked about this during a telephone interview to CNN Brasil on Tuesday, the justice criticized the question and hung up the phone. “That is defamation. This interview is over,” he said.

So far this year, Justice Marco Aurélio Mello has granted at least 79 release requests based on the provision of mandatory renewal of preventive detentions. The number could be even higher, as a single habeas corpus plea may benefit more than one individual.[/restricted]


Who is Brazil’s new Supreme Court justice?

Brazil’s longest serving Supreme Court Justice Celso de Mello retires from the court this afternoon, 31 years after first occupying his seat. His vacancy has offered far-right President Jair Bolsonaro his very first shot at appointing a justice to the Supreme Court — a process that is often fraught with realpolitik and cynical self-preservation. However, Mr. Bolsonaro’s pick — 48-year-old federal judge Kassio Nunes Marques — came as something of a shock to political pundits in Brasília.

Despite having promised an ultra-conservative and “extremely Evangelical” appointment to the Supreme Court, Jair Bolsonaro selected a justice with long-term links to the well-heeled establishment of Brazilian politics — a group that the president himself railed against throughout his campaign and first year in office, much to the delight of his supporters.[restricted]

Indeed, the process of agreeing on Kassio Nunes Marques as Brazil’s newest Supreme Court justice was a team effort, involving President Bolsonaro sitting down with a number of political actors who his more ideological fans abhor. On September 29, Senate President Davi Alcolumbre met with Mr. Bolsonaro, with the former telephoning current Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes to organize a sit-down with the head of state. Messrs. Alcolumbre and Mendes, it should be noted, have both been targeted and made into effigies by pro-Bolsonaro protesters during demonstrations as recently as May.

Soon after, Jair Bolsonaro arrived at Justice Mendes’s house in Brasília, accompanied by Kassio Nunes Marques. Fellow Supreme Court Justice Dias Toffoli — another bête noire of the president’s ideological base — was also in attendance. As it happened, Mr. Bolsonaro and Justice Toffoli were pictured hugging after the meeting, dividing the president’s supporters on social media.

Two days later, Mr. Bolsonaro declared the appointment of Kassio Nunes Marques, who will now have to pass a largely perfunctory confirmation hearing in the Senate.

A bolt from the blue

The choice of Kassio Nunes Marques — who intends to go by the title Justice Nunes Marques once sworn in — took almost everyone in Brasília by surprise. He did not feature on even the most exhaustive lists of favorites for a Supreme Court pick and he quickly angered President Bolsonaro’s ultra-conservative supporters, to which the head of state’s choices have largely been beholden so far.

First and foremost, Nunes Marques’s political affiliations were called into question. While on the one hand he was branded as a lackey of the so-called “Big Center” — the large establishment caucus within Congress, made up of small to medium-sized parties willing to buy and sell their support — some pointed to his alleged links to the center-left Workers’ Party, Jair Bolsonaro’s declared enemies, with whom fraternization is seen as a cardinal sin within Bolsonarism.

Indeed, in 2011, Marques Nunes entered the Federal Regional Appellate Court of the 1st Region, in Brasília, after being appointed by former President Dilma Rousseff, of the Workers’ Party.

He was also involved in an emblematic case in 2019, when he overturned a trial court decision to suspend the purchase of wine and lobsters for a Supreme Court function. The case was capitalized upon by supporters of President Bolsonaro — including his politician sons — as an example of the excessive privileges enjoyed by the country’s highest court, which they intended to have shut down.

In another high-profile trial dating back to 2015, he voted in favor of suspending the deportation of Cesare Battisti, the former communist activist who was sentenced to life in prison for quadruple homicide in his home country of Italy, before fleeing to Brazil to receive political asylum from former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Under Jair Bolsonaro’s government, Mr. Battisti was eventually arrested and extradited to Italy.

The Cesare Battisti case held particular importance for the ideological platform of the then-nascent Jair Bolsonaro government. As a former member of a far-left terrorist group in Italy, and having been given shelter by Lula, arresting and deporting Mr. Battisti was a message to the Brazilian left, as well as being a way to further the government’s foreign policy goals.

The man in the middle

Despite allegations of links to the center-left Workers’ Party, Nunes Marques’s most credible alliances do indeed lie with the Big Center. Indeed, his wife Maria do Socorro has worked under four senators from the couple’s home state of Piauí, all of them from traditional Big Center parties. Indeed, she was set to double her salary just as her husband got his own big break, when the Progressistas party lined her up for a commissioned post in the Senate but backed down once the news had been published by Rio de Janeiro paper O Globo.

The Progressistas party is presided over by Ciro Nogueira, who is now a close ally of President Bolsonaro and one of Mr. Nunes Marques’s biggest backers. Last year, Mr. Nogueira praised the soon-to-be Supreme Court justice during a trial session. “Our Kassio [Nunes Marques] is a highly respected figure in the legal world of today, I am certain that he will reach the high courts, either the [Superior Court of Justice] or the Supreme Court. He is a much liked and respected individual.”[/restricted]


Pillar of Brazil’s Supreme Court retires

Since Brazil’s return to democracy in the late 1980s, the country’s Supreme Court has faced many bumps and controversies along the way. The highest judicial body in the land has been the stage of earth-shattering trials, it sent a former president to jail, it had its chief justice presiding over two impeachment trials, it faced threats from radical groups, and it saw itself at war — sometimes veiled, sometimes not — with the other two branches of government.

One thing, however, has remained constant: the presence of Justice Celso de Mello, the court’s longest-tenured member, who now reaches the mandatory retirement age of 75 and steps down after 31 years. The story of the Supreme Court during democratic times is intertwined with Justice Mello’s own career.[restricted]

And on October 13, the Supreme Court will lose its staunchest defender of individual civil rights. Celso de Mello famously voided a police raid of a homeless man’s tent, considering that the tent was the man’s legal domicile and, therefore, no police action could take place there without a warrant, or before 6 am, as Brazilian law dictates. 

Furthermore, since 2019, Justice Mello has also distinguished himself as the court’s most-vocal opponent to President Jair Bolsonaro. He has used his decisions to counter what he sees as the head of state’s threats to democratic order — going as far as comparing the current moment to the crumbling of the Weimar Republic in Germany, which saw Adolf Hitler become chancellor. 

“With all necessary caveats, the ‘serpent’s egg’ seems to be ready to hatch, like what happened in the Weimar Republic,” he said, in a statement to his peers.

In his last trial, Justice Mello once again positioned himself in defiance of the president. He voted not to allow Mr. Bolsonaro to provide written testimony to investigators who are examining alleged illegal presidential interference in the Federal Police. “Nobody, not even the head of the Executive branch, is above the Constitution,” he declared, in what was the Brazilian judiciary’s answer to a mic drop.

Now, President Bolsonaro will select Celso de Mello’s replacement on the country’s highest court. The official nomination has gone to federal judge Kássio Nunes, who will undergo a Senate confirmation hearing on October 21 — early reports suggest a majority of senators will endorse his appointment.

Presumption of innocence above all else

A former prosecutor himself, Celso de Mello has proven himself to be an intransigent champion of individual freedoms, with little tolerance for prosecutors and judges who overstep the rules supposedly in the name of the “greater good.” Such creative interpretations of the law have been leveled at several anti-corruption investigations in Brazil, particularly the now-moribund Operation Car Wash. 

In a court in which justices feel comfortable changing their interpretation of the law depending on the political climate, Justice Mello has been a rare source of stability. Like his decisions or not, they have been coherent with the values he preaches.

And in a country where liberalism is a dog whistle for conservatives who champion austerity, Justice Mello proved to be “liberal” in all meanings of the word. In 2011, he voted in favor of same-sex marriage, claiming that Brazil’s secular state does not permit religious morals to limit people’s freedoms. Just last year, he also voted to equate homophobia to the crime of racism — stating that “it is indispensable that the state protect vulnerable populations.”

It is reported that, during his 1997-1999 stint as chief justice (in Brazil, that position is rotative, and members of the court alternate themselves in two-year stints), Justice Mello refused to meet with the Chinese prime minister, “so as not to send a message that the Brazilian Justice system condones Beijing’s regime.”

Champion of press freedoms in the Supreme Court

As a harsh critic of the military dictatorship during the 1970s and 1980s, Justice Celso de Mello carried this staunch defense of the freedom of speech and assembly throughout his 31 years on the Supreme Court. During practically every example of censorship or restriction of free expression that reached the court, Celso de Mello made sure to speak out.

Among the most emblematic examples came in the trial of the Press Law issued during the dictatorship, which the court ruled as being incompatible with the 1988 Constitution. With Celso de Mello in tow, the Supreme Court underlined that the freedom of speech is one of the pillars of states that abide by the rule of law.

In the departing justice’s view, freedom of expression allows members of the press “the right to express criticism, even if it is unfavorable and in a forceful tone, against any person or authority.”

“The public interest, which legitimizes the right to criticize, supersedes any susceptibilities that may expose public figures, regardless of whether they enjoy any degree of authority,” he declared.

Crucially, he also stressed that these freedoms also extend to humor and satire. “Laughter and humor are expressions of encouragement to the conscious practice of citizenship and the free exercise of political participation, while they themselves constitute manifestations of artistic creation,” he said, when voting on the provisions of the Election Law that would prevent the broadcast of satirical programs involving candidates in the pre-election period.

For he’s a jolly good fellow …

During his final session in the court, all of Celso de Mello’s colleagues took time out to pay homage to the long-serving justice.

Justice Cármen Lúcia praised his “ethical and moral integrity” and made a point of stressing Justice Mello’s generosity in sharing knowledge. Alexandre de Moraes said the departing judge “left us lessons in how to fight corruption,” while Edson Fachin declared that Celso de Mello “may be succeeded, but will never be substituted.”[/restricted]


The fall from grace of Sergio Moro

With the hubris that can only come from a president who sees his future secure at the head of the Brazilian government, Jair Bolsonaro emphatically declared the end of the country’s sweeping Operation Car Wash anti-corruption investigation on Wednesday, claiming his administration is now above suspicion. “I do not want to end [Operation] Car Wash. I’ve already ended Car Wash, because there is no longer any corruption in the government,” he exclaimed, during a press address.

Beyond overlooking the numerous corruption investigations targeting his inner circle — including his sons and wife Michelle — this pontifical claim symbolized Mr. Bolsonaro’s turn toward the politics of cronyism, which he promised to end during his election campaign. In broader terms, it also symbolizes the end of Brazil’s zealous anti-corruption drive, embodied by Operation Car Wash.[restricted]

Perhaps the best example of this fall from grace of the country’s anti-corruption crusader class is the ruination of Operation Car Wash’s poster boy, former judge Sergio Moro.

For large sections of Brazil’s media class and the population at large, Sergio Moro became a national hero through his role leading Operation Car Wash. While his methods and alleged bias were often criticized, he became the face of the one aspect of the Car Wash years that the vast majority of society conceded as being overwhelmingly positive: the sense of absolute impunity among the upper echelons of Brazilian politics and business was no more. At the height of Operation Car Wash, influential politicians and business owners were facing prison sentences, something that was almost unimaginable before.

However, over six years on from his first involvement in Operation Car Wash and after having his name dragged through the muck by all sides of the political spectrum, Sergio Moro is packing his bags, ready to leave Brazil.

As reported by newspaper Folha de S. Paulo on Tuesday — and confirmed by The Brazilian Report — Sergio Moro plans to trade in his political career for academia, intending to lecture at an unspecified U.S. university. While the former Car Wash judge has yet to speak in public on the story, people close to him have affirmed that the move was a request of Mr. Moro’s wife, lawyer Rosângela Moro, who has told those close to the family that her husband “has given all he can to the country” and that he is not cut out for party politics “and its savage confrontations.”

There is a suggestion that Sergio Moro will now completely abandon his plans to run for president in the 2022 election, though other sources close to the ex-Justice Minister say it will be a temporary move, before returning to Brazil in two years’ time, banking on President Bolsonaro’s stock being weakened by that time.

Security is another factor weighing on Mr. Moro’s mind. It will soon have been six months since his acrimonious split with Jair Bolsonaro and abandoned his spot in the cabinet, meaning he will now lose his BRL 31,000 (USD 5,540) salary and the right to a Federal Police escort. 

The bigger they come, the harder they fall

After 12 years as a judge in Curitiba — four and a half of them spent in charge of Operation Car Wash — Sergio Moro abandoned his career as a magistrate and joined the government of Jair Bolsonaro, who invited him to serve as Justice Minister. With promises of being given autonomy to implant an anti-corruption agenda in the administration, Mr. Moro’s long-term future seemed sewn up: a few years in the cabinet, and then a seat on Brazil’s Supreme Court

However, Sergio Moro only remained in office for little over a year, resigning in April of this year while accusing President Bolsonaro of meddling with the Federal Police to safeguard his son, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, from corruption investigations.

The decision to leave the government was no doubt based on his belief that he was more popular than President Bolsonaro — a notion often repeated by the Brazilian press, who suspected the government would crumble once its anti-corruption totem jumped ship. This turned out to be a gross miscalculation, and the government’s supporters sided with the president, labeling their one-time hero as a traitor.

Indeed, despite gaining worldwide recognition for his role in Operation Car Wash, Sergio Moro was frequently criticized and undermined in the field of Brazilian politics and law. After The Intercept Brasil published a series of leaked messages from the Car Wash prosecution task force, showing Mr. Moro’s collaboration with — and often command over — prosecutors, he was accused of violating due legal process and currently faces cases in the Supreme Court that question his impartiality throughout Car Wash.

Furthermore, Sergio Moro has been repeatedly vilified by the Brazilian left, who accuse him of acting in a biased and potentially illegal manner to spur on the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff, jail another former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and help elect Jair Bolsonaro.

So, having left the government, Mr. Moro had lost the widespread support from the right-wing, was unable to make peace with the left, and was ostracised in political life, with no obvious source of support. 

Discord and backtracking

The appointment of judge Kassio Nunes Marques to a soon-to-be-vacant seat on the Supreme Court represents the latest defeat for the Operation Car Wash anti-corruption movement, isolating Mr. Moro further. While the Supreme Court has made several decisions to void Car Wash cases, Congress is debating on laws that are wholly against what Mr. Moro had planned to do as Justice Minister.

On Twitter, Sergio Moro criticized Mr. Nunes’ nomination. “If Jair Bolsonaro does not appoint someone to the Supreme Court who is committed to the fight against corruption […] we will all know his true nature (and many already know),” he wrote. 

One follower asked the former Justice Minister if he knew about Mr. Bolsonaro’s “nature” when he accepted his cabinet invitation, to which the former judge replied “no.” He later deleted his post.

Moro out: Left and right celebrate

The news of Sergio Moro’s potential exodus was celebrated on social media by both the right and left. The former laud what they see as a fitting end to a “traitor,” while the latter revel in the irony of Mr. Moro leaving the country due to the very government he took part in and helped elect.

“Defenestrated by the far-right, neglected by the country’s renowned judges, unmasked as biased and without the old partnership with the media that promoted him, [Mr.] Moro is the image of decadence common among false heroes,” wrote one left-wing Twitter user.

However, one of the few demonstrations of support for Mr. Moro came from São Paulo state lawmaker Janaina Paschoal, famous for co-authoring the request that led to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff. She expressed her solidarity with the former Justice Minister, but warned against his plan of leaving the country. 

“I perfectly understand his discouragement, Sergio Moro’s family has every right to want a bit of peace! But as a Brazilian who doesn’t say any other alternative, I ask that [Mr.] Moro and his wife think about facing another great challenge. They will have my support! Brazil needs a fourth way!” she wrote.

In Ms. Paschoal’s view, Sergio Moro would offer a voting alternative for the 2022 elections, beyond Jair Bolsonaro, a candidate from the left, or someone linked to the center.

Indeed, that the only political figure in his corner appears to be a fringe state lawmaker does not bode well for the future of a man who was once regarded as Brazil’s savior.[/restricted]


“Mystery seeds” in the post: brushing scam or international bioterrorism?

In the 1956 sci-fi classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” alien plant spores fall from space and grow into large seed pods, each one capable of reproducing a duplicate copy of every human on Earth. Today — without the alien doppelgangers — frightened Brazil’s agricultural authorities warn that a similar phenomena could be in progress, after hundreds of suspicious, unsolicited packages containing mysterious seeds were sent to Brazilian homes through the post.

At least 258 samples of seeds have been turned in to authorities in all but two Brazilian states, and the Agriculture and Health Ministries have launched a joint investigation to discover whether these seeds are possible invasive plants or weeds which could be harmful to Brazil’s agribusiness, as well as finding out who is sending them — and why.[restricted]

A federally-run lab in the Center-West state of Goiás analyzed some 25 packages — finding three types of fungi, as well as different types of bacteria and live mites.

Scientists warn that four packages included possible plague agents that are still non-existent in Brazil, alerting the public that the seeds should not be planted — or thrown into the garbage.

According to Brazilian authorities, the packages appear to have been sent from four undisclosed Asian countries — though several contained Chinese postmarks — and were first reported in August by residents of the southern state of Santa Catarina. 

The seeds arrived alongside deliveries of goods purchased online, presented as an added free gift. In some cases, the package of seeds was labeled as “jewelry.” In a matter of weeks, similar reports cropped up across the country.

The Chinese Embassy in Brasília said in September that a preliminary inspection by the China Post found evidence of defrauded postal stamps. “The shipment of seeds is forbidden or restricted to member countries of the Universal Postal Union. China Post rigorously follows those rules and forbids the postal transportation of seeds,” said the embassy, in a statement.

Bioterrorism or online scam?

The unsolicited packages have also been sent to people in several other countries, including the U.S., Canada, and Portugal. 

Back in July, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched an investigation into the phenomenon, alongside the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection and other federal agencies.

The USDA has yet to find anything ominous about the packages — though experts are only beginning their analysis of samples.

So far, authorities are working with one leading possibility: that the packages are linked to a common e-commerce scam known as “brushing.” This type of fraud involves online vendors setting up accounts in a stranger’s name, then sending their products to an unsuspecting recipient. They then use this account they’ve set up to write fake ‘verified reviews’ in a bid to improve their seller ratings. 

On many marketplaces, such as Amazon, vendors must include tracking codes for shipped goods — therefore, the scam only works if a package is physically sent. In this case, scammers use small throwaway items, such as seeds. 

This explains why authorities have been coy regarding the ploy as attempted bioterrorism.

For the recipients, though, it raises concern about their data — such as full name and address, at the very least — being easily retrievable online by malicious enterprises.

Importing seeds to Brazil

Brazilians are able to buy seeds from foreign vendors — but they must undergo a rigorous and long clearance process, which goes through the Agriculture Ministry.

However, it is quite common for people to buy seeds or small plants, being unaware of the rules and having their shipment seized by the authorities.

According to Correios, Brazil’s federally-run postal service, the number of apprehended packages weighing up to 2 kilos jumped from roughly 2,000 last year to 5,000 in 2020.[/restricted]

Latin America

The Venezuelan embassy isn’t big enough for the both of us

Diplomatic relations between Brazil and Venezuela reached an all-time low with the former electing far-right President Jair Bolsonaro in 2018. Now, almost two years on, the grave is being dug even deeper. In its latest demonstration of hostility toward the Nicolás Maduro administration in Caracas, the Brazilian government moved to make all of the Venezuelan left-wing leader’s diplomats personae non gratae in the country. In practical terms, these staff members are allowed to remain in Brazil, but they have been stripped of their diplomatic status, along with other immunities and protections ensured around the world. 

The decision came as little surprise, from a government that recognizes Mr. Maduro as Venezuela’s “illegitimate” leader. After the administration in Caracas publicly demanded answers from Brazil over what it called the country’s “criminal negligence” in facing the Covid-19 pandemic, the Bolsonaro government moved to further isolate Mr. Maduro’s diplomatic representation in Brazil.[restricted]

Recognizing the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful leader, Brazil had already decided to close its embassy in Caracas along with a series of consulates around the country. Brazilians in Venezuela were told to seek guidance in Colombia, while diplomats and employees were brought home.

The Bolsonaro government had already ordered the expulsion of Venezuelan diplomats back in April, but the decision was blocked by the Supreme Court due to humanitarian reasons, with both countries in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic. The court’s ruling, however, is only an injunction and could be overturned at any moment, thus forcing the deportation of Mr. Maduro’s embassy staff.

The struggle for power in Venezuela has created several knock-on effects in Brazil’s capital. Since February 2019, the country has actually had two separate embassies, neither one of them functioning properly. The 230,000 Venezuelans that sought refuge in Brazil, fleeing the economic collapse in their home country, are left to fend for themselves for many consular services.

The official Venezuelan Embassy in Brasíla — which takes orders from the Nicolás Maduro government — has been without an ambassador since May 2016, when Alberto Castellar was brought back to Caracas in response to the impeachment of then-President Dilma Rousseff, a process Venezuela labeled a parliamentary coup. Since then, the diplomatic mission has been led by chargé d’affaires Freddy Margote, who maintained a relationship with Brazil’s Foreign Affairs Ministry during the Michel Temer government, before being completely cut off after the election of Mr. Bolsonaro.

Now, without recognized legitimacy from the current Brazilian government or financial assistance from Venezuela amid the country’s long-lasting economic nightmare, the Venezuelan Embassy in Brasília does not provide any of the standard services expected from diplomatic missions, such as issuing visas. Moreover, there is no money to pay utility bills, such as electricity and water. Brazilian left-wing activist organizations have stepped in to use the embassy’s facilities in exchange for paying their bills on time.

Leasing out the Venezuelan Embassy

Almost deserted, the "traditional" Venezuelan Embassy leases its auditorium to left-wing events. Photo: MST
Almost deserted, the “traditional” Venezuelan Embassy leases its auditorium to left-wing events. Photo: MST

The Venezuelan Embassy sits on a massive plot of land in Brasilía’s Embassy Sector, donated to the country when the city was constructed in the late 1950s. One two-story building houses the embassy offices, while other constructions serve as homes for the diplomats and their families. There is also a large round swimming pool, beside a football pitch with a small grandstand.

The walls of the embassy building are decorated with posters and portraits of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, while there is only a single picture of current President Nicolás Maduro hanging in one of the halls. Outside, Venezuelan flags flutter in the wind, alongside those of left-wing Brazilian political parties and social movements.

Due to their severe lack of funds, the embassy’s security is operated by local supporters of the Maduro regime. Members of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) patrol the perimeter of the area, while others tend to the gardens and clean the halls. The need for 24-hour security came after an incident in November 2019, when a group of Juan Guaidó supporters broke into the embassy and intended to squat, using the coincidence with the annual BRICS summit — taking place just a few kilometers away — to draw attention to their cause. They eventually vacated the premises by the end of the day, amid pressure from left-wing social movements, whose members surrounded the embassy.

In exchange for its assistance with security, maintenance, and paying utility bills, the MST has used the Venezuelan Embassy as its headquarters in Brasília. It often holds events held in the building’s auditorium, inviting leaders from the movement and members of other left-wing groups.

The Other Ambassador

María Teresa Belandria is recognized by Brazil as the righteous Venezuelan diplomat. Photo: Anabel Morey
María Teresa Belandria is recognized by Brazil as the righteous Venezuelan diplomat. Photo: Anabel Morey

Meanwhile, as the official embassy barely remains open, the Brazilian government recognizes lawyer, professor, and diplomat María Teresa Belandria as Venezuela’s legitimate ambassador in the country, after she was appointed to the role by Juan Guaidó’s National Assembly in February 2019.

However, she works out of a hotel room in the Brazilian capital, alongside her deputy Silva Guzmán and three other staffers. The work of this “parallel embassy” is funded privately, but the employees refused to reveal who is paying their expenses.

Mr. Guaidó’s representatives are welcomed by Brazilian authorities and treated with diplomatic deference by the closest allies of President Bolsonaro — particularly one of his sons, Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro. 

Furthermore, without access to the Venezuelan government’s communication systems, Ms. Belandria’s team is unable to issue visas or passports, or perform the vast majority of consular services.

The impasse remains, however. If the Bolsonaro government decides that Juan Guaidó’s diplomatic representatives have the right to use the Venezuelan Embassy in Brasília, the current tenants are unlikely to vacate willingly.

The hotel-dwelling members of the parallel Venezuelan Embassy are assured of their legitimacy. “Ambassador Belandria has been recognized as such by the Brazilian government, as has her deputy Silva Guzmán. Both are treated by government agencies as being Venezuelan authorities,” said the group’s press officer, who also doubles up as Ms. Belandria’s driver.

However, this recognition comes with responsibility. In May, Ms. Belandria was held responsible for a case filed by the Labor Prosecution Service against the Venezuelan Embassy in Brasília. Brazilian employees working in the embassy have gone without pay for months, according to the complaint. Ms. Belandria responded, saying that she has no way of paying this debt, as she does not even know the quantity or identity of the embassy’s employees, as she is denied access to the premises.[/restricted]


Bolsonaro goes mainstream

Late in the evening of May 30, 2020, a group of some 30 far-right activists carrying store-bought tiki torches — in a clumsy homage to white supremacist Ku Klux Klan protests — launched fireworks in the direction of the Brazilian Supreme Court building, demanding military intervention in the name of President Jair Bolsonaro and the arrest of all 11 justices of Brazil’s highest court. 

The protest raised tensions in Brasília to unprecedented levels, as the political establishment accused the government of not only failing to condemn such actions — but actively endorsing them on private social media channels.[restricted]

As authorities bumped heads on how to enforce social isolation measures as a way to control the coronavirus spread, the Bolsonaro administration engaged in a series of attacks against its fellow branches of government. At one point, the president even threatened to send military troops to shut down the Supreme Court, before being talked down by some of his closest aides.

As the pandemic raged in Brazil, the president and his allies defied democratic institutions on a weekly basis — and calls for impeachment erupted in many circles. 

Five months removed from that moment, the political climate could not be any more different. Jair Bolsonaro, the president elected on an anti-establishment message, is now going mainstream.

Last week, he chose to fill his first Supreme Court vacancy with Federal Judge Kássio Nunes, a candidate endorsed by two Supreme Court justices who, just months ago, Bolsonaro supporters wanted to see behind bars.

After nearly two years in office, Mr. Bolsonaro’s political strategy has seemingly made a U-turn. Instead of shattering the establishment, the president now seems more interested in co-opting it. After compromising with the so-called “Big Center” — a caste within Brazil’s Congress made up of veteran pork-barreling politicians — Mr. Bolsonaro is now looking to get the courts on his side.

The move makes a lot of sense for the president, as his close family are targeted by a series of criminal investigations. Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, his eldest son, has been charged with money-laundering, embezzlement, and criminal association. Meanwhile, his other two politician sons — Rio de Janeiro City Councilor Carlos Bolsonaro and Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro — are suspected of operating an illegal underground misinformation network.

Push towards establishment infuriates core Bolsonaro supporters

Mr. Bolsonaro’s recent pandering to politicians he once described as members of “old politics” has certainly frustrated his core group of ultra-conservative supporters.

Sara Winter, the far-right influencer who organized the KKK-like demonstration in May, declared on social media that she was “tired” of supporting the administration, and even accused the president of “purging” his hardcore base from the government. Meanwhile, highly influential televangelist Silas Malafaia has called the president’s latest moves a “shameful outrage.”

Even his most loyal political commentators have started to bash his recent turn.

Still, those outbursts do not mean the pro-Bolsonaro train is falling off the tracks. Instead, frustrating his own supporters is a key part in the project to consolidate the president’s power. His defense of far-right causes still makes him the best — and perhaps the only — option for the extreme right in 2022. Meanwhile, his recent implementation of welfare policies and alliance with moderately conservative forces may help him attract a voter base that seemed unreachable just months ago.

Every poll shows Mr. Bolsonaro head and shoulders in the lead for the 2022 presidential election. And while it remains too early to predict how the race will end, not a single credible alternative has emerged.

If Mr. Bolsonaro’s recent moves allow him to approve a bold welfare-transfer program from 2021 and beyond, the 2022 election will be his to lose.[/restricted]


The catastrophic effects of Pantanal fires on wildlife

After being ravaged by fire, Brazil’s Pantanal wetland is set to endure a long and severe period of famine, with several animal and plant species at risk of extinction. These are just some of the direct and indirect consequences for the biome, which has been burning out of control for over two months thanks to a series of forest fires that have already destroyed 23 percent of the Pantanal this year alone.

The potential impact for the fauna and flora in the Pantanal — the largest wetland in the world — are laid out in a report by the Instituto Homem Pantaneiro, the organization in charge of several environmental reserves within the Pantanal, specifically in the Serra do Amolar region.

The findings are attached to the Federal Police’s inquiry into the wave of fire outbreaks, which investigates four farmers for allegedly starting blazes that destroyed over 25,000 hectares of vegetation.[restricted]

Irreversible changes for wildlife

The Pantanal is home to a huge wealth of wildlife species, including at least 130 mammals, 80 reptiles, 460 birds, 30 amphibians, and 260 different types of fish. Among the most famous animals in the region, jaguars are suffering from the effects of the widespread fires, alongside tapirs, deer, alligators, toucans, Tuiuiu storks, snakes, and macaws.

The Instituto Homem Pantaneiro report shows that the biome’s animals will suffer from increased exposure to predators, changes in their habitats and diet, as well as being forced into changing behavioral and migratory patterns. Some species may even go extinct. According to the institute’s technical coordinator Letícia Larcher, various species of plants could disappear for some time, as the region’s organisms will all react differently to the fire crisis. “For instance, one type of plant may take longer to respond when the rain comes than others around it. Animals that are associated with this plant may then require more time to adapt to the burned environment,” she explains.

pantanal wetlands wildfires
Firefighters in the Pantanal. Photo: Christiano Antonucci/Secom/MT

Dr. Larcher explains that species are set to see significant changes to their eating and migratory habits. “When a fire destroys such a large area, the nutritional content of animals’ food is affected. Fires have left animals without food, forcing them to forage in dangerous areas where they may be killed by humans or other predators. They could also starve to death.”

Some already endangered animals are likely to be put at even more risk. “Take the giant anteater as an example. It is slow, and it has a dense coat that is susceptible to fire. And they feed off ants, which live in the soil. So what happens when this soil is scorched?” says Dr. Larcher.

The jaguar effect

NGO S.O.S Pantanal carried out its own study to identify the direct effects of the fires on the animals living in the wetland biome. The most common impacts were burns, smoke poisoning, and death.

In a standard fire season, jaguars, for instance, can seek refuge in floodplains, rivers, or lakes that are largely safe from blazes. This year, however, as a result of prolonged droughts, these safe areas are fewer and further between. Furthermore, the sheer size of the fires makes escape more difficult, and many animals end up injured or killed by the flames.

The jaguar finds itself right in the middle of another potential effect of the Pantanal fires, one that is potentially even more devastating. As a top-of-the-chain predator, the jaguar naturally regulates the populations of smaller predators. After becoming even more endangered amid the fire crisis, the lack of jaguars will see lower-level hunters booming in population, and consequently, several prey species could begin to struggle.

There are also big concerns about the hyacinth macaw. The largest population of the species in the world lives in the Pantanal, where it eats fruits from the acuri trees. With the fire striking as the acuri begin to bear fruit, the birds will be left with nothing to eat.

Pantanal plants and fungi under threat

In the Kew Gardens’ State of the World’s Plants and Fungi — a comprehensive study into the diversity of vegetables and fungi around the world — Brazil is listed as the country which discovers the most new species of plants, with an average of 200 per year — last year saw 216 discoveries. Brazil is the home of the most plant and fungus species in the world, with over 41,000 described species, just under half of them being endemic to the country. And even this undersells Brazil’s potential in biodiversity, with new species being discovered that can be used in food, medicine, fuel, and materials.

Among the new species identified in 2019 in Brazil were two wild forms of cassava, one type of sweet potato, and a new species of yam — all of which have agricultural potential. “The discovery of new species of cassava is of worldwide importance, as 800 million people have diets based on this plant family,” reads the report. New species may be planted directly or crossed with other types of cassava to improve disease resistance or tolerance to climate changes.

Brazil also saw 24 new species of guava, jabuticaba, and pitanga fruits. Even some well-studied plant families have seen new discoveries: there were 24 novel species of orchids and seven bromeliads. However, the study notes that two out of every five plant species in the world are near extinction.

The researchers say that avoiding the extinction of vegetables is a way of protecting the human species. Besides helping to regulate climate and contribute to water supply, plants also provide food, fuel, and medicine.[/restricted]


Brazilian First Lady accused of misusing Covid-19 funds

The Jair Bolsonaro administration has misappropriated BRL 7.5 million (USD 1.3 million) earmarked for the purchase of Covid-19 rapid tests. According to newspaper Folha de S.Paulo, the money — which had been donated on March 23 by meat producer Marfrig — was used instead to fund the “Pátria Voluntária” program (Voluntary Motherland), led by First Lady Michelle Bolsonaro.

Created in July 2019, the initiative aims at fostering volunteer initiatives and raising money from private corporations for third-sector organizations. So far, it has raised nearly BRL 11 million (70 percent of which coming from the Marfrig donation) but has cost the government around BRL 9 million in advertising costs.

Only after the money had already been reallocated, the government asked Marfrig about the possibility of using it for other purposes rather than buying rapid Covid-19 tests. The amount was ultimately funnelled to evangelical organizations linked to Human Rights Minister Damares Alves — in what many observers call a flagrant conflict of interests.

The government has decided not to comment on the report.

This is not First Lady Michelle Bolsonaro’s first controversy. According to money laundering enforcement agents, she received a total of 21 checks from Fabrício Queiroz, a former advisor to Senator Flávio Bolsonaro who has been accused of money laundering involving the president’s son. The checks are dated from between 2011 and 2018, amounting to BRL 76,000. The revelation is part of a corruption case against Jair Bolsonaro’s son and Mr. Queiroz.

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Coronavirus Power

Coronavirus corruption a new headache for Brazilian governors

Allegations of corruption linked to the misuse of the state’s coronavirus budget have led to the downfall of Rio de Janeiro Governor Wilson Witzel, who has been suspended from office and awaits an impeachment trial that is almost certainly going to go against him. Now, the Federal Police is zeroing in on at least six other state governors suspected of mishandling funds earmarked for the anti-Covid-19 effort. Meanwhile, investigations into the misappropriation of funds have been opened in all 27 Brazilian states.

With the arrival of the coronavirus, Congress quickly declared a nationwide state of emergency until December 2020. In practical terms, this move lifted a series of controls on public procurements, to allow for local administrations to respond to the crisis as quickly as possible, purchasing medicine and equipment, and hiring staff. However, this period of “anything goes” also offers a golden opportunity for dishonest politicians to siphon public money into their personal bank accounts.[restricted]

So far, four governors have been directly targeted by police operations. Besides Mr. Witzel, the Feds have also gone after Wilson Lima in Amazonas, Helder Barbalho in Pará, and Carlos Moisés in Santa Catarina. Investigators believe these governors helped — or failed to prevent — the embezzlement of over BRL 4 billion (USD 708 million) from state coronavirus funds.

The latest Covid corruption scandal

Pará Governor Helder Barbalho
Pará Governor Helder Barbalho. Photo: Ag.Pará

On Tuesday, the Federal Police targeted Pará Governor Helder Barbalho — carrying out search and seizure operations at his home and offices, as well as arresting two members of his cabinet and one senior aide. The group is suspected of defrauding public procurements for ventilators to be used by Covid-19 patients. 

The equipment — which didn’t even work properly — was allegedly overpriced by nearly 90 percent, and the bidding process was considered to be rigged. Dozens of arrest orders were issued, and the courts froze Mr. Barbalho’s assets. According to Francisco Falcão, a judge on Brazil’s Superior Court of Justice, the governor was “instrumental” in the prosperity of the scheme, saying there is “robust evidence that the governor was aware and participated in the criminal enterprise.”

Prosecutors say Mr. Barbalho is the ringleader of the ploy, and claim to have proof that he met with corrupt business owners before launching procurement processes in order to negotiate kickbacks.

In a statement, the government of Pará claims to support “any investigation that seeks to protect public money.”

Corruption worsened Latin America’s coronavirus crisis

The coronavirus has killed over 1 million people worldwide — 14 percent of these deaths occurred in Brazil. According to a report by Reuters, if the city of Rio de Janeiro were its own country, it would be the global leader in deaths per 1 million inhabitants. 

And while inequality, misinformation, and high levels of informal labor might have been the biggest factors for Latin America to become the global epicenter of the pandemic, it is undeniable that corruption by elected officials hampered the ability of the region’s countries to respond to the outbreak more efficiently.

Investigators in Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru claim that local leaders filled their pockets with public money through rigged procurement processes for materials to fight the coronavirus. Unsurprisingly, four of these five countries figure among the nations with most deaths per capita.

Data from investigators show that nearly every single piece of material was overpriced in a number regions — including hand sanitizer and gauze pads. In their defense, most of the governors under scrutiny place the blame on private companies — whom they accuse of jacking up prices as demand grew, and insisting on receiving payments up front.[/restricted]


The endless list of scandals involving Brazil’s multinational church

That Evangelical churches have carved out a significant niche of influence in Brazilian public life is no secret. Neither is it news that many of these organizations are tied up in corruption schemes involving massive amounts of money. In Rio de Janeiro, prosecutors are investigating an alleged money laundering racket connected to the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, which is among the largest Evangelical charismatic institutions in the Americas.

Suspicions stemmed from a report from Brazil’s money laundering enforcement agency Coaf, which identified the “atypical” transfer of BRL 5.9 billion (USD 1.05 billion) between May 2018 and April 2019 in the church’s accounts. State prosecutors say there is sufficient evidence to affirm the organization is being used to launder large quantities of funds obtained from corruption in the Rio de Janeiro municipal government.[restricted]

Rio Mayor Marcelo Crivella — who last week was made ineligible for public office after committing electoral crimes — is a licensed pastor of the Universal Church.

According to investigators, there is a “bribery headquarters” within the municipal administration, allegedly led by Mauro Macedo, who is Mr. Crivella’s political campaign coordinator and was implicated in plea-bargain testimony as part of Operation Car Wash. He is accused of tapping up business owners to take part in corruption schemed within Rio city hall, and is the cousin of Edir Macedo, who founded the Universal Church back in 1977. 

With 8 million followers in Brazil alone, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God has 4,700 temples spread across 172 countries — making it even more of a multinational company than McDonald’s, which has restaurants in 118 countries. Edir Macedo is also well known for being a media magnate, despite Brazilian law forbidding churches from owning TV or radio networks. RecordTV, the second-largest free-to-air television channel in Brazil, is owned by Mr. Macedo. 

The self-proclaimed bishop also has his own political party — the Republicanos party, of which President Jair Bolsonaro’s sons Flávio and Carlos are members — as well as influence in Congress, the Executive, and the mayor’s office of Rio de Janeiro. And Edir Macedo is never far from power. All of Brazil’s presidents in recent decades have enjoyed his support and shaken hands with him at some point.

His political views appear to change according to convenience. He once associated ex-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva with the devil, before campaigning alongside him once he was in power. His alliance with Lula’s center-left Workers’ Party was quickly scrapped as soon as ex-President Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016. 

Despite having members of his church within Ms. Rousseff’s cabinet, he came out in support of the Michel Temer government the day after her impeachment, with another ally appointed to the cabinet. With the election of Jair Bolsonaro in 2018, Edir Macedo and his church became even more powerful, allowing the organization to shield its most scandalous corruption schemes, which are numerous and certainly not restricted to Rio de Janeiro.

Convicted con man and charlatan

The rise of the Universal Church came at the end of the 1980s, culminating in the election of Fernando Collor de Mello as president in 1989, who Edir Macedo supported against “the devil” Lula. Three years later, the first scandal surfaced. The bishop spent 12 days in jail in May 1992 as part of an investigation into swindling and charlatanism. The principal accusation was that Mr. Macedo had amassed a large fortune thanks to his work at the head of the Universal Church.

Prosecutors evaluated Mr. Macedo’s net worth as BRL 100 million back in 1992. He was eventually let off the hook, with one court saying the fact he did not declare his assets on his income tax return was “not relevant.”

In other cases, Edir Macedo is accused of instigating violence against Afro-Brazilian religions, followers of which the bishop has called “devil lovers.” Members of the Universal Church were tied up in cases of executions, torture, and sexual assault, with the victims being followers of Afro-Brazilian faiths.

One such case involved the rape, torture, and murder of a 14-year-old boy in 2001, committed by pastors from the Universal Church. At the time, the organization washed its hands of any potential involvement in the crime, stating it was an individual act of the perpetrators.

Satanism in Zambia and bible-burning in Madagascar 

Controversy linked to the Universal Church has not been limited to Brazil. The organization began expanding to Africa in the 2000s, before it was targeted by a series of protests in Zambia for “practicing satanism.” The Zambian government even banned the church in 2005 and requested the extradition of two Brazilian pastors, but courts overturned this decision and the institution has operated normally ever since.  

That same year, courts in Madagascar also prohibited the Universal Church from working in that country, ordering the deportation of the institution’s pastors. This move was in connection to allegations that the church was involved in the burning of bibles and other religious objects. 

Deaths and forced sterilization in Angola 

Elsewhere in the southern portion of Africa, the Universal Church has had a presence in the Portuguese-speaking country of Angola since 1992. In 2003, its operations were suspended for 60 days due to an accident at an event hosted by the church inside the Estádio da Cidadela football stadium in the capital city Luanda, which resulted in the death of 16 people. An inquiry concluded that the event was oversold, which was blamed on the organization’s false advertising. Advertisement for the event urged spectators to “bring their whole families” in order to end “all of [their] problems in life.”

In November 2019, Angolan pastors from the Universal Church staged a rebellion. Occupying the organization’s 300 temples across the country, they protested against Edir Macedo’s Brazilian representatives in Angola, making numerous criminal allegations, including money smuggling, forced vasectomies, and racial discrimination.

Prosecutors in Luanda investigated claims that pastors and their wives were forbidden from pursuing academic, scientific and technical qualifications, and that minutes of Universal Church meetings had been doctored. Brazilian bishops fled from the country, while Edir Macedo lobbied President Bolsonaro and Congress to intervene in favor of the church in Angola.

In the same month, a popular uprising resulted in Universal Church temples being vandalized in the African island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe. A São Toméan pastor was arrested in Côte d’Ivoire after leaking messages exposing the church’s abuse of its African employees. The organization called the claims “absurd lies.”[/restricted]


Bolsonaro to open up indigenous lands to miners

On Monday afternoon, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro launched the Mining and Development Program, which, among other things, intends to regulate mining activities on protected indigenous lands. 

Drawn up by the Mines and Energy Ministry, the plan includes 108 targets and guidelines to be implemented over the next three years. While also including provisions for mining in border areas and fast-tracking licenses, the possibility of allowing mining in indigenous territories is by far the most controversial aspect of the program.[restricted]

Jair Bolsonaro has had his eye on exploiting indigenous lands ever since taking office as president. “Whatever we can do for you to have autonomy over your geographical perimeters, we will do,” said Mr. Bolsonaro in April last year, after a meeting with indigenous leaders. “In [the state of] Roraima, there are BRL 3 trillion [USD 500 billion] under the ground. And Indians have the right to explore this rationally. Indians cannot keep being poor on top of rich land,” he added.

In February, Mr. Bolsonaro submitted a bill regulating the exploitation of mineral, water, and organic resources on indigenous reservations. House Speaker Rodrigo Maia set up a special committee to discuss the matter, but debates were brought to a standstill by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

President Bolsonaro’s plan will face significant opposition. The Brazilian Bar Association (OAB) demands that indigenous communities be consulted before new rules are decided upon. The Federal Prosecution Service agrees, recommending to the government that “surveys and extraction of mineral resources on indigenous lands should only be allowed with authorization from Congress, consulting the affected communities and guaranteeing them a share in the mining profits.”

The real impacts of mining on indigenous lands

A study published in scientific journal One Earth on September 18 concludes that allowing mining to go ahead in these new lands could impact 863,000 square kilometers of forests in Brazil’s Legal Amazon — 20 percent more than under current rules — and also losses of up to USD 5 billion with the ecosystemic benefits these territories provide, such as regulating rains, reducing carbon emissions, and producing food. The paper is authored by researchers from the University of São Paulo (USP), Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), and the University of Queensland in Australia. 

mining indigenous lands
Sources: Forest cover (PRODES, 2018); Indigenous lands (FUNAI, 2020); Conservation units (MMA, 2020)

As the researchers point out, Mr. Bolsonaro’s original proposal does not include any environmental or social safeguards and dismisses the need for studies on the impact of setting up new mines.

When setting up a mine in the Amazon, all vegetation in a 70 kilometer radius must be deforested. “The impacts are direct — when they are related to the facilities required for the activity — and indirect, when we consider the structure needed for access, transport, and provision of services, among other things,” explained Britaldo Soares-Filho, head of the Remote Sensory Center of the Geoscience Institute at UFMG, in a university publication. His team assessed economic losses based on the value of four ecosystemic benefits provided by preserved Amazon forests: production of foods, such as Brazil nuts, of raw materials, such as wood and rubber, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and climate regulation.

While they considered the true value of these services to be unmeasurable, the UFMG researchers were able to assign them a price by using their own methodology. “The change in rainfall, for instance, affects the generation of hydroelectric energy. If you deforest vegetation, rainfall decreases. And the losses depend on the location of each destroyed part of the forest,” Mr. Soares-Filho affirmed. He noted that agribusiness also depends on the rain cycles controlled by the forest, and that deforestation causes a drop in productivity and profitability for producers, particularly those who deal in soybeans and cattle. 

Stopping deforestation is seen as the cheapest way to mitigate the emission of greenhouse gases that are destroying the planet’s ozone layer, in comparison to reducing the number of cars on the world’s roads. “This is a part of our calculation. Brazil isn’t doing its part in the Paris Agreement, which makes the situation worse as we are losing funds for environmental conservation and development,” said Mr. Soares-Filho.

Who’s really benefiting?

He also pointed out that the federal government’s mining plan is unlikely to be a success, as it will struggle to attract major players, increasingly worried about the risks to their reputation involved with setting up in the Amazon. “Even these companies are weighing up the benefits of going into business like this. Global investment funds have refused to encourage environmental degradation.”

In fact, Mr. Soares-Filho believes that the new rules — if approved — will work to benefit landgrabbers and illegal wildcat miners, which do not provide any financial returns to the affected communities. “The bill does not have the capacity to develop mining and it scares off capital and threatens indigenous lands, which are sanctuaries of social and biodiversity. In other words, the plan doesn’t make economic, environmental, nor strategic sense.”[/restricted]

Coronavirus Power

Sacked Health Minister lifts lid on Bolsonaro’s Covid-19 response

Acrimoniously sacked as Health Minister in mid-April — and mid-pandemic — Luiz Henrique Mandetta has released a tell-all book covering events between January and April 16, when he was relieved of his duties after prolonged squabbles with President Jair Bolsonaro.

In “Um paciente chamado Brasil” (freely translated as “A Patient Called Brazil”), Mr. Mandetta displays his utter stupefaction with President Bolsonaro’s attitudes during the early weeks and months of the coronavirus epidemic in Brazil — from the conspiracy theories Mr. Bolsonaro used to explain the outbreak, to his denialism of the disease, and “magical” solutions for the virus.[restricted]

According to the former Health Minister, not only did Jair Bolsonaro publicly belittle the severity of Covid-19, but he also did not show interest in projecting the outcome of the epidemic or issuing protective measures to the population. Neither did he show any empathy for the droves of grieving families who lost loved ones to the disease.

“For [Mr.] Bolsonaro, the solution was always simple: his project to fight the pandemic was to say that the government has the medicine and whoever takes the medicine will be fine. The only people who will die are those who would have died regardless for another reason,” Mr. Mandetta wrote.

Key takeaways from former Health Minister Mandetta’s book

The book claims that the president ignored warnings from the Health Ministry, even with concrete numbers displayed to all present at a hurriedly organized meeting on March 28 at Mr. Bolsonaro’s official residence. At the time, ministry experts projected a total of 30,000 deaths as a best-case scenario — which Mr. Mandetta called “overly optimistic” — and up to 180,000 deaths if isolation measures were not put in place. Brazil reached a total of 140,000 Covid-19 victims on Friday.

At the end of the meeting in question, Mr. Mandetta says that the president’s concerns were elsewhere. “Are you going to praise [São Paulo Governor João] Doria?” he asked, according to the book. The then-Health Minister then confirmed that he would in fact speak positively about the head of the São Paulo, saying that Mr. Bolsonaro would be on Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s side if he continued to deny the severity of the epidemic. Irritated, Mr. Bolsonaro adjourned the meeting.

Luiz Henrique Mandetta describes another encounter, once again in the president’s official residence, when Mr. Bolsonaro threatened to “use his pen” against cabinet ministers who had “become stars.” Days before, opinion polls showed that Mr. Mandetta had higher approval ratings than the president himself. The Health Minister accused Mr. Bolsonaro of being disloyal and threatening him. “I told him, in my state, if someone says ‘your time will come,’ it’s a death threat.” President Bolsonaro, he writes, remained quiet while military figures attempted to stop the head of state from firing his Health Minister.

The book depicts the moment when President Bolsonaro began contradicting the Health Ministry, speaking out against social isolation and pushing for the adoption of anti-malarial drug chloroquine as something of a ‘miracle cure’ for Covid-19, despite a lack of evidence of its effectiveness. At one meeting, says Mr. Mandetta, the president suggested that changes be made to the medicine’s label in order to increase supply. The measure was contested by health regulators.

Onyx devious and Guedes oblivious

Um paciente chamado Brasil” does not focus solely on former Health Minister Mandetta’s rifts with the president, but also concerns cases with other high-ranking members of the government. At one cabinet meeting, he writes that Economy Minister Paulo Guedes became infuriated upon finding out that medicine prices in Brazil obey a predefined reference table, despite the fact that his department is a part of the council that decides on said fixed prices.

A former ally of Mr. Mandetta, Citizenship Minister Onyx Lorenzoni gets his own chapter in the book.

When discussing a leaked recording of Mr. Lorenzoni and then-Citizenship Minister Osmar Terra plotting the Health Minister’s downfall, Mr. Mandetta highlighted a curious fact about Mr. Lorenzoni.

During the heyday of Operation Car Wash, Onyx Lorenzoni secretly recorded a meeting among colleagues in the Democratas party — of which Messrs. Mandetta and Lorenzoni are members — in which they discussed anti-corruption measures. He was ostracized by his peers when this came to light, until being restored to the top table with the election of Jair Bolsonaro.[/restricted]


Railway project delays and corruption keep Brazil off the tracks

Along with a large part of the world, Brazil adopted railway transport at the end of the 19th century, importing British technology, designs, and materials. The first Brazilian railway began operations in 1854, located in the interior of São Paulo state, before the mode of transport spread countrywide. The peak of Brazil’s rail network came during the presidency of Juscelino Kubitschek (1956-1961), reaching 32,287 kilometers before the military dictatorship began eradicating railways deemed to be “deficient.”

As a result, at the end of the 1980s, Brazil had practically no passenger railways, despite its huge size and population. The only long-distance train line of the sort connects the southeastern cities of Belo Horizonte and Vitória and is operated by mining company Vale.[restricted]

Of the approximately 30,000 km of railway lines in Brazil, 29,000 km are privately owned. To give an idea of the relative insignificance of railways in the company, only 5.4 percent of Brazil’s industrial production is transported by train; 75 percent is moved on roads, according to Fundação Dom Gaspar.

The impacts caused by a truck driver’s strike in 2018 laid bare Brazil’s dependence on roadway transport and sparked a public debate on the need to expand the country’s railway system. However, little has changed since. Flawed planning, an absence of political will, lack of funds, and corruption have all kept Brazil from getting back on the tracks.

The northeastern pipe dream

The federal government’s most recent gamble in the field of rail transport is the so-called Transnordestina line, which is not a particularly novel idea. The endeavor seeks to develop cargo logistics in the Northeast region, taking a line through 81 municipalities in three states, starting from Eliseu Martins in Piauí and heading toward the ports of Pecém, in Ceará, and Suape, in Pernambuco.

The project began with an official ceremony in June 2006, when then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva laid the cornerstone in Missão Velha, in Ceará. The plan was for trains to be in operation by 2010, with an investment of BRL 4.5 billion — BRL 10.8 billion (USD 1.9 billion) in today’s money.

However, since it began, the project has been a mix of hope and dashed ambitions. Hope, for what the new railway could represent for the Northeast, Brazil’s poorest region. Disappointment, on the other hand, for the constant interruptions and complaints of misused funds.

The Transnordestina (Transnortheast) project is a private endeavor — led by steel-maker Companhia Siderúrgica Nacional (CSN) — but it is funded with public money. So far, work stoppages have occurred due to legal issues, squabbles among CSN partners, and a lack of money from the government. Construction has already swallowed up BRL 6.9 billion — over half of the total forecast — but only 30 percent of the project has been completed. There is no guarantee that the remaining BRL 4 billion will be released to finish construction.

In 2017, the Federal Accounts Court (TCU) blocked all federal government entities from sending funds to the endeavor until they received detailed projects and budgets from CSN. Two years later, part of construction resumed on the stretch of rail between the states of Piauí and Ceará, but work remains stopped in Pernambuco, where the majority of the future railway is located. In that state, two segments of the track have been completed, between the cities of Trindade, Salgueiro, and Custódia. For much of the unfinished project, definitive routes have not even been finalized and there is no guarantee of funds for this to take place.

In Ceará, works were divided into 11 blocks. So far, work has only been done on two of them. Since resuming construction in 2019, the project is already grinding to a halt once again.

As a result of these constant delays, the Brazilian Land Transport Agency (ANTT) issued a proposal to the Infrastructure Ministry in March that would determine the termination of the railway’s concession contract. In other words, the regulatory agency wants new deals to be signed before work may continue. The ministry has yet to reply and has shown no indication of doing so soon.

A railway 35 years in the making

While the Transnordestina project has been plagued with delays and controversy, it pales in comparison to the problems encountered with the Ferrovia Norte-Sul (North-South Railway), which was drawn up 35 years ago as the new backbone of Brazil’s railway network. However, since its inception, the project has suffered from flawed execution and design, as well as a large helping of corruption.

Announced in 1985, the line was initially projected as a 1,550 km track between Açailândia in the Northeast to Anápolis in the Center-West state of Goiás. The awarding of the contract was shrouded in controversy, with allegations of being rigged to favor the winning construction firms — which, three decades later, would find themselves in the middle of Brazil’s largest corruption scandal in history, uncovered by Operation Car Wash.

Over time, the planned construction grew and grew, eventually turning into a hypothetical 4,500 km line linking Brazil’s North and South regions. However, 35 years since it was conceived, only one-quarter of the project has been completed, and the finished tracks are seldom used. According to state-owned company Valec Engenharia, Construções e Ferrovias — in charge of the Norte-Sul railway — BRL 12.5 billion has been invested in the project so far. 

According to investigations, much of the corruption that hindered the progress of the Ferrovia Norte-Sul is down to the fact that the entire grand operation is controlled and overseen by Valec. Beyond simply coordinating the works, Valec is also in charge of operating the railway, setting prices and essentially auditing itself. Unsatisfied with the freight charges demanded by the state-owned firm, agricultural companies and other producers have opted to continue hiring private trucking firms to transport their output to ports. Beyond this, it didn’t take long for investigators to find proof of public money being embezzled by Valec executives.

The biggest such corruption scheme was led by engineer and politician José Francisco das Neves — commonly known as Juquinha das Neves — who led Valec between 2003 and 2011. Last May, Juquinha and six other people became defendants in a case accusing the group of overpricing contracts in the stretch of railway that passes through Goiás, Juquinha’s home state. Investigations showed that construction companies formed a cartel to rig prices and offer anti-competitive proposals to give the impression that auctions were being conducted fairly. Public prosecutors estimate that this scheme caused losses of over BRL 76 million to the public coffers.

Government gambling on private concessions

Today, the Norte-Sul railway project is split into three parts. In March 2019, at the beginning of the Jair Bolsonaro administration, two of these segments were awarded to Rumo Logística in a 30-year non-renewable contract costing BRL 2.7 billion — 100.29 percent more than the minimum bid of BRL 1.3 billion.

The remaining segment was surrendered by Valec back in October 2007, which awarded it to mining giant Vale. The firm was the only interested party in the auction, paying the minimum price of BRL 1.5 billion.

Researchers in mobility have long complained about Brazil’s lack of railway projects that involve passenger transport. Experts consulted by The Brazilian Report say that the Transnordestina and Norte-Sul initiatives could go far beyond simply transporting cargo, without the need for significant further investment.

One such specialist, Marcelo Dourado, laments the poor decisions made by Brazilian authorities concerning public rail transport. “Brazil is the only continent-sized country without a national passenger rail network. It’s also the only continent-sized country that reduced the size of its railway network over the last century. This is deplorable from all points of view.”[/restricted]


Brazilian airports move closer to privatization

Potentially the most thrilling and striking commercial flight one can take is departing from Rio de Janeiro’s Santos Dumont Airport and landing one hour later in Congonhas Airport in São Paulo. Taking off from Santos Dumont, in the center of the Wonderful City, aircrafts bank around the picturesque Guanabara Bay, passing Sugarloaf Mountain and the Christ the Redeemer statue, giving passengers an aerial view of this geographically improbable city.

On approach to São Paulo — South America’s biggest city — planes descend into an apparently endless blanket of high-rise buildings. As the only airport in the city proper, landing in Congonhas can be a bit of a white-knuckle ride. After negotiating around corporate towers and apartment buildings, pilots finally can bring the craft down on the runway.

Now, these two airports — among Brazil’s busiest — are moving closer to being sold off to private companies.[restricted]

Despite being scheduled for March or April 2021, the invitation for studies for the seventh round of Brazilian airport auctions is set to be published at the beginning of October. This latest wave of sales includes Congonhas Airport in São Paulo, and Santos Dumont Airport in downtown Rio de Janeiro.

The publication will be brought forward after a request from Infrastructure Minister Tarcísio de Freitas, as revealed by newspaper Folha de S. Paulo and confirmed by The Brazilian Report after consulting Mr. Freitas’ staff. The ministry is keen on avoiding any delays to the timetable of the seventh round of auctions, in line with the guidelines of concession processes that precede it.

The sixth round includes 22 Brazilian airports grouped into three regional blocks: South, Center-West, and North. According to the Brazilian Civil Aviation Agency (Anac), before the coronavirus crisis hit, these terminals accounted for 11 percent of passengers travelling nationwide, with 23.9 million arrivals and departures Brazil-wide in 2019.

Meanwhile, the seventh round includes a total of six airports, with final auctions tipped to take place at the start of 2022. Once the project is complete, Brazil will be one of the few countries in the world where practically all airports are run by the private sector, a sell-off frenzy set to raise a total of BRL 239 billion (USD 43.3 billion), according to the government.

Airports demand investments

The government’s move towards privatization comes at the most uncertain time. The aviation industry has been one of the worst-hit sectors by the Covid-19 pandemic — with most flights grounded for months. Airlines such as Aeromexico, Latam, and Avianca have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Other players are buried in debt — and a bailout plan has yet to become a reality. Meanwhile, private companies running airports around the country fear collapse and demand government investments. 

The Infrastructure Ministry’s Civil Aviation Secretariat forecasts that the coming rounds of airport concessions will demand investments of BRL 8.8 billion. A large part of this amount is set to come from the block including the Congonhas and Santos Dumont airports, with BRL 2.4 billion. 

Neither Congonhas or Santos Dumont are compliant with a series of international norms and the rectification of these problems are deemed to be expensive and difficult to carry out — which explains the forecast of high investment demands. Improving the infrastructure of both airports could involve the construction of new runways, a possibility which is yet to be discussed with technicians and the Department of Space Control.

Congonhas is a regional airport located in a heavily populated neighborhood of São Paulo, flying to major cities around the country. Santos Dumont is also located in Rio’s city proper. Known colloquially as an airbridge, the route between Congonhas and Santos Dumont transports more passengers than anywhere in Brazil.  

Government says pandemic doesn’t affect plans

When the Covid-19 pandemic began, studies for the sixth round of airport concessions were filed at the Federal Accounts Court (TCU), but these analyses were all carried out with a pre-coronavirus attitude in mind, despite the fact officials were aware they would need alterations to account for the drop in demand. ​

However, Infrastructure Minister Tarcísio de Freitas has stressed that the transfer of 43 airport terminals administered by the Brazilian Airport Infrastructure Company (Infraero) would not be affected by the negative impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. “We’re gonna rock the sale of airports!” Mr. Freitas declared, during a live social media broadcast.

The initial concession plan foresaw Congonhas and Santos Dumont remaining under Infraero’s control, as a way of keeping the state-owned company and it’s regional airport network alive. A change in the strategy means the pair will be the last properties to be sold off.

The current government changed the rules for airport concessions, altering the total of shareholder control of the terminal on behalf of the private buyer. The first block, sold in 2012, foresaw Infraero staying on as a partner with 49 percent control. The argument was that this rule would allow Brazil to hold on to its sovereignty, yet it demanded constant investments while the state-owned company hemorrhaged revenue.[/restricted]


The town that asbestos built

Asbestos is classified as a carcinogenic substance by the World Health Organization (WHO) over 45 years ago, completely banned in Europe since 2005, and forbidden in over 60 countries and five Brazilian states. But the 32,000 inhabitants of the town of Minaçu apparently have yet to receive the memo. Located in the north of the state of Goiás, some 365 kilometers from the capital Brasília, this municipality was born, grew, and continues to rely on asbestos to sustain its economy.

Minaçu is home to the only asbestos factory in Latin America — the third-largest in the world, smaller than plants in China and Russia. With its non-stop production, it is responsible for 13 percent of all the asbestos sold around the world, and half of what is consumed in Brazil.[restricted]

As was once the case in most of the world, asbestos is mixed with cement and used largely in the construction of roofs and water tanks, with an estimated 50 percent of Brazilian homes containing asbestos.

The use of asbestos in buildings is a result of its excellent electric insulation and heat resistance, but inhaling asbestos fibers can provoke lung cancer in humans, leading it to be outlawed in large parts of the globe.

Indeed, the production and sale of asbestos in Brazil were prohibited by a Supreme Court decision in 2017. However, mining company Sama — controlled by concrete firm Eternit, which runs the Minaçu plant — managed to obtain an injunction to continue production until the court decision was published and made unappealable, which occurred in 2019.

But one month after Sama was forced to close and fire its 400 employees last year, Goiás Governor Ronaldo Caiado sanctioned a state law permitting the extraction of asbestos in Goiás, even though the production, sale, and use of products containing the minerals is outlawed nationwide. The local legislation stated that the extracted asbestos could only be used for export, following international transport standards. 

Soon after, Sama went straight back to work in Minaçu, initially claiming it only intended to process the 24,000 tons of asbestos stockpiled at the time of the federal ban.

“A severe offense”

The National Association of Labor Prosecutors (ANPT), which went to court against the state of Goiás to contest the 2019 law, classified the local legislation as “a severe offense” against the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. “It’s unthinkable for a law deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court to simply come back to life. Though the Goiás law exists, the federal declaration of unconstitutionality comes long before this,” said the ANPT, in a statement.

“The asbestos industry had a period of little over a year, until February 2019, to unload its stocks, terminate contracts, and all of this was tolerated by the Supreme Court by way of an injunction from Justice Rosa Weber. There is no longer any leeway for the exploitation of asbestos,” added the association.

Asbestos mining firm donated millions to politicians

Sama began work on the Cana Brava mine in Minaçu in 1967 when the surrounding town did not even exist. Since then, the company has been at the center of social life in the municipality, as well as having a notable presence in the politics and economy of the state of Goiás.

Sama pumped millions of reais into election campaigns at all levels of government and, in return, elected officials have fought the mining firm’s corner in legislative issues. The prime example of this is Governor Caiado himself, who received BRL 300,000 (USD 55,000) from the company for his race for a Senate seat in 2014. The funds were passed through state branches of the Democratas political party — which Mr. Caiado controls in Goiás.

In that same year, Sama gave BRL 2.3 million (over USD 420,000) to politicians from a wide array of parties, on all ends of the spectrum. When added to the total donations made in 2010, the company donated the amount of BRL 3.8 million to various candidates, not just in Goiás.

A study carried out by University of São Paulo geography Ph.D. Fábio de Macedo Tristão showed that Sama invested BRL 1.2 million over 2004, 2008, and 2012 in the campaigns of candidates for mayor and councilor in five cities: Minaçu, Goiânia, and Anápolis in Goiás; Poções and Bom Jesus da Serra in the northeastern state of Bahia, where the company operated over 50 years ago.

Poisoning accusations

A subsidiary of the Eternit group since the 1990s, Sama is accused of causing the sickness and death of employees in Goiás and the Northeast of Brazil, where it was operational between the 1940s and 1960s. The firm was sentenced to pay BRL 500 million in damages after having left residues which contaminated an undetermined number of people in the towns of Bom Jesus da Lapa, Caetano, and Poções, in the state of Bahia.

In turn, until the beginning of the 2000s, Eternit was controlled by French group Saint-Gobain, which sold the company as soon as asbestos was made illegal in France. Since then, Eternit has been under the control of notable individual investors such as Lírio Parisotto — the owner of a fortune estimated at over USD 1.4 billion — Luiz Barsi — with speculated wealth in shares of BRL 1 billion — and Victor Adler, who is one of the leading individual investors in Banco do Brasil. Messrs. Barsi and Adler retain almost 20 percent of the company’s shares.

Rare-earth elements the new solution

While Sama and Eternit are playing for time with the morose Brazilian court system, the town of Minaçu is seeking new alternatives to save its economy. The state of Goiás granted a series of environmental licenses to mining research firm Serra Verde Pesquisa e Mineração, which will explore the presence of rare-earth minerals in the municipality.

“As of now, the company may hire staff. That is one of the demands I always make, of serving the local labor force. We are responding quickly to the needs of the population of Minaçu, and I owe this to the government’s team, which has taken the cause onboard,” said Governor Caiado.

The final step was taken on May 21, with the authorization to remove local vegetation in the region where the company will set up its facilities. Said vegetation will be “replaced with care and following recommendations from the Secretariat of the Environment and Sustainable Development.” 

“The ore that is extracted from Minaçu will once again create jobs, income, and quality of life for the local population. With complete respect for the environment, ensuring citizens will have access to jobs, which is the greatest social program in the world,” Mr. Caiado reinforced.

Serra Verde Pesquisa e Mineração has promised to invest around BRL 580 million in the region, creating over 1,500 direct jobs and 6,000 indirect positions. The company applied for licenses in 2013 and was expected to begin operations in 2017, which did not occur. Previously, the firm had already invested USD 70 million in the region, for research about the minerals present in Minaçu.

Rare-earth elements are a group of 17 chemicals used in the industry which can be utilized in various forms, such as producing high-power magnets for wind turbines and electric cars, catalysts for the oil industry, medical equipment, lasers, and superconductors.

The announcement that Serra Verde would be allowed to set up in Minaçu took place immediately after the Sama plant was closed. Governor Caiado made a point of visiting the municipality and handed over the licenses in person.

Now, Brazil has a chance to stand out on the international scene, with the rare-earth element deposits in Minaçu being among the largest in the world — competing with China. In this process, Serra Verde has an important quality: its techniques of exploitation and extraction can obtain the elements without harming the surrounding environment, as promised by the company and the Goiás government.[/restricted]


Agro giants and NGOs stand together against Bolsonaro

The 19th-century essayist Charles Dudley Warner once said “politics make strange bedfellows.” The quote is appropriated to describe a newly-formed alliance between environmentalist NGOs and major agricultural producers — who together are calling for the Jair Bolsonaro administration to enforce deforestation controls in biomes such as the Amazon rainforest and the Pantanal wetlands. In a document sent out this week to Vice President Hamilton Mourão, who presides over the Amazon Council, 230 institutions put forward a list of measures the government should immediately implement to curb deforestation rates.

The so-called Climate, Forest, and Agriculture Coalition unites entities as diverse as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Youth Climate Leaders, the World Resources Institute (WRI), alongside companies usually on the opposing side of the ring — for instance, meat giants JBS and Marfrig, food-processing firm Amaggi, and German fertilizers producer Bayer.[restricted]

“The coalition is at the government’s disposal to provide information, help with coordinating efforts with multiple sectors, or any action that could speed up a solution to this grave scenario,” the group said in the open letter.

This movement comes as, once again, Brazil faces a major international image crisis due to increasing levels of deforestation. In the first 14 days of September, almost 20,500 fires were registered in the Amazon region — already more than in the whole month of September 2019 (19,925). Meanwhile, the number of fires in the Pantanal wetlands has reached record-shattering levels in 2020.

Next week, the eyes of the world will be on Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who will open the United Nations General Assembly debates. As Brasília correspondent Débora Álvares reports, he will try to spin the narrative by presenting the latest initiatives by the Environment Ministry to contain the flames, highlighting the government’s efforts to protect at-risk Amazon jaguars.

It is safe to say, however, that his pre-recorded speech will not address recent statements by his Environment Minister, who in April talked about taking advantage of the press’ undivided attention on the Covid-19 pandemic to “run the cattle herd” through the Amazon, “changing all of the rules and simplifying standards.” 

Proposed measures to contain forest destruction

pantanal fires
Pantanal fires. Photo: Mayke Toscano/Secom/MT

The list of proposals can be summarized into six core points. Some of them seem like obvious no-brainer moves, but, tellingly,  haven’t been put in place by the administration:

  • Resume and revamp environmental inspections in farms, holding transgressors accountable for infractions;
  • Suspend all exploitation permits within public forest areas, punishing illegal deforestation actions;
  • Destine 10 million hectares of land for sustainable land use and environmental protection;
  • Issue a credit line to local communities based on their environmental track record and socioeconomic indicators;
  • Guarantee that deforestation data will be gathered and published with transparency;
  • Suspend land permits in properties which have deforested land since June 2008.

Deforestation is a bad business move

The fact that meat giant JBS is trying to take the moral high ground on environmental issues speaks volumes about the Jair Bolsonaro administration. A recent report points out that JBS’ supply chain was responsible for the destruction of at least 1.7 million hectares of native vegetation in the Amazon and the savannah-like Cerrado biome since 2008.

But as ESG principles — environmental, social, and governance — become the norm among major investment firms, big players are forced to play by certain standards to avoid being blacklisted by markets. JBS, for example, was dropped from the portfolio of major European financial services firm Nordea Asset Management for its transgressions.

Moreover, European Union countries are using Brazil’s uncontrolled — and criminal — wildfires as a way out of the free-trade deal with Mercosur. As today’s Daily Briefing explains, a group of 30 NGOs asked French President Emmanuel Macron to “bury once and for all” the agreement. Meanwhile, eight European countries urged Brazil to take “real action” to protect the rainforest.

The Brazilian government, however, has offered little hope that it will change its stance. Mr. Bolsonaro called the outcry “disproportionate,” and Mr. Mourão has done little more than offering to take foreign ambassadors on a trip to the Amazon.[/restricted]


Bolsonaro’s ‘secret weapon’ dead on arrival

During the 2018 campaign and until this year, President Jair Bolsonaro came across as one of those politicians who believe the state should not give handouts to its citizens. He once compared the world-renowned Bolsa Família cash-transfer initiative to a vote-for-cash graft, saying it amounted to “nothing more than taking money from those who produce and hand it to those who are lazy, so people would keep the status quo.”

 As a candidate, he promised to audit the program and refused to rule out shutting it down. During his first year in office, Mr. Bolsonaro’s administration cut Bolsa Família to the bone, true to his words.

But then came the pandemic — and the Brazilian government was forced to implement an aid benefit to help vulnerable populations survive the crisis. And, like magic, Mr. Bolsonaro discovered the electoral dividends brought by social programs in a country as unequal as Brazil. [restricted]By giving BRL 600 (USD 113) per month to roughly 65 million people, the president saw his approval ratings soar — even in areas where he never had much support.

With that in mind, Jair Bolsonaro aimed for the left’s jugular. He had already routed the Workers’ Party in the South and Southeast regions — Brazil’s richest. Now, he would launch his own cash-transfer program to win over the Northeast — the last “red belt” standing. Announced in July as Renda Brasil (Income Brazil), the program would be a beefed-up version of Bolsa Família. It was even given the moniker “Bolso-Família.”

But Mr. Bolsonaro has cancelled Renda Brasil before it was even launched. During a live broadcast on social media, the president said the words “Renda Brasil” are now forbidden from being mentioned by government officials. 

The president’s tantrum came after members of the Economy Ministry argued that there is simply not enough money to pay for enhanced cash transfers. The Economy Ministry claims that Brazil’s public deficit is growing at an unsustainable pace and has proposed cutting benefits such as unemployment insurance and retirement pensions as a way to pay for it. 

“We will continue with Bolsa Família [until 2022]. Period,” the president declared. During the same broadcast, Mr. Bolsonaro threatened to fire anyone who even suggests cutting off social benefits from now on. “I won’t take money from the poor to give it to the pauper. Whoever proposes that will get a red card,” he said.

In the Economy Ministry, the tension is palpable.

Senior government officials told The Brazilian Report, under condition of anonymity, that Economy Minister Guedes was summoned by President Jair Bolsonaro to a meeting on Tuesday morning, “during which the president yelled a lot, and Mr. Guedes just stood in silence.” Another source said they had “never seen the president so pissed off.” 

Mr. Bolsonaro reportedly told Mr. Guedes to fire whoever was responsible for telling the press about aid-cutting plans without his authorization. That would be Mr. Guedes’ special secretary, Waldery Rodrigues — who could soon be heading out the door.

Why Bolsa Família is so politically important

In 2018, Sérgio Simoni Jr., a researcher at the University of Campinas’ Center of Public Opinion Studies, wrote on The Brazilian Report about the electoral impacts of Bolsa Família.

Estimates show that the higher the number of Bolsa Família beneficiaries in a given region, the higher the vote percentage for the Workers’ Party. Even out of power, with no control over the federal budget or government agenda, the Workers’ Party still benefits electorally from the program. “It is possible that a reciprocity mechanism — or the creation of a bond between party and voters — is at work here, which goes beyond an association between the program and the incumbent head of state,” he wrote.

“The arguments that social policies are types of ‘vote buying’ schemes or political patronage weaken as the party that cashes in is in the opposition,” says Mr. Simoni.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s intentions to “repeal-and-replace” Bolsa Família could be a savvy move. The program is still widely associated with the Workers’ Party and its leader, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Doing nothing could push his approval ratings quickly to the ground, hurting the president’s re-election bid in 2022, at best, and maybe even threatening his stability in office, at worst.[/restricted]