Brazil’s lesson in brown clientelism

IN POLITICAL science the selling of favours for political support has a name – clientelism – and it has been the subject of considerable scrutiny in Latin America.

Hyper-presidentialism, weak legislatures and political parties, personalism and, of course, corruption, among other factors, all allow this phenomenon to prosper despite strenuous efforts since democratisation to strengthen institutions, governance and accountability.

But now we must add a new variant on this theme to our political vocabulary – brown clientelism – that sees the reversal of green policies as a promising new resource in politics.

It is a phenomenon that is occurring everywhere alongside populism, and reflects both the successful extension of environmental regulation over many years, but also how vulnerable this progress has become to newly assertive corporate interests taking advantage of weakened democracies.

Brown clientelism seeks to roll back environmental policies designed to protect natural resources in order to benefit powerful interests, in exchange for political support. It has been in evidence on the right of the political spectrum from Poland and the UK to the US, and one of its most obvious symptoms is the appointment of ministers whose beliefs are wildly at odds with the formal environmental responsibilities that come with their portfolio.

This appears to be precisely what the embattled Brazilian president Michel Temer is doing, most recently with protected land in the Amazon, as he struggles to bolster his defences in congress amid corruption allegations. He has discovered that the Amazon is a vast resource in more ways than one.

In June, Temer became the country’s first sitting head of state to be charged with corruption. Brazil’s attorney general, Rodrigo Janot, alleged that he took millions in bribes from a meat-packing corporation, JBS, and there have been further claims that he tried to cover this up.

The lower house of congress could decide to vote on whether to authorise the supreme court to try the president, but a two-thirds majority will be needed for this to happen – meaning that every vote counts.

Temer appears to be embracing brown clientelism in order to save himself, recently extending an amnesty to land-grabbers in the Amazon that significantly increased protections to them in terms of when they appropriated public forests and how much they cleared, then sending a bill to congress that could strip the Jamanxim protected area in Pará of 862,000 acres in order to regularise land-grabbers that had invaded part of it.

These moves will bolster support for Temer within the so-called beef caucus, a group of legislators representing Brazil’s powerful agricultural interests, who number about 207 of the 513 lawmakers in the lower congressional house.

Temer’s appointment of Osmar Serraglio as justice minister in March is another concrete example of the brown clientelism at the heart of the president’s agenda. Serraglio maintains close ties with agribusiness and is a leading voice in the beef caucus. In controversial comments to the Folha de São Paulo he infuriated Brazil’s indigenous and environmental movements by saying native peoples should stop talking about land ownership since “land does not keep anyone fed”, and insinuated that NGOs working with them are embezzling public funds.

Unsurprisingly, environmentalists are fuming at Temer’s manoeuvres, which they fear will simply encourage other people to invade yet more vacant public land – and accelerate deforestation, which is on the rise again, driven by demand for timber, soya … and beef. To justify its position, the federal government has argued that an amnesty brings relief to thousands of low-income families who live in remote Amazonian areas and clear land in order to survive.

Márcio Astrini of Greenpeace Brasil said: “Temer is governing on his own behalf and not for the country. Without any shame, he is raffling the Amazon in exchange for votes against his abrogation. This shows that he is willing to do anything to continue in the presidency.”