This oil spill proves it. We feared Bolsonaro the ideologue, but it's his incompetence that endangers Brazil

His only real legislative success has been pension reform, passed earlier today after being watered down, and it may be the last

Kathryn Hochstetler
Thursday 24 October 2019 15:45
Thousands of troops deployed amid fury at worst oil spill in Brazil's history

The Brazilian environment has drawn alarmed headlines around the world every few months in 2019. Right now, it is a giant offshore oil spill with mysterious origins and feeble attempts to control it.

At the end of August, it was unusually numerous and powerful fires in the Amazon. In January, it was the burst Vale tailings dam in Brumadinho. At the end of November, it will be the annual deforestation rates, which are almost certain to show a major leap.

These are very different environmental catastrophes in their details, but they all share an important cause: Jair Bolsonaro’s government has struggled to govern competently in most policy areas. In addition, his government has deliberately dismantled much of Brazil’s existing governing capacity, especially related to the environmental.

Many elected presidents come into office with a burst of support. They carry out much of their policy agenda in an early honeymoon period before the inevitable opposition kicks in when parties and legislators look to the next scheduled election. In contrast, President Bolsonaro has very few policy wins to point to.

Perhaps this is why surveys show that his core base of support has already slipped to just 12 per cent of the population. In a National Congress where dozens of parties are represented, he made the ill-advised choice to bolster his minority party with bespoke coalitions built for every piece of legislation.

His only real legislative success has been pension reform, passed earlier today after being watered down, and it may be the last. Bolsonaro has lost support from even some of his own co-partisans, as he called for his party’s finances to be audited and placed his son Eduardo in precarious control of the lower house.

Presidents have expansive executive powers in Brazil, but Bolsonaro has wielded them to eliminate agencies, regulations, and budget lines rather than using them for a positive agenda of some kind.

To highlight just one of these, the government used its decree power to eliminate 35 national councils which had brought government actors and citizens together to collectively work on such national problems as disability rights, the elderly, rural development, housing policies, and much more.

Over 25 years of Brazilian democracy, the idea had been that such inclusive participatory councils could make better decisions by bringing much more information and a wider vision to social problems. They also provided a forum for linking government bureaucracies to work together on complex problems. The current oil spill shows starkly how this anti-regulatory zeal has already undermined good governance.

Two of those eliminated councils were the ones designed to be part of the National Contingency Plan for Incidents of Oil Pollution in Water. Without them, it took the Ministry of Environment a month to activate a National Contingency Plan after this oil spill was noticed. It is exactly the under-funded, under-coordinated response one would expect under these conditions.

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The other environmental disasters also could have been foretold. The Brumadinho Dam burst after state actors cut corners with its environmental licenses and monitoring, but the Bolsonaro government still wants to roll back environmental impact assessment in the name of efficiency. The fires and deforestation in the Amazon can be directly traced to slimmed budgets and deliberate reduction of oversight, which the government has again defended and plans to deepen.

The exact balance between political incompetence and principled rollback of state capacity in these disasters is unclear, but the consequences are already sharply etched.

Kathryn Hochstetler is professor of international development at the LSE

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