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24 Jun 2020 | Commentary

The United States Must Not Enter into a Free Trade Agreement with Brazil Given President Bolsonaro’s Frontal Assault on Human Rights


This commentary was written with the help of Conectas Direitos Humanos.

On June 3, 24 members of the U.S. House of Representatives from the Committee on Ways and Means sent a letter to the U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer urging him not to advance a trade agreement with Brazil that’s been in the works. Doing so at this time, they wrote, “would undermine the efforts of Brazilian human, labor, and environmental rights advocates to advance the rule of law and protect and preserve marginalized communities.” The message delivered by the members of Congress in their letter reflects the rising concerns of civil society organizations both in Brazil and the United States: moving forward with a free trade agreement with the highly problematic Jair Bolsonaro administration would entrench the attacks on democracy, human, labor, environmental, indigenous and Afro-Brazilian rights that have taken place in Brazil since January 1, 2019. 

Since his inauguration, President Bolsonaro has undertaken a frontal attack on civil society, the media, human rights, labor rights, indigenous and afro descendant/quilombola communities. He has openly denigrated human rights and democracy, while espousing racism, misogyny and homophobia. He has brazenly attacked the media and promoted hardline security measures. His embrace of incendiary rhetoric has given implicit permission to federal and state authorities to follow his lead, fueling increasing violence directed at Brazilian society and activists. He passed eight decrees to expand and relax gun ownership, all while undermining Brazilian environmental protection efforts. 

This has resulted in increasing violence against Brazilian civil society, journalists, and civilians. According to Frontline Defenders, 23 human rights defenders were killed in 2019, making Brazil the third worst country in killings of human rights defenders after Colombia and the Philippines. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Brazil was ninth on their Global Impunity Index with 15 unsolved killings of journalists. Women journalists, like Folha de S. Paulo journalist Patrícia Mello Campos, have been the subject of sexualized attacks and trolling by the President and his supporters. Brazilian police admitted to killing 606 people from January to April of this year. Human Rights Watch reported that police violence surged in April despite COVID-19 lockdowns. The killing of 14-year Joao Pedro Matos Pinto at the hands of police in Rio last month sparked protests and social media alerts, partly inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States.

Bolsonaro has led a furious attack against basic rights in his country. If the United States were to enter into a Free Trade Agreement with Brazil, it would serve to legitimize Bolsonaro’s dangerous measures to roll back human rights and democracy in his country.


How Bolsonaro’s Measures and Rhetoric Have Sparked Violence in the Country

Since day one of his administration, Bolsonaro has put in place executive orders, provisional measures, draft bills and other legal instruments that threaten human rights. For example, he introduced public security measures which contained a vague and broad definition of self-defense that could be used to justify excessive use of lethal force by state agents. Regulations on the possession and transport of firearms were relaxed and measures were adopted to block the investigation of crimes committed during the military regime. Bolsonaro has encouraged police to kill suspects saying criminals should “die like cockroaches” and stated he would pardon police officers convicted of crimes if he thought the conviction to be “unfair.”

His words and actions have created a climate that has enabled egregious actions by state authorities. 1,546 people were killed by police in Rio de Janeiro in 2019, reaching their highest point in two decades. The Governor of Rio, Wilson Witzel, used Bolsonaro’s heated rhetoric as a pretext for further militarizing the police forces in his state, which wound up firing into crowded, poor neighborhoods from helicopters in broad daylight. These types of actions have had a disproportionate effect on poor and minority communities: 80 percent of those killed by the police in Rio were Afro-Brazilian according to the Institute of Public Security (ISP); five were Afro-Brazilian children living in favelas. Killings of alleged offenders in the drug trade and others also rose. 


Attacks on Civil Society and Environmental Activists

Bolsonaro aggressively and publicly vilifies NGOs, the media and environmental activists. In August 2019, during the crisis related to an 82% increase in forest fires in the Amazon, he accused civil society organizations of being responsible for setting the fires. In October of the same year, the Environment Minister Ricardo Salles insinuated, in a social media post, that Greenpeace was somehow responsible for the oil spill in northeastern Brazil. Simultaneously, Bolsonaro equated Greenpeace’s actions to terrorism—Greenpeace filed a defamation suit.  

In addition to his attacks against environmental activists, the president has constantly incited farmers and producers to use guns to protect themselves, while publicly disqualifying the work and importance of state agency monitoring bodies such as the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources and the National Indian Foundation. Agents of the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources said that they were received on several occasions with gunshots and violence when doing their fiscalization work.

Despite these continued attacks, civil society organizations and the Brazilian Congress have had some success pushing back. The most notable example is Bolsonaro’s efforts to issue an executive decree that would interfere in the activities of civil society organizations in Brazil by creating onerous bureaucratic provisions that would make it more difficult for them to operate. These measures were amended by the Congress in the wake of mobilizations by civil society organizations. Additionally, his efforts to suspend demarcation of indigenous lands was overturned. His firing of 11 experts on National Mechanism to Combat and Prevent Torture was later reversed by federal courts and the experts were reinstated.


The Amazon Rainforest: Indigenous and Quilombola Peoples Under Fire

Brazil has 5 million people living in 6,000 Quilombola communities, which are Afro-Brazilian settlements first established in the Amazon by escaped slaves. The large number of these communities is a consequence of Brazil’s role during the trans-atlantic slave trade—Brazil was the country that received the largest number of enslaved people in the world. In addition to its quilombola communities, Brazil is also home to between 56 million and 89 million Brazilians of African ancestry, which is roughly 10% of the population. However, only 30% of that population is formally recognized by the state due to the complexity of race within Brazilian society. Lastly, Brazil has 897,000 indigenous broken down into 305 distinct ethnic groups that speak 274 languages. All of these groups, which largely reside in the Amazon rainforest, face significant challenges under the Bolsonaro administration.

Bolsonaro has scaled back Indigenous rights and environmental protections that have had a devastating impact on indigenous peoples. He has given a green light to criminal networks to engage in illegal deforestation and attacks against the indigenous. His administration approved 382 new pesticides, many of them restricted or banned as toxic in the United States and Europe. 

His administration has also dismantled protection mechanisms and agencies responsible for the promotion and protection of indigenous peoples rights in the country. Recently, the government appointed a religious leader to coordinate the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI, in its acronym in portuguese) unit on isolated groups, a key institution for the protection of indigenous communities. On February 5, 2020, Bolsonaro pushed a bill that regulated mining, hydroelectric power, and other commercial projects in indigenous territories. This bill is expected to significantly increase abuses towards the indigenous and damage their lands. 

These actions, as well Bolsonaro’s rhetoric, have given license to land grabbers, miners, and loggers to violate laws. While Bolsonaro’s predecessor, Michel Temer, started to roll back indigenous land protections, Bolsonaro has accelerated it. In the Maranhão state alone,  13 indigenous people were killed from 2016 to 2019 as a result of the conflict with loggers in the region. The Indigenist Missionary (CIMI), reported that from January through September 2019 there were 160 violent incursions into indigenous territories by people engaged in illegal mining, logging, and land grabs.

These continued attacks have happened within the context of an ongoing environmental disaster in the Amazon driven by climate change. In 2019, fires in the Amazon rainforest increased 60% compared to data from the previous years. Brazil’s National Space Research Agency (INPE) found that deforestation in indigenous lands in the Amazon increased by 65% from August 2018 to July 2019. As Bolsonaro has pushed for development in the Amazon, and given license to illicit groups to commit violence, he has weakened the very institutions that can help mitigate a climate change disaster in the already vulnerable Amazon rainforest. 

Bolsonaro has also pursued specific actions that endanger the rights and livelihoods of Brazil’s quilombola communities. As of today, at least 800 families from 30 quilombola communities in Alcântara, Maranhão, are under threat of removal by the Bolsonaro administration amid the coronavirus pandemic. A March 2020 resolution pushed by the Bolsonaro government imposes a double vulnerability on quilombolas: losing their homes and livelihoods, and being exposed to the coronavirus.

Further endangering the livelihoods of quilombola communities, Bolsonaro continues to advance the space industry in the State of Maranhão despite all indications that the expansion of this industry threatens the quilombolas. Historically, the space industry in Brazil has been detrimental to quilombola communities. With key support from the U.S., the Alcântara Launch site was built in the 1980s under the Brazilian military regime. The original initiative sought to bolster Brazilian aerospace capacities but, in the process, displaced over 300 quilombola families from their ancestral lands. 

Recent agreements between the U.S. and Brazil to expand the Alcântara Launch Site using U.S. aerospace technology have failed to recognize how expanding this launch site would further undermine the livelihoods of the quilombola amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, a specific mechanism agreed to by the two countries during Bolsonaro’s visit to the United States in March 2019, the U.S. Brazil Technology Safeguards Agreement (TSA), paved the way to expanding the Alcântara Launch Site using U.S. aerospace technology—but did not address the potential and significant impact to quilombolas.  

The TSA initiative seeks to increase the size of the Alcântara launch site by 12,000 hectares along the Atlantic coastline, which would not only further displace the quilombolas from their own lands, but would also deprive them of access to fishing sites, food, water, and overall security. Brazil claims the expansion is beneficial for the region’s development, discarding quilombola autonomy and the detrimental impact it will have on them. Despite opposition from Brazilian civil society, its legislature, and U.S. Congressional representatives, the agreement advanced without concessions. On February 5, 2020, Bolsonaro signed the decree advancing the TSA, paving the way for U.S. aerospace expansion in the region. Indeed, quilombolas did not even participate in the decision making process of the agreement as ILO 169 requires them to do. 

 As a result of the agreement, on Thursday, March 26, 2020, the Institutional Security Office (Gabinete de Segurança Institucional – GSI) published Resolution 11/2020 in the Diário Oficial da União – DOU, which establishes guidelines for the expulsion and resettlement of the quilombola. The community, despite occupying the territory for more than three centuries, is facing the repercussions of the TSA. 

The reaction from community leaders and the international community has been swift. On March 29, 2020, the Black Coalition for Rights and the Landless Rural Workers Movement (Coalizão Negra por Direitos e o Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra – MST) published a statement along with 138 expert organizations and experts condemning the threat of removal of quilombolas from Alcântara. Members of the U.S. Congress sent Secretary of State Pompeo questions and concerns about the impact of this agreement on quilombola communities in May 2019. In September, Representative Hank Johnson, citing the impact the TSA would have on quilombola communities, publicly opposed the agreement during a speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

For the time being, the removal of the quilombola communities is suspended by a judicial decision from May 12, 2020, but only until the process of consultation and consentiment, according to ILO 169 on indigenous and tribal peoples is finished. However, given the Bolsonaro administration’s modus operandi, there is little hope consultation and consentiment will be done adequately and that the decision-making process will be fully respected. The Federal Prosecutors Office and the Brazilian Bar Association have opposed the removal of the quilombolas communities.

The sum of Bolsonaro’s actions have raised alarms in the U.S. Congress about his contempt for the rights of indigenous and Afro-Brazilian communities. In an effort led by U.S. Representative Deb Haaland (D-NM) this May, 54 members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denouncing the categorical rollback of indigenous land rights in the Amazon rainforest and the subsequent illegal and violent invasions of their territory. They note that the killing of indigenous leaders is only expected to worsen in the climate of impunity exacerbated by Bolsonaro’s violent, anti-indigenous rhetoric and that Afro-Brazilian communities are suffering a similar fate. 


Situation Deteriorates Further Since COVID-19

The full extent of Bolsonaro’s sustained attacks on human rights, civil society, the press, and ethnic communities is best summed up by his government’s reaction to COVID-19. Bolsonaro has defiantly refused to take measures to address the public health emergency. As of June 24, more than 52,788 have died and more than 1,152,066 have been infected, although the Brazilian press is reporting that numbers may be much higher. Brazil currently has the second-highest COVID-19 death toll in the world. 

Rather than move aggressively to contain the disease and save lives, Bolsonaro has instead questioned its existence. He has actively pushed back on measures taken by 27 Governors to protect the population and circulated videos encouraging everyone to get back to work, putting many at risk. He fired the Minister of Health for trying to implement WHO guidelines. A March 2020 statement by U.S. civil society highlighted multiple concerns about Bolsonaro’s response to the pandemic.


Corruption at the Highest Levels

Earlier this year, in the latest and most significant example of corruption in Bolsonaro’s tenure, Minister of Justice Sergio Moro resigned over Bolsonaro’s sacking of the head of Brazil’s federal police. The head of the police was investigating Bolsonaro’s sons, Flávio and Carlos, for corruption and ties to the mafia, among other crimes. Minister Moro, who is seen as an anti-corruption hero by right-wing Brazilians for his role in jailing former president Lula, was the eight cabinet member to resign in Bolsonaro’s 15 months in office. 

Brazil’s Supreme Court authorized an investigation into allegations that Bolsonaro tried to illegally interfere with the country’s federal police force for political motives. Based on the results of the police investigation, which has a 60-day time frame, the public prosecutor will have to decide whether to press charges against the president or his former minister. However, lawmakers would have to approve an indictment of Bolsonaro before it could move to the Supreme Court, and his supporters in the lower chamber would likely block the move.


The Trade Agreement

In April, the Atlantic Council held an event with the Ambassador of Brazil to the U.S., Nestor Forster, and the U.S. Ambassador to Brazil, Todd Chapman. The ambassadors confirmed that the Trump and Bolsonaro administrations are working on advancing trade facilitation, digital trade and regulatory practices. They mentioned wanting to have a ‘mini deal’ in place by August, which would then pave the way for a comprehensive agreement requiring congressional approval. The developing deals are what spurred nearly all the Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee to write to USTR to voice their concern over partnering with the Bolsonaro Administration given its highly problematic record on civil, human, environmental and labor rights. 

It is clear that both the Trump and Bolsonaro administration’s are keen on expanding trade between the countries. Yet further U.S. investment in Bolsonaro’s quagmire would implicate U.S. businesses and investments in the irreparable harm taking place in Brazil. The conditions that are needed to ensure the protection of labor, environmental, indigenous, and quilombola rights are simply not in a place where a trade agreement can be advanced. Should the United States pursue this agreement regardless, it would provide a stamp of approval for Bolsonaro’s deadly approach and deteriorate conditions in the country even further.