Brazilian elections may have little impact on its National Congress environmental agenda

Most Brazilian political parties have no clear position regarding the importance of climate change or environmental protection. Political coalitions and parties will not develop an environmental agenda alone, and changing this depends on the ability of forces outside the National Congress to pressure for the explicit inclusion of environment concerns in political debate.Unfortunately, upcoming presidential elections are unlikely to change this scenario. If Brazil is not able to change its National Congress, sustainability will continue to be treated as an accessory to development.

Key messages:

1) Most Brazilian political parties, from right to left, have no clear position regarding the importance of climate change or environmental protection. Despite the usual rhetoric around the need for sustainable development, political programs center on a ‘business as usual’ approach with environmental protection still considered a barrier to development.

2) In understanding Brazilian National Congress decision-making processes, the dynamics of coalition building transversal to Brazilian political parties are more important than the political parties by themselves. Brazilian political coalitions and parties will not develop an environmental agenda alone, and changing this depends on the ability of forces outside the National Congress to pressure for the explicit inclusion of environment concerns in political debate.

3) A powerful anti-environmental agenda is supported by representatives across Brazilian political parties in both upper and lower houses. The powerful agribusiness caucus has influence across a broad range of parties and is the single most important blocker of progressive environmental legislation. Approval of the new Forest Code in 2012 was a good example of the organized action against environmental protection.

4) Unfortunately, upcoming presidential elections are unlikely to change this scenario. While much more attention has been given to the Presidential Elections and the possibility of Marina Silva being the next president, if Brazil is not able to change its National Congress then sustainability will continue to be treated as an accessory to development. In a democratic country where the power balance between branches is sacred, understanding the debates and power dynamics within the National Congress is crucial to following the real prospects of change for the national development path.

Click here for infographics on the Brazilian National Congress and the 2014 Elections.


Over the last decade Brazil has lifted more than 30 million people out of poverty. This was made possible through a cycle of progressive governments that prioritized poverty eradication and social inclusion alongside economic stability and growth. The country experienced an unprecedented period of social, political and economic stability and a substantial increase in domestic consumption by the new so-called “C class”. The country´s economic growth can be broadly explained by three intertwined factors: the sustained increase of minimum wage purchasing power and its positive impact in the expansion of the domestic market, price increases for Brazilian commodities abroad that kept reserves solid, and the growing demand for Brazilian natural resources, especially from China.

As an export-oriented economy, Brazil relies heavily on natural resources exploitation for products ranging from oil, wood and minerals to agriculture and meat. Environment protection has been sacrificed to ensure the country´s export and economic growth.

Since the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT) assumed the presidency in 2002, a very large, diverse and sometimes even contradictory political coalition has sustained the political base supporting the governments of both former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and current President Dilma Rousseff. The PT governments control a ruling coalition that involves more than 10 political parties from the right to the left, and which represents approximately 60% of the National Congress (see infograph). This broad and very diverse coalition – coupled with a small, weak and fragmented opposition – guaranteed the social and political stability that has kept PT in power.

Within the coming two weeks, Brazil will elect 513 members to the lower house Chamber of Deputies, and one-third of the upper house Senate (27 out of 81 representatives). This should represent an opportunity to renew political support for sustainable development, but that is unlikely to happen. Changing the dominant congressional narrative that environment protection is ‘anti-development’ will be a very difficult task.

Who are the major blockers?

Brazil´s National Congress decision making process relies much more on cross-party interest coalitions rather than party programs. The country has more than 30 political parties, with 24 represented in the legislative houses (see infographic). The national legislative houses are dominated by fragmented elites and regional oligarchies distributed across parties, who organize themselves into political action groups. Migrations of representatives between parties and the establishment of new parties are also quite common.

The rural and agribusiness coalition has become the most powerful, organized and coordinated group in Parliament. Agribusiness includes both national traditional oligarchies and modern national and international enterprises, thus representing large-scale soy, sugar and cattle farmers, industries that supply machinery, seeds, pesticides (such as Monsanto and John Deere) as well as food industries (Sadia, JBS) and distributors to both domestic and external markets (Bunge Born, Cargill). The national positive trade balance is primarily due to agribusiness. In 2013 the trade balance from the agribusiness sector amounted to some US $83 billion. One of the main reasons why the sector is so powerful is its centrality in the government’s strategy of consumption-led growth. To allow continued importing of manufactured products while keeping its balance of payments under control, the country needs to export its commodities.

Thus, the agribusiness caucus has representatives or sympathizers from the far left Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB) to the far right Democrats (DEM), and many more representatives across the broad PT coalition. Together they represent the main blockers of progressive change to historic political issues of land use, agrarian reform, demarcation of indigenous lands and extractive rights, to name just a few. The caucus has been responsible for blocking new environmental legislation and successful in imposing important setbacks to environmental protection, particularly evident in the 2012 approval of the Forest Code or the weakening of federal government power in demarcating indigenous and quilombolas settlements and reserves.

The caucus did recently establish a forum to fight against climate change, the Brazilian Climate Alliance (read more at As Brazilian agribusiness is a globalized sector, it is aware of the need to maintain global competitiveness by addressing the increase in internal and external pressure for tougher environmental standards. The caucus also agreed to the government’s ABC Program (Low Carbon Emission Agriculture Program,) which aims to diminish the carbon print of agriculture products. Although this movement is welcome and must be celebrated, it is important to remember that Brazilian agricultural products are some of the world´s most dependent on agrochemicals and pesticides, and it remains a very carbon-intensive sector.

PT has therefore successfully gathered support from both sides of the political spectrum, as well as managed contradictory positions in support of agribusiness, small farmers and the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST). Nevertheless, recent political developments in the National Congress may oblige PT to be clearer about its future choices and to end its controversial alliances.

Such political contradictions are likely to remain regardless of whether PT maintains power or not, as the strong alliances between agribusiness sectors will not be challenged by any presidential candidate. Even if Ms Silva is elected, it is likely that this diverse and paradoxical coalition will persist.

Other heavy industries such as mining, oil and gas, steel and automotive are also well represented and embedded throughout most National Congress parties. These sectors tend to join chorus with the agribusiness caucus (and vice-versa) when the issues in debate relate to environmental policies or limitations on natural resource exploitation. For these groups, simple anti-development rhetoric is enough to sway them. These alliances will be seen in action in upcoming debates on approval of the new Mining Code.

The ultimate evidence of the power of these interest groups is clear when examining the National Congress’s Climate Change Joint Commission and Environment Commission. Created to defend low-carbon and environmentally friendly measures and increase awareness around related technical themes, these commissions are only entitled to monitor executive branch policies, but do not have any binding approval or veto powers against laws that may have a negative effect on climate.

The National Congress also includes the Environmentalist Parliamentary Group (Frente Parlamentar Ambientalista, FPA), an environmental interest group established in 2007 (read more at FPA gathers a cross-party set of Senators and Deputies, and while more homogeneous in terms of being the only progressive voice in congress on climate change and environment issues, it is still small and very weak. The Green Party (PV) and the National Ecologic Party (PEN) are also not well represented in congress, and though they are integrated in the PT coalition they have little or no influence in the decision making processes.

To better illustrate the state of current political attitudes, two recent national debates show the clear disparity between environmental protection and socio-economic development conventions.

1. The Forest Code

The new Forest Code (Law 12.651/12) approved in 2012 was pushed by agribusiness representatives in congress to suppress the previous legal obligation of farmers to keep a substantial part of their land for forest preservation – the so-called ‘Legal Reserves’. Large landholders manipulated the debate to mobilize smaller farmers against forest protection, therefore isolating environmentalists and portraying them as anti-development and against small-scale farm and food production operations.

Forest Code approval was led by the center-right parties Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (PMDB) and the DEMs, but was supported by a large number of parties from the right, including Partido Social Cristão (PSC) and Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB), as well as from the left, including the PCdoB and PT.

While it is true that the PT government has over the last 10 years made efforts to curb deforestation (see infographic) and did to some extent try to preserve environmentally friendly sections of the Code, President Rousseff´s closeness to agribusiness and her personal conviction in the sector´s importance for economic growth led most congressional representatives to align themselves with agribusiness while maintaining specific concessions for small farmers.

After a very long and intense congressional debate, the final version of the Forest Code not only substantially diminished the size of the Legal Reserves, but also granted amnesty for the payment of fines for some of the farmers that have illegally deforested in the past. The results of the negotiations as well as the timing and the political maneuvering that led to this appalling outcome is an indicator of the power of agribusiness in both the congress and the parties.

The Code was approved one month before the Rio+20 Conference, but this did not affect the Brazilian government´s ability to lead negotiations and to claim success from an agreement that brought neither new commitments nor new targets combating deforestation.

Almost two years after the approval of the Code, its full implementation remains to be seen. Since 2014 deforestation has once again started to increase.

2. Pre-Salt

The issue of Brazilian energy supply and oil reserve exploitation came forward last year in a discovery that triggered a huge national debate. In September 2013 President Rousseff sanctioned Law 12.858/13, which established divisions of royalties from the ‘Pre-Salt Layer’, a huge natural geological formation that lies deep underground off the Brazilian coast, and which contains an estimated 50 billion barrels of oil reserve. Although the Pre-Salt discovery sparked an intense debate among states and municipalities around the distribution of oil fiscal revenues, it unfortunately did not address the environmental impacts of the enterprise.

Part of the Pre-Salt royalties were originally conceived to be destined for the national Climate Fund, a financial instrument developed to provide support for projects that mitigate climate change effects. The legislation approved by Rousseff in 2013, however, redirected these resources to cover education and health costs. Despite protests from environmental groups, this law passed with a large majority in both the Senate and Deputy houses.

While investments for health and education are clearly needed, the change in position is notable due to the absence of reflection in public opinion or political debate about the enormous environment impacts that Pre-Salt represents, and the likelihood of increasing Brazilian carbon emissions. Political parties from across the spectrum focused entirely on how to share the future oil royalties, rather than consider the impact that oil extraction will have on the environment and surrounding communities. By channeling oil royalties towards education and health, the government and National Congress have locked Brazil´s development to its dependence on oil, undermining future steps to create a development path based on low carbon economy.

Concluding remarks

Such cases demonstrate the dominant, broad anti-environmental approaches that exist across political parties and special interest coalitions in Brazil. Coalitions’ roles in national politics are more important than those of individual political parties, and must be understood in order to grasp the dynamics of the National Congress´s decision making process.

With elections looming, most congressional candidates come forward with proposals based on the assumption that environmental or climate measures are barriers to the Brazilian development. Many of them are eager to pursue short-term policies that spur economic growth, disregarding the long-term impacts on Brazilian economy or environment. The number of National Congress candidates with a proactive position regarding climate change and the environment can be counted on two hands. Presidential candidate Marina’s Sustainability Network (REDE) party does not officially exist yet, but when it finally does, its weight in the political scene will be shaped according to the results of the elections. Marina’s current Socialist Party and its allies will not reach a majority in National Congress. Even if Marina Silva wins the presidency, her work will depend on cooperation from a congress hostile to environmental and climate issues.

Demanding a clear and strong environmental agenda from future presidents without doing the same for the National Congress is unlikely to lead to sustainable changes in how Brazilian development choices are made. Undoubtedly, political coalitions and parties will not develop an environmental agenda by themselves. Changing policy-makers’ attitudes depends on the ability of forces outside congress such as social movements, academia and media, putting pressure on congressman to include these important issues in the agenda.

The eagerness for change seen in last year brought the country together to discuss its democracy and the quality of its future development. The debate has just started, and though little real impact of this context may be seen in the next elections, environmental and climate movements will be impossible to ignore for long. Sooner or later citizens and their representatives will need to face the debate about the development they want for this and future generations.

Click here for infographics on the Brazilian National Congress and the 2014 Elections.

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