By Anthony Boadle
BRASILIA (Reuters) – President Jair Bolsonaro has drawn sharp criticism on the international stage from European leaders and environmental groups for his handling of wildfires raging in the Amazon, but at home few Brazilians are angered by his reluctant response.
Many of his fellow citizens share his aversion to what they see as foreign meddling in how to strike a balance between protecting and developing the Amazon rainforest. The vast region is regarded at home as a key national asset but is seen globally as a crucial bulwark against climate change.
However, opinions in Brazil may change if trade sanctions or boycotts start to weigh on an already weak economy, politicians and analysts say.
A surge this year in the number of fires in the Amazon has sparked international outrage and protests in front of Brazilian embassies.
Environmentalists claim most of the fires were illegally set by land speculators and ranchers seeking to expand pastures in the Amazon who feel emboldened by Bolsonaro’s criticism of excessive environmental protections.
Bolsonaro has denied the fires were deliberate and repeatedly told European countries in particular not to interfere. He has threatened to turn down international aid, although Brazil needs the funds and equipment to fight the fires, and feuded with French President Emmanuel Macron.
An opinion poll this week found almost 60 percent of Brazilians considered Bolsonaro’s government to have done a great, good, or normal job, indicating they were still willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt, said Leonardo Barreto, head of Brasilia-based consultancy Capital Politico.
“Ironically, this crisis may have increased Bolsonaro’s popularity because of his nationalism grounded in the threat of losing control over the Amazon to foreigners,” said Welber Barral, a lobbyist and former Brazilian foreign trade secretary.
Many Brazilians, from across the political spectrum, believe the Amazon contains untold riches in minerals that are coveted by other nations, from gold to niobium, a strategic metal used in satellites.
This belief, long a central doctrine of Brazil’s armed forces, feeds suspicion of any role by foreigners in the Amazon, even non-governmental organizations that work to protect the environment and indigenous tribes.
However, former army captain Bolsonaro was criticized by politicians in Congress – even by some allies – for taking too long to act in tackling the fires and wasting time on the slinging match with Macron, who accused him of lying about the rate of deforestation in the Amazon.
“The government has delayed taking important decisions,” Governor Helder Barbalho of the state of Pará, site of the most intense fires, and a member of the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement party, told Reuters.
The biggest problem facing Bolsonaro, who took the reins in January, was the lack of any solid recovery in Brazil’s economy on his watch, Barbalho said. Now the Amazon crisis had damaged Brazil’s image abroad and that could ricochet on the economy, he warned.
“If international markets close for Brazilian farm products we will be in an even more serious economic scenario,” he said.
Some countries have already threatened sanctions because of Bolsonaro’s environmental polices and consumers may decide to boycott Brazilian beef.
“That would directly affect one of Bolsonaro’s main – if not the main – electoral base, the agribusiness industry, which has backed him from the word go,” political risk analyst Barreto said.
Barreto said Bolsonaro’s administration will stand or fall on its economic record, especially an unpopular overhaul of the pension system that is winding its way through Congress.
The global outcry over the fires in the Amazon and Bolsonaro’s environmental policies could also start to influence investors.
In the first sign of a backlash, the U.S. parent company of apparel and shoe brands Timberland, Vans and the North Face said on Thursday it will no longer buy leather from Brazil due to concerns about the environment.
Companies in Europe and elsewhere could be pressed by their shareholders to stop investing in environmentally sensitive regions of Brazil, in sectors such as mining, Barral said.
That would not help growth prospects for Brazil, which economists have reduced to just 0.8% for this year.
Former centre left agriculture minister Katia Abreu sees a danger of countries that are competitors in the farm sector ganging up on Brazil, using the environmental issue as a pretext.
That would turn more Brazilians against Bolsonaro, she told Reuters.
“But Bolsonaro doesn’t take advice from anyone on how to avoid crises,” she said. “He doesn’t listen. He is unpredictable.”
(Reporting by Anthony Boadle, additional reporting by Lisandra Paraguassú, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)