Sat, 03 Dec 2022

The agricultural sector has one of the most powerful political lobbies in Brazil, and President Jair Bolsonaro enjoys strong support in the country's main agricultural states. Many farmers have rallied behind Bolsonaro during his tenure, but will their support be enough to secure him a second term?

A 4x4 lurches along a dirt track leading to a farm, leaving a cloud of red dust in its wake. The season has been drier than usual in Goias, a state in central Brazil. A sticker supporting Bolsonaro on the car's rear window is caked in red earth, barely visible. "We had to call the fire brigade last week because several hectares caught fire over there," says Danilo Melo, 59, pointing towards a seemingly endless expanse of land.

Melo has been working for almost 40 years on the 850 hectares of soy and corn fields that he inherited from his parents. They emigrated inland "to conquer the region of Brasilia before the capital was even born", he says. He is a member of the powerful Agriculture and Livestock Confederation (CNA) lobby and a fierce defender of President Bolsonaro as he seeks re-election.

"Thanks to Bolsonaro, we don't pay export taxes. I can sell my soy without any issues; he's reduced the paperwork, the bureaucracy," Melo says, sipping water in the cool shade in a kitchen belonging to one of his farmhands. Melo predicts catastrophe should Bolsonaro's left-wing rival, former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (known as "Lula"), win the October 2 presidential election.

"It will be the beginning of the end. He wants to prioritise growing crops for Brazil and limit exports, but that will kill our business because we will have to sell our soy more cheaply."

Farmers and supporters of Bolsonaro in Brazil's Mato Grosso state.

'Agribusiness is with Bolso'

The president is seen as a hero in many of Brazil's agricultural states for having legalised more than 400,000 property titles throughout his term - a record - and for having transferred responsibility for delineating Indigenous land (a controversial issue for the agricultural sector) to the agriculture ministry. Idolised by small and large-scale landowners alike, his support is evident in the pro-Bolsonaro billboards erected at the entrance to many villages.

Melo says Bolsonaro has overwhelming support among farmers. "We must be around 350 farmers in the two unions of which I'm a member. Just one guy won't vote for him," he says.

The Bolsonaro camp says the president's strong support among farmers is not reflected in polls predicting a Lula victory, including those by Datafolha, a respected pollster that is denounced by the president's supporters. During the celebrations of Brazil's independence bicentennial on September 7, thousands in Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia sported T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, "Agribusiness is with Bolso."

This rural popularity may seem far removed from the electoral weight of urban centres, but it will add up on election day. In Brasilia, the political capital, and Sao Paulo, the country's economic motor, the CNA sets the tone. During an event attended by Bolsonaro and his former agricultural minister Tereza Cristina last month, the lobby's president said that Brazil has "no place for a candidate who faces judicial procedures and is an ex-convict", a reference to former president Lula, who spent 579 days in prison on corruption charges that were later annulled by the Supreme Court.

'Fascists and right-wingers'

Melo is not so much worried about corruption as he is about land invasions by the MST, the landless workers' movement supported by Lula. "It's never happened to me but my neighbour was attacked," he says. He adds: "Thank goodness Bolsonaro defends the right to possess firearms; we need them to protect ourselves on a farm as big as mine."

Lula, the Workers' Party candidate, may have undermined his appeal to farmers when he described a segment of the agribusiness sector as "fascists and right-wingers" in a TV interview in late August. Lula has historically been a defender of small-scale farmers - to whom he has promised special lines of credit - and is now looking to make inroads with big agribusiness voters despite their misgivings.

Bolsonaro's negative image abroad weighs against him

Lula, indeed, scored a recent win with the unexpected endorsement of centrist lawmaker Neri Geller, the vice-president of the agricultural caucus in congress. Geller is running for a senate seat this year representing Mato Grosso, a state that is one of Brazil's most important exporters of meat and soya. Geller, a politician farmer himself, has said he is impressed with Lula's pick for running mate - the moderate Geraldo Alckmin (PSB) - and with the Workers' Party's attempts at dialogue.

"The current government is getting bogged down in ideological fights with China, for example, our biggest trading partner, whereas Lula knows how to be a leader who reassures the markets," Geller said in an interview last week with CartaCapital, a Brazilian weekly.

Some members of the agricultural caucus also see Bolsonaro's extremely negative image internationally as a Lula advantage. Lula is popular with the European community, for example, raising the possibility that he could succeed in securing an EU trade deal with the South American trade bloc Mercosur.

There is yet another argument in Lula's favour: calm and stability are good for business. Some big names in the agricultural sector such as Blairo Maggi - nicknamed the "soy king" - do not like Bolsonaro's belligerent tone or his anti-democratic comments.

Melo, however, is convinced that agribusiness "will never accept Lula". And regional polls say he may be right: across Brazil's huge agricultural belt, which spans from the centre-west down to the south, Bolsonaro remains the favourite.

Originally published on France24

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