Kaigang Chief Kreta protests the environmental policies of Jair Bolsonaro, then Brazil’s president-elect, on Dec. 6 in Brasilia. (Eraldo Peres/AP)

Brazil’s new right-wing president opened the door Wednesday for more potential development and tree-clearing in the Amazon rain forest, giving the Agriculture Ministry oversight over which lands are granted protected status.

The move by Jair Bolsonaro — in one of his first acts since his inauguration Tuesday — is seen as a victory for Brazil’s powerful rural lobby, which has long sought access to protected lands for logging, farming and other projects. 

It also signaled the apparent start of a new era of sweeping deregulation in Brazil, a country once lauded for its strides in environmental protection — including its stewardship of the world’s largest rain forest.

Bolsonaro, a former army captain who was backed by the rural lobby, supports greater development of the Amazon, the assimilation of indigenous groups and reduction of environmental regulation.

The Agricultural Ministry will also oversee the demarcation of lands belonging to quilombolas, descendants of slaves who live in independent communities in Brazil. 

“More than 15 percent of our national territory is demarcated for indigenous groups and quilombolas. Less than 1 million people live in these isolated territories, that are, in fact, exploited and manipulated by NGOs. We will assimilate these citizens and value all Brazilians,” Bolsonaro tweeted

The decree defangs Brazil’s Ministry of Indigenous Affairs, which previously determined federal protected status for Amazon lands and others.

An early campaign proposal by Bolsonaro sought to abolish the ministry, but that idea was abandoned after widespread criticism.

For indigenous leaders and environmental activists, the decision cemented fears that Brazil’s new president would roll back years of progress in slowing deforestation.  

“The ancestral rights of indigenous peoples are at stake,” said Nilo D’Ávila, campaigns director for Greenpeace Brazil.

He called Bolsonaro’s decision alarming and said it may put the future of the Amazon rain forest in jeopardy. 

Sônia Guajajara, one of the country’s most prominent indigenous leaders, echoed his concerns. “You see,” she tweeted, “the damage has already started.”