Why Brazil's President Is a Dangerous Steward for the Amazon

Activists gather in front of the Brazilian Embassy during a demonstration organised by Extinction Rebellion activists on August 26, 2019 in Brussels, Belgium. The protesters called on the Brazilian government to do more to tackle the the fires and deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. (Photo: Thierry Monasse/Getty Images)

Why Brazil's President Is a Dangerous Steward for the Amazon

It is imperative for world leaders to understand the depth, cost and extent of Bolsonaro’s 'ecocide' during these last two years and not fall for his lies. 

Carved out of the rainforest, the Trans-Amazonia Highway, is a 2.500 mile-road that connects seven northern states in Brazil. The audacious project was started in 1972 during the country's Military Dictatorship (1964-1985) with two objectives: development and security of the "unoccupied" region. In order to bring companies and large-scale farmers there, the government offered large portions of land, tax exemption incentives and attractive financing. The move culminated with the expulsion of thousands of small farmers and entire tribes of indigenous peoples, solidifying a long history of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.

On April 22, Brazil's President, Jair Bolsonaro spoke at the U.S. Climate Summit affirming his nation's commitment "to eliminate illegal deforestation by 2030," and he "anticipates Brazil's goal of zero emissions to 2050." He was one of 40 world leaders present. During his remarks, he also said Brazil is "on the forefront in combating climate change," and that his administration is "complying with the measures to combat deforestation and preserve the Amazon."

Not everyone is buying into the far-right leader's sudden change of heart, and some suspect it is a distraction from the political fallout over his pandemic-related missteps and nascent charges of disassembling Brazil's environmental infrastructure.

Juliana de Paula Batista, a staff attorney with Instituto Socioambiental--(ISA) an organization working on social-environmental issues and indigenous communities' rights in Brazil, is one of the skeptics. "It doesn't make sense for Bolsonaro to promise [Biden] something that is beyond his government when as the President, he has the ability to take direct and concrete actions to stop deforestation, but instead he's actually encouraging it," for economic development, she told me during a phone conversation.

In fact, since taking office in 2019 Bolsonaro, aided by his administration, has dismantled environmental protection agencies, weakened enforcement systems, given amnesty to violators, ignored illegal logging, backed deforestation bills, cozied up to mining executives, endangered indigenous lives, and attacked non-governmental organizations. His actions are so egregious that some see him as conducting an "ecocide."

Now that these activities, along with mounting political pressures at home and from abroad, could cost Bolsonaro the presidency next year, he appears to have toned down his efforts, at least on paper.

In 2008, Germany and Norway created the Amazon Fund, an investment mechanism whose goal was to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation in the Brazilian rainforest. The fund also promoted sustainable "forest management and economic activities from the use of native vegetation" by small family farmers and indigenous tribes in the region. But the almost $540 million reserve (R$ 3 billion) has been paralyzed since 2019. That's because Brazil's Environmental Minister Ricardo Salles changed its operation's guidelines and disbanded the technical and advisory committees, which caused a diplomatic impasse. Since then the region saw the highest level of deforestation in 12 years, according to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), or a 9.5% hike, going from 2.5 million acres in 2019 to 2.7 million acres in 2020. Seeing the spike in deforestation and fires, Norway and Germany have stopped contributing to the fund.

In March 2021, during the Inter-American Development Bank's (IADB) annual meeting, IADB announced a $1 billion fund to develop sustainable projects in the Amazon, to stimulate the "bioeconomy" and combat deforestation in the region. IADB finances economic and social development projects in Latin America and the Caribbean. Bolsonaro, who was present at the gathering, reiterated his stated pledge to develop the Amazon. "That's is why we're working to create jobs, products and services that use the forest resources in a sustainable way," he affirmed. The Brazilian government hasn't given details of what such "sustainable projects" and "bioeconomy" would look like under this new proposed capital. Given this administration's work to open up the region for more commercial development, including mining and large-scale farming, this plan should be taken with a grain of salt.

For those concerned with Brazil's rainforest, its native inhabitants, or even broader issues like climate change and the environment, it ought to be clear that Bolsonaro and his cronies have been extremely dangerous for the Amazon.

In the meantime, Salles has been lobbying for foreign aid for this fund in order to "curb Amazon deforestation by 30-40%," he said. Critics have pointed out though that the Amazon Fund, which was created for the same purposes, is still frozen. Sveinung Rotevatn, the Norwegian Environmental Minister, said in an interview that a reduction in deforestation depends on "political will, not financing." Norway is still waiting for a drop in deforestation to reactivate the Amazon Fund.

The climate summit marks the U.S. rejoining the world on climate talks ahead of the United Nations COP-26 meeting in Glasgow later this year. At the opening of the summit, Biden advanced his pro-environment agenda by committing "to cut greenhouse emissions in half by 2030." Several world leaders welcomed the U.S. back to the negotiating table after a four-year hiatus. Bolsonaro's participation, according to his critics, is a mere "smoke screen" to obfuscate his political troubles at home.

Last week, Brazil's Supreme Court (STF) allowed the Senate to start an investigation into Bolsonaro and his administration's response to the pandemic, which has claimed more than 380,000 lives, and infected more than 14 million people. In fact, over course of the pandemic, just like President Donald Trump did in the U.S., Brazil's president downplayed the severity of the COVID-19 virus, undermined science and health-driven directives for national shutdowns, and ignored the use of masks and social distancing measures to contain the spread of the virus. He has also promoted the use of unproven drugs--or as Brazilians call it, 'Kit Covid'--to treat and prevent the disease and failed to arrange much-needed vaccine resources. He has just confirmed his fourth Health Minister since the start of the pandemic, a cardiologist who said he would follow Bolsonaro's orders--hardly a reassuring move. The previous three ministers were sacked for either sharing science-backed information with the population, for standing up to the President, or for not having any medical experience - the third minister is a Divisional General of the Brazilian Army.

Many also saw Bolsonaro's appearance as disingenuous. The Trump-sycophant did not acknowledge Biden's Presidential victory until almost a month after the U.S. elections were certified. Last year he rejected Biden's $20 billion offer to protect the Amazon, tweeting he "does not accept bribes or coward threats toward our territorial and economic integrity."

In an attempt to curry favor with the Biden Administration and just a few days before the climate gathering, Bolsonaro sent the U.S. leader a letter promising to end deforestation if Brazil was "fairly compensated for the environmental services [our] citizens provide for the planet," a statement he repeated at the summit. In reaction to Bolsonaro's letter, U.S. Senators, environmental groups, indigenous peoples and coalitions of civil and political parties have denounced his greenwashing attempt.

On April 16, 15 U.S. Senate Democrats penned a document urging him to set constraints on aid for Brazil. Questioning Bolsonaro's credibility, they wrote, "[any] U.S. assistance to Brazil should be conditioned in two critical areas: reducing deforestation and ending impunity for environmental crimes and acts of intimidation and violence against forest defenders."

Climate Observatory, a coalition of 198 Brazilian environmental groups called Bolsonaro the "worst enemy" of the Amazon, tweeting, "Would you pay Donald Trump to protect the Amazon?" And the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) shared a video from Chief Raoni Metuktire of the Amazon's Kayapo tribe who warned Biden that Bolsonaro "wants to allow our forest to be destroyed by encouraging invasion of our land."

Another coalition of 33 civil societies entities and leaders from left-leaning parties that form the Permanent National Forum in Defense of the Amazon also asked Biden and Bolsonaro for transparency in negotiations about the Amazon. In the statement, signed by dozens of its members, the signatories declared, "We're favorable to international cooperation, but we disagree with agreements done behind closed doors with the Brazilian government and without the participation of the Forum, National Congress and indigenous people from Amazonia (state)."

Fearful of a closed-door deal without guarantees for the environment, APIB released a video last week telling Biden: "do not let this man negotiate the future of the Amazon." It also pleaded, "if you want to help the Amazon, talk to the people that live and keep the forest alive." It was a direct message referring to three bilateral meetings between agents from the two countries to discuss environmental issues and the $1 billion fund backed by the IADB. These virtual gatherings, which occurred within the last two months, excluded indigenous people.

When called out over the exclusion, the Biden Administration attempted to do damage control. The day after the video was released the U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Todd Chapman received a delegation of indigenous people from APIB and Funai, Brazil's indigenous affairs agency, which has been allied with Bolsonaro. The groups met with Jonathan Pershing - Climate and Policy Advisor for the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate change, under John Kerry's supervision. Biden had asked the ambassador to facilitate the conversation after APIB expressed a desire to have a direct channel of communication with the U.S. to discuss topics related to Brazil's Amazon. Initially only APIB was supposed to be present. However, after the U.S. delegation mentioned the gathering to Funai, the agency designated several indigenous people - all of whom are connected to agribusiness and mining operations responsible for deforestation in the Amazon, to bring "counter proposals" to the table. In other words, indigenous concerns have once more been steamrolled.

For those concerned with Brazil's rainforest, its native inhabitants, or even broader issues like climate change and the environment, it ought to be clear that Bolsonaro and his cronies have been extremely dangerous for the Amazon. It is imperative for world leaders to understand the depth, cost and extent of Bolsonaro's 'ecocide' during these last two years and not fall for his lies.

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