The United States is negotiating a multi-million dollar climate deal with Brazil that observers say could help the re-election of President Jair Bolsonaro and reward illegal logging of forests in the Amazon.
That is the concern of indigenous groups, environmental activists and civil society activists, who say they are being excluded from the most important conversations about the future of the rainforest since at least 1992.
Senior US officials are holding weekly online meetings on the Amazon ahead of a series of large international conferences. Ministers and ambassadors from Great Britain and Europe also participate. But instead of those who know forest protection best, his Brazilian interlocutor is Bolsonaro’s Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, who has overseen the worst deforestation in more than a decade.
Salles is asking for a billion dollars every 12 months in exchange for which, he says, forest clearing would be reduced by 30-40%. Without the extra foreign cash, says Brazil will not be able to commit to a reduction target.
Only a third of the money would go directly to protecting forests, and the rest would be spent on “economic development” to provide alternative livelihoods for those who depend on logging, mining or agriculture in the Amazon. This has raised concerns that Salles funnels cash to the heavily Bolsonarist constituency of farmers and land grabbers, rewarding them for invading, stealing and burning forests.
On Tuesday, a group of 199 civil society groups published a joint letter to the US administration saying that any deal with the Brazilian government amounted to appeasement. “It is not reasonable to expect solutions for the Amazon and its people to come from closed-door negotiations with their worst enemy,” the letter said. “The Bolsonaro government tries at all costs to legalize the exploitation of the Amazon, causing irreversible damage to our territories, peoples and life on the planet.”
Scientists say international action is long overdue in the world’s largest tropical forest. The Amazon is essential for climate stability, but human activity is turning the region into a source, rather than a sink, of atmospheric carbon. Some areas are near a tipping point where the forest shrinks, dries up, and irreversibly degrades into a savanna.
The next few months should be the best opportunity to reverse this in many years. US President Joe Biden invited world leaders to a climate summit in Washington on April 22, after pledging $ 20 billion for rainforests during his election campaign. Later in the year, the UK will host Cop26, the most important UN climate conference from Paris, in Glasgow. In between, world leaders will meet in Kunming, China, to set biodiversity targets for the next 10 years.
But there can be no solution without the Amazon, which means that anyone seeking progress has to deal with Bolsonaro and his ministers, despite their nationalist, anti-science and anti-environmental policies.
“Brazil is too important to stay off the negotiating table,” said a source familiar with the talks. “Many in civil society say ‘don’t deal with the Brazilian government.’ But the United States says they have to deal with elected leaders because they cannot postpone the discussion on deforestation for two or more years. “
This is a risk for Biden, who is about to do what Trump never did: give cash to a Brazilian president who has gutted forest protection agencies, lethally mishandled the Covid crisis and is seen as a danger not only for Brazil, but the world.
Izabella Teixeira, Brazil’s former environment minister, said the United States and the United Kingdom were ready to pay a government that is holding the planet for a ransom. “They have to offer money to the Bolsonaro government so that it does not block the meetings of the Police,” said Teixeira, who represented Brazil at various international conferences during the Dilma Rousseff administrations.
She said Salles’ focus on carbon markets and payments for ecosystem services They are supported by the more conservative wing of the agribusiness sector, and could generate cash for a reinvented version of the Bolsa Verde social benefits program in the Amazon and elsewhere. This money and the prestige of an international agreement could provide a political lifeline for Bolsonaro, whose popularity is falling. In recent months, the president has lost or fired his Minister of Justice, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Defense, and the commanders of the three armed forces.
Salles, a Bolsonaro confidant, leads the negotiations and tweets screenshots of his virtual meetings with the US team, led by Jonathan Pershing, and UK Cop26 president Alok Sharma. Among other proposals, it is seeking more foreign support for a scheme that encourages corporate adoption of national parks, increased use of carbon credits and payments for ecosystem services to farmers for forest maintenance and tree planting.
But Salles, who became environment minister in 2019, has no credibility with those who defend the forest. He has tried to monetize the region and promoted mining and agribusiness, and under his supervision the regulations for the protection of the Amazon have been shelved, which reduced deforestation by 80%, monitoring agencies have been gutted, they have been cut down. 15,000 square kilometers of forest and Brazil has reversed its international commitment to reduce carbon emissions.
Salles already has access to significant international funds. About $ 3 billion from Norway and Germany are idle in the Amazon Fund, which was frozen by the environment minister because it did not like the strict deforestation conditions that it entailed. This raises questions about what the new funds would be used for and who would use them.
Activists and academics say that any deal should involve payments for results, money should be funneled through state governors rather than the federal government, it should not reward landowners simply for obeying the law, and resources to enforce the law should be in the form of specialized environmental rangers. rather than recruits for the pro-Bolsonaro police force.
They want Brazil to provide a detailed plan to achieve zero deforestation. Most important, they say, is that the distribution of funds should focus on protecting existing primary forests in indigenous territories rather than new plantations on lands cleared by farmers. An effective agreement, they argue, would need to involve traditional forest communities, which have proven to be the best stewards of the environment.
Sources close to the talks say that if there is no bilateral agreement with Brazil by April, the United States is likely to make a strong but comprehensive statement of support for tropical forests around the world. This would be a carrot to encourage Amazonian nations to compete for funds with measurable reductions in deforestation. Brazil could lose to its neighbors Colombia, Bolivia or Peru.
This is part of a coordinated diplomatic push. A group of five ambassadors from the US, UK, Germany, Norway and the EU recently met with Salles and other high-ranking ministers to insist on the message that Amazon’s policies must change and deforestation must decrease if Brazil wants to compromise and lose its damaging international reputation as an environmental vandal.
Time pressures could weaken resolution. Biden wants to announce a success at his climate summit later this month and the UK will seek progress at Cop26 in November. Environmentalists fear that a hasty deal with an insincere bargaining partner could be worse than no deal at all. Unless payments are closely tied to emission reduction outcomes, they could be wasted on dubious carbon credits, vague development plans, benefits for land grabbers, and a huge new greenwashing system for fossil fuel companies. .
The way to avoid this, they say, is to make the conversations transparent and publicly invite civil society participation. Currently, Bolsonaro is the only Brazilian participant invited to the Biden climate summit, which sends a worrying signal to those who have long fought for the protection of forests.
“Brazil is today a divided country. On the one hand, there are indigenous people, quilombolas [descendants of afro-Brazilian slaves], scientists, environmentalists and people who work against deforestation and for life, ”said Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of the Brazilian Climate Observatory, a network of 50 civil society organizations. “On the other, there is the Bolsonaro government, which threatens human rights, democracy and puts the Amazon at risk. Biden needs to choose which side he will lean on. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism