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Weekly Report - 15 April 2021 (WR-21-15)

BRAZIL: Concerns over US climate negotiations

US President Joe Biden’s administration has been carrying out talks with President Jair Bolsonaro’s government in Brazil in a bid to reach an agreement on environmental conservation in the Amazon. Civil society organisations in Brazil have warned that such efforts will be for naught if they do not include a wide range of actors beyond the federal government.

President Bolsonaro is one of 40 world leaders and six Latin American heads of state to have been invited by President Biden to the virtual 22-23 April Leaders Summit on Climate, described by the White House as a “key milestone” on the road to the COP26 international climate talks due to be hosted by the United Kingdom in November, and part of Biden’s ambitious plan for climate action. Ahead of these talks, the US has been seeking to negotiate a deal to preserve the Brazilian Amazon, where deforestation surged to a 12-year high last year.  

Brazil is a crucial player in global efforts to limit climate change as it is home to most of the Amazon rainforest, an important carbon sink which scientists warn is on the brink of becoming a carbon source. Under Bolsonaro and his environment minister, Ricardo Salles, illegal miners, loggers, and land grabbers have been emboldened, environmental enforcement efforts have been weakened, and deforestation has surged. Bolsonaro has made no secret of his plans to develop the Amazon for economic gain or of his disdain for those who seek to protect the forest, whether they are indigenous communities or NGOs.  

This is why the US government should not strike a climate deal with the Bolsonaro executive without involving other actors, a group of 199 civil society organisations argued in a letter to Biden, dated 6 April. “It is not sensible to expect any solutions for the Amazon to stem from closed-doors meeting with its worst enemy,” the letter reads, noting that “Bolsonaro is stimulating the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and other biomes, and increasing Brazilian carbon emissions”. Should the US agree to a deal which does not include dialogue with, inter alia, local governments and indigenous populations, this would equate to “lending political prestige and money to Bolsonaro” and endorsing his anti-environmental agenda, the civil society organisations warn, arguing that it would go against Biden’s pledges on climate and human rights.

Payment for preservation

During his election campaign last year, Biden mooted a US$20bn fund to help Brazil protect the Amazon. Salles has since been particularly vocal in calling on international critics of the Bolsonaro government’s environmental policy to stump up cash to help with conservation efforts – despite the fact that it has bankrolled an ineffective but expensive military operation in the Amazon while cutting the budgets of environmental agencies and is sitting on several billion reais in the frozen Amazon Fund.

Amid reports that Salles is insisting that a prospective climate deal involve money transfers to Brazil, the civil society organisations argued that financial incentives should be conditional on deforestation levels having first been brought down, and on the implementation of legal safeguards. This is reportedly a sticking point between the US and Brazilian officials, with recent reports suggesting the talks are at an impasse. This is unlikely to have been resolved by the government’s deforestation targets for 2021-2022, revealed on 14 April, which environmentalists say would still leave deforestation levels by the end of next year 16% higher than the average of the past four years.   

Deforestation concerns

Preliminary data for this year, released on 9 April, show that overall deforestation declined in the first quarter of 2021, falling 28% compared with 2020; but scientists say that heavy cloud cover in January and February could have concealed the true extent of forest loss, while deforestation levels in March grew 12.4% year-on-year – a cause for concern if this trend is confirmed in April, with the Amazon dry season round the corner.