Weekly Report - 18 November 2021 (WR-21-46)

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BRAZIL: Deforestation data dashes attempt at green image

Although President Jair Bolsonaro did not attend the COP26 climate talks earlier this month in Scotland (“everyone would have thrown stones at him”, Vice President Hamilton Mourão said to explain the head of state’s absence), a large delegation was present at the conference in Glasgow to push the image of Brazil as a green power. Pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030 and end deforestation by 2028 were welcomed but viewed with scepticism by many [WR-21-44] – scepticism which appeared justified when Brazil’s latest deforestation figures were published on 12 November.

The Bolsonaro government had been touting year-on-year drops in monthly deforestation figures for July and August (while ignoring the fact that deforestation remained at extremely high levels) as proof of its environmental commitments and of the success of its policies aimed at tackling forest clearing, which notably involved deploying the army to the Amazon [WR-21-24]. But forest loss edged up again in September, and data released by the government’s Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (Inpe) last week show that deforestation in October was at the highest level for that month in the last six years. According to the Inpe’s deforestation alert system (Deter), 877km2 of forest were cleared in the Amazon in October, a 5% increase on last year.

Environment Minister Joaquim Leite skirted the issue during a press conference in Glasgow on the last day of the COP26. “I haven’t looked at the numbers,” Leite told reporters on 12 November, arguing that the COP tackles the issue of climate change globally, not on a country-by-country basis. In those same comments he repeated Brazil’s demand for climate funding from rich countries.

Marcio Astrini, the executive secretary of the Observatório do Clima network of environmental organisations, voiced the widely held opinion that these figures, and Leite’s response to them, prove that the Bolsonaro government’s discourse at the COP26 was nothing more than greenwashing. “Emissions happen on the forest floor, not in Glasgow’s plenaries. And the forest floor is telling us that the government does not have the slightest intention of observing the commitments it signed at the COP26,” Astrini said.

Annual deforestation figures, based on Prodes satellite figures and usually released by the Inpe around this time of year, will give a further indication of the situation in the Amazon after annual deforestation figures reached a more than 10-year high last year. It has now emerged that the government may have been deliberately withholding this data while the COP26 was taking place. On 17 November, a union representing Inpe civil servants, SindCT, published a note accusing the government of lying about the report on annual deforestation not being ready to share ahead of the COP26.

According to SindCT, the report of consolidated Prodes data had been finalised in mid-October, sent to the Inpe director, and passed on to the science & technology ministry (MCTI). Leite should therefore have had these figures to hand during the official speech he delivered in Glasgow on 10 November, in which he conspicuously avoided acknowledging that Amazon deforestation has soared during the Bolsonaro government and sought to present Brazil as “part of the solution” to tackle emissions globally. (The majority of Brazil’s emissions are related to land use changes, which includes forest clearing.) “[Leite] didn’t speak of the numbers because he didn’t want to; or maybe also to avoid getting a ‘beating’,” the SindCT declared.

Selling the green image in the Middle East

President Bolsonaro has been using the ‘Brazil is a green power’ line while on a trip to the Middle East drum up investment. However, the president’s discourse remains peppered with untruths about the scale of environmental destruction in Brazil: while speaking to investors in Dubai on 15 November, Bolsonaro said that Brazil is unfairly attacked over the Amazon, which he said remains “almost exactly the same as when it was discovered in 1500”. The president also said that the Amazon does not catch fire as it is a “humid forest”. Forest fires, linked to deforestation, have surged during his presidency.  

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