Dealing With Bolsonaro: A Danger To The Environment

American President Joseph Biden convened a Leaders Summit on Climate Change from April 22nd-23rd. Many were particularly anxious and wary to hear from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who is frequently criticized for his poor environmental policies.

President Bolsonaro leads one of the world’s most biodiverse countries. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 19% of the world’s remaining primary tropical forest, much of which is the Amazon rainforest, occupies over half of Brazil. The Amazon is an essential ecosystem for the entire planet, absorbing carbon dioxide and influencing global temperatures, but also for local communities, many of whom are indigenous and depend on its resources.

Despite the Amazon’s importance, land clearing and mining under Bolsonaro have dramatically increased deforestation, also increasing emissions. The president has significantly downsized environmental agencies’ budgets, making the land easier for businesses to exploit without prevention or consequences. Activists argue that Bolsonaro has created more impunity for loggers, miners, and farmers who conduct illegal deforestation, increasing the problem that previous administrations worked hard to control. According to C.N.N., in April, Brazilian vice president Hamilton Mourão announced the Bolsonaro administration’s first official anti-deforestation goal: a 2022 deforestation rate that, although lower than current levels, is 16% higher than the year before Bolsonaro became president. His leadership is detrimental to the environment.

The Brazilian government tries to defend its environmental policies by citing a commitment to economic welfare. Bolsonaro claims that the Amazon needs economic development and has pushed to open commercial farming and mining in indigenous lands. Indigenous activists disagree with the Brazilian president’s vision of profiting off the land and have protested these actions, emphasizing their own rights in addition to environmental protection.

Brazilian and American representatives have been in climate negotiations since February, and Bolsonaro’s government has asked for 1 billion U.S.D. annually to help fight illegal deforestation. However, many critics have warned against a deal with Bolsonaro. The Climate Observatory, a network of non-governmental organizations, has called on the U.S. to reject the deal unless evidence of reduced deforestation is demanded first, with payment later. 15 Democratic senators, including Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, told Biden to be cautious of Bolsonaro’s claims. Warnings against trusting Bolsonaro hold significant merit; he approved a 24% cut to the 2021 environment budget only a day after promising to increase spending on anti-deforestation measures.

Two former Brazilian ministers of environment have warned that the agreement with the U.S. would strengthen Bolsonaro’s leadership and have negative environmental consequences. These ministers argue that deforestation in Brazil is not due to a lack of money but rather its president’s failure to care about environmentalism. The Environment Ministry has not spent the already available funds to combat deforestation, leading to concerns that the requested funds will strengthen those harming the environment rather than prevent further destruction.

Grave concern has also come from Brazilian indigenous communities and environmentalists, who say that Bolsonaro cannot be trusted with climate change and worry about the lack of input from civil society. According to Time, Governor João Doria of Sãu Paulo decries Bolsonaro’s “total disregard for the environmental agenda” and says Biden should make deals with Brazilian states to ensure transparent funds and take more meaningful climate action. 23 of Brazil’s 27 state governors have written a public letter to Biden laying out a potential partnership with Brazilian states.

Effective climate negotiations must include state governments, indigenous communities, civil society, and environmentalists. Without transparency and commitments, giving money to the current Brazilian government risks wasting funds and enabling further environmental destruction. Any deal made at this time will be crucial to the future of the Brazilian Amazon and the global climate and must be made with the utmost care and caution. The U.S. shouldn’t disengage with Brazil on environmental issues, but activists and state officials must be heard to ensure an effective process.