- Brazil’s government presence was much shrunken at COP25, as compared to past climate conferences, and its delegation even opted out of hosting a presentation space — this despite the country’s being South America’s biggest economy and among the world’s top ten greenhouse gas emitters.
- The administration of President Jair Bolsonaro is controversial for its anti-environmental and anti-indigenous stance. Its policies have prompted resistance by Amazon indigenous and traditional rural populations.
- Environment Minister Ricardo Salles represented one face of Brazil at COP25, speaking publicly twice at the summit, and focusing mostly on agribusiness and economic development opportunities in Amazonia.
- Indigenous peoples and other activists showed a very different face at COP25, emphasizing government failures to protect the environment as well as indigenous and traditional peoples living in the Amazon.
MADRID, Spain — Originally scheduled to host the 2019 UN Conference on Climate Change (COP25), Brazil entered the global media spotlight in November 2018 when newly elected president Jair Bolsonaro backed out of the event, even before taking office.
Then came the stunning images in August of extensive Amazon fires, reported along with a 30% increase in deforestation under Bolsonaro — tree loss that some attribute to the president’s inflammatory rhetoric.
COP25, after first being shifted from Brazil to Chile, finally landed In Madrid, where over the last two weeks Brazilian attendees seemed display at least two different — diametrically opposed — faces. On the one hand, there’s the Bolsonaro administration which will sign any new UN agreements coming out of this COP, and on the other, are the peoples living in the rainforest raising their voices in an attempt to influence policy.
Press conferences, debates and conversations at COP pavilions, along with protest signs raised during street demonstrations, denounced the nation’s Amazon degradation, while praising the leading role of indigenous peoples in promoting forest preservation and diverse sustainable livelihoods.
Meanwhile, Government representatives seemed to be talking about a different country. Brazil’s delegation, led by Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, advocated Amazon development and rapid agribusiness expansion.
Silence over fires and murders
In the COP25 plenary on Tuesday, December 10, Minister Salles presented himself as a representative of over 20 million people living in the Amazon region, highlighting it as the land with the “biggest biodiversity in the world, with 60% of native forest preserved.” He did not address denunciations by activists concerning the increase in deforestation or escalating violence toward traditional populations.
In his first public appearance at COP25 on Monday, December 9, Salles focused on Brazil’s agribusiness sector: “When I hear about [farmers and ranchers] making the areas already opened more efficient, this is the right vision. Better technologies, better conditions, this is one of the factors that discourages the opening of new areas [to deforestation]. Besides that, something directly connected to our position here at COP25, the monetization of environmental services.”
Salles did not respond to questions about the murder of two indigenous representatives, Raimundo and Firmino Guajajara, on Saturday December 7, on the BR-226 highway, between the municipalities of Boa Vista and El Betel, in Maranhão state. But a minute of silence was held in honor of the two at the event. Nor did the minister comment on data showing surging deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.
The minister’s Monday speech didn’t take place at the Brazilian government booth, a major presence at past COPs. That’s because the Bolsonaro administration decided against having one. Instead, Salles spoke from a space organized by Brazilian civil society.
The Brazilian delegation at COP25 works out of a small, inconspicuous office, a blue cube whose door always seems closed and locked. For the first time since 1992, the government denied accreditation to civil society to take part in the official delegation.
Brazil’s divided personality was especially on display at the Monday speechmaking event: Salles, with his Amazon pro-development views, talked just after Caetanno Scannavino, coordinator of the Saúde e Alegria project, one of the socioenvironmental NGOs recently targeted by a government investigation, with the seizure of its computers by the Military Police of Pará.
As part of that same law enforcement operation, four volunteer forest firefighters in Alter do Chão municipality were arrested for allegedly starting Amazon fires in September. The four, members of a local socioenvironmental NGO, have since been released with the legitimacy of the charges questioned due to lack of evidence, raising concerns about the criminalization of social movements in Brazil. “Obviously, we did not set fire to the forest. We had a nightmare!” Scavinno joked.
Joênia Wapichana, an indigenous federal deputy, criticized the Bolsonaro government’s silence on indigenous rights: “I would like to talk about Brazil as a country of life protection. But we are living with omission, and fear of listening to the indigenous population.”
Energized by the support they’ve been getting from the government, Brazilian agribusiness representatives hyped “Rural Producers: The Great Environmental Partner,” and participated in COP debates promoting the use of agribusiness technologies to expand croplands.
Opposing viewpoints on land regularization
COP25 is especially focused on finalizing mechanisms for an international carbon market. In response, the Brazilian government talked solely about efficiency and technology, especially relating to agribusiness.
The subject of land regularization was covered too, though mostly as it benefits rural producers, with no mention of the land rights of traditional populations. Bolsonaro, absent at COP25, continues to assert that there will be no new demarcation of indigenous lands, and that he wants to pass laws allowing mining and agribusiness within indigenous reserves, currently outlawed.
After the first Salles event, the President of the Brazilian Senate, Davi Alcolumbre, told the press in Madrid: “Self-declaration is the way to simplification.” He was referring to a just announced Bolsonaro presidential provisional measure greatly easing regulations for registering Amazon land claims, with little proof required by potential land grabbers wishing to occupy and clear forestlands held in common by the government.
So called “self-declaration” of land ownership is very controversial, especially in a country with 18 different land registries, and millions of hectares where conflicting and overlapping land claims occur often between indigenous and traditional communities (with sustainable forest livelihoods), and elite outsiders (who wish to profit from forest conversion to croplands and pasture). Experts warn that self-declaration has the potential for extensive fraud, land grabs, and increased rural conflict and violence.
500,000 march in Madrid, land rights a priority
Another face of Brazil was presented in the Climate March, which brought half a million people into the streets of Madrid last Friday under the banner of climate justice, with the additional theme of rural land rights. The protest was organized in partnership with the Social Climate Summit, taking place in parallel with COP25 at the Complutense University of Madrid. Youth activist Greta Thunberg and actor Javier Bardem were prominent during the march, but so were indigenous protestors.
Among them, Sonia Guajajara, representative of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), who, on stage at march’s end, declared: “Bolsonaro is not just a problem for Brazil. The Amazon is burning and its defenders and our livelihoods are being murdered!”
The indigenous leader also commented on Salles’ Monday speech in a later COP25 interview: “We are obliged to hear from the minister that we have to take care of people, while the murder of indigenous people and invasions of our lands are increasing, and Brazil stands against the inclusion of human rights in Article 6,” she said, referring to the mechanism for regulating carbon markets under the Paris Agreement, the main focus of rulemaking at this COP.
Preliminary data from 2019 from the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) indicate that in the first nine months of Bolsonaro’s administration, 160 cases of invasion of indigenous lands were registered — twice the number as last year.
CIMI President Antonio Eduardo de Oliveira commented to Mongabay: “We regret the position of the Brazilian government — a backlash contrary to the protection of our future and the planet, and [falsely] placing indigenous peoples as an obstacle to progress. The government’s policy goes against the federal constitution [of 1988] and the [international] treaties to which Brazil is a signatory.”
A representative of the Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB), Tabea Casique Coronado, said Brazil has an enormous responsibility to protect the Amazon, both at home and also at the COP negotiations, “But the government does not dialogue with traditional Latin American populations.”
Banner image caption: Signs of the times in the streets of Madrid at COP25. Image by Camila Nobrega.
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