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Criticizing Brazil over Amazon conservation will likely backfire (commentary)

Grupo indígena visita dependências do Senado Federal. Photo by Jefferson Rudy/Agência Senado.

  • Although Brazilians share a concern for the Amazon, and even hosted the groundbreaking Earth Summit in 1992, polls show less consensus on who is responsible for Amazon deforestation, who is best addressing this problem, or the role of foreign actors.
  • When activists or leaders from abroad single out Brazil and its president as bad actors on the environment, they risk potential backlash from Brazilians who often view such attacks as a double standard.
  • The heavy-handed tone that the Biden Administration has adopted may create unfortunate roadblocks to the progress which is possible, argue two authors from the Amazon Environmental Research Institute and the University of São Paulo.
  • This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.

The climate and environmental crisis the world has long been experiencing is embedded in concern for future generations. But research shows that consequences are already affecting the world’s population and that the tipping point is imminent. At both COP 26 next November and the recently held Leaders’ Climate Summit, any initiative that seeks global results must include keeping tropical forests standing – the safest and most cost-effective means of avoiding carbon emissions.

Brazil boasts the world’s largest tropical rainforest, but negotiations with the country are uncertain due to current political conditions. On the ground, current President Jair Bolsonaro and his Environment Minister Ricardo Salles are moving Brazil in the opposite direction of what is negotiated through international diplomacy. Their effort has included the scrapping of an environmental enforcement agency, encouraging mining on Indigenous lands, and loosening environmental legislation.

This may leave some environmentalists abroad wondering: how could such policies and ideologies come to be enacted in Brazil, host of the groundbreaking Earth Summit in 1992 (Rio 92), and the caretaker of the Amazon? Here, we try to explain a few contributing factors that may not be so obvious for a foreign audience, particularly for Americans.

Although U.S. elections are followed intently in Brazil and can cause U.S. foreign policy aims in the region to change drastically, little distinction is made between parties when it comes to U.S. involvement in Brazilian affairs. While many Brazilians hope their country will someday achieve U.S.-levels of economic development, most are weary of moves that increase U.S. influence. This should come as no surprise given the troubled and bloody history of U.S. interventions in Latin America.

Fire in the Jaci-Paraná Extractive Reserve, Porto Velho, Rondônia state, August 2020. Photo © Christian Braga / Greenpeace.

It goes without saying that the U.S. and Brazil may not be exactly in lockstep while Biden and Bolsonaro are in power. By singling out Brazil as a bad actor, Biden may be trying to establish a ‘common enemy,’ a move which could draw broad support both within the U.S. and abroad. However, partly because of the reasons mentioned above, efforts to intimidate Bolsonaro to acquiesce to U.S. demands will likely provoke an equal and opposite reaction in Brazil, summoning a sense of nationalism against foreign influence. In other words, while the pressure on Bolsonaro to step up enforcement may improve accountability, veiled economic threats may in fact have the opposite effect, by consolidating support for the Brazilian president.

Most forest cover in the U.S. has been logged at one point or another, a fact Bolsonaro has drawn attention to more than once. Additionally, Brazilian greenhouse gas emissions per capita are much lower than in the U.S. Although it is mostly Brazilian actors contributing to actual deforestation on the ground, American environmentalists would be wise to consider their own inadvertent contributions to this system: meat or soy products bought at a grocery store may have in fact financed the burning of the Amazon. The soy moratorium has been effective in curbing cash cropping that relies on illegal burning, but it’s often very difficult to pin down the origin of a given crop shipment. Yes, soy laundering exists! And in some cases, large multinational companies are the ones (unknowingly or not) incentivizing this activity.

Since the launching of the Plano Real in 1994, the Brazilian economy has largely failed to meet expectations that one day, it would undergo a period of rapid growth, propelling it from its current status as having the 94th largest GDP per capita in the world. Agribusiness has played a critical role in the modest economic success Brazil has seen, launching it into a key role as one of the largest exporters of grains, cereals and meat. While diversifying will no doubt be critical to achieving further growth, many in Brazil see any moves that would restrict Brazilian agribusiness as hampering what has become the crown jewel of its economy.

See Mongabay’s whole series on Amazon conservation issues here.

Indigenous people protest against President Jair Bolsonaro in São Paulo. On the left, Camilo Kayapó raises a placard reading: “Earth doesn’t belong to men. Men are who belong to Earth.” Photo by Jill Langlois for Mongabay.

Although Brazilians share a concern for the Amazon, there is less consensus on who is responsible for deforestation, who is best addressing this problem, or the role of foreign actors. Recent opinion polls have shown that more than 70% of Brazilians are very concerned about the environment and the Amazon, and even unsatisfied with conservation efforts currently being taken.

Still, only about 54% of Brazilians agree that the international community has the right to press Brazil on conserving the Amazon. Studies show that for many years ranching has been the main activity replacing forests. Brazilians’ perception, however, is that loggers are primarily responsible for the deforestation and fire in the region. Additionally, when ranking the actors that most work to promote Amazon conservation, Brazilians rank their own federal government as better than other countries, state agencies, or private sector entities.

The heavy-handed tone that the Biden administration has adopted may create unfortunate externalities by failing to engage the right actors. There are ways to sustainably develop portions of the Amazon, and many organizations are active in this area and in need of funding. After all, while there are many theories on how the Amazon should be managed, it is largely Brazilians who make these decisions, and the path forward most certainly begins with constructive, open dialogue.

Andrea Garcia earned her Ph.D in Applied Ecology and is a researcher at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute. Gustavo Macedo has a Ph.D in Political Science and is a researcher at University of São Paulo.

Banner image: Members of an Indigenous community visit Brazil’s Senate, the Senado Federal. Photo by Jefferson Rudy/Agência Senado.

Related listening: Mongabay’s recent investigation revealed the ills of palm oil plantations for the Amazon’s Indigenous communities, listen here: