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Biden-Lula meeting: The time is right for U.S. and Brazil to work together for Amazonia (commentary)

Dusk in the Amazon. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

Dusk in the Amazon. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

  • The Amazon rainforest will be a key point of discussion at today’s summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
  • Jeffrey Hoelle, an Associate Professor of Anthropology at UC-Santa Barbara, and Valério Gomes, a Professor at the Amazon Institute of Smallholder Agriculture at the Federal University of Pará, argue that there are a number of opportunities for the U.S. and Brazil to collaborate when it comes to climate change and protecting the environment.
  • For example, Hoelle and Gomes say the U.S. could provide financial support for the Amazon Fund, enhance its ability to track illegal commodities that fuel deforestation, and pass legislation that provides support for local communities for forest preservation, among others.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of Mongabay.

The Amazon rainforest and its people have gone through tough times recently. For the last four years, under Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, the region has experienced increasing deforestation and the dismantling of agencies intended to protect the environment and support indigenous communities.

With the recent election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or “Lula,” Brazilians are hopeful that environmental protections can be re-established and even strengthened to the point that they can weather future political shocks.

The U.S. can play a key role in preserving the Amazon. Now is the time for the U.S. to support Brazil’s ambitious plans for the Amazon and contribute to the global fight against climate change.

When President Biden and Brazilian President Lula meet in Washington. D.C. on Friday, they have a chance to undo some of the harm of recent years– to the Amazon, but also their nation’s international reputations in efforts to combat climate change.

While the two leaders have a big role to play, there are other collaborations between the countries and across Amazon nations that can also play a role in creating lasting change in Amazonia.

As researchers of Amazonia, we have accompanied the shifts in policy in the region and their effects on the environment over the past two decades. From the promise of Lula’s socio-environmentalism in the early 2000s to the slow erosion of key institutions and rising deforestation over the past decade, to the intensification of these destructive tendencies during the Bolsonaro administration, beginning in 2019. The deforestation rate in the Brazilian Amazon reached a fifteen-year high in 2021, surpassing 13,000 square kilometers, an area the size of Maryland.

Bolsonaro made it clear during his administration that environmental protections would not be enforced, and he hollowed out institutions dedicated to the protection of forest and defense of Indigenous rights, such as the Institute for Environmental Natural Resources (IBAMA), National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio). Those those who remained in enforcement agencies worried for their safety.

Meanwhile, Lula, who represented the best hope for opposing Bolsonaro, was tied up with corruption charges that resulted in him spending a year in prison (the charges were later annulled by the Brazilian Supreme Court).

In September of this year, just before the elections that pitted Bolsonaro against Lula, the air was thick with smoke across Amazonia. Farmers, ranchers, and land speculators raced against the onset of the rainy season, but also the changes that could take place following the October election. The country was divided by one of the most heated presidential races since the country was re-democratized in 1985.

Following the elections and a heated run-off, Lula emerged victorious. He even survived an assault on the Brazilian capital by Bolsonaro supporters in January.

In his first months in office, Lula has met if not exceeded expectations in renewing Brazil’s commitment to Amazonia and its people. He has promised to strengthen institutions dedicated to environmental protection and the defense of the rights of indigenous peoples and other traditional populations. He appointed Marina Silva, a well-known environmentalist, as Minister of the Environment, and created a new Ministry of Indigenous Affairs, led by the Indigenous leader Sonia Guajajara. There is even news today that the government has finally acted to expel the 20,000 gold miners who have for years ravaged the Yanomami Indigenous Territory in northern Amazonia.

Lula wowed audiences at COP 27, promising to end illegal deforestation by 2030. He has also said that Brazil will apply to host the next COP in 2025, in the Amazon.

Amazon rainforest canopy. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler
Amazon rainforest canopy. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

In the U.S., there is also a sense of hope with the Biden administration’s recent climate bill and re-joining the Paris accords. Both nations are repairing some of the environmental damage done by recent administrations, and joining the global fight against climate change. Now is the time for two of the Western Hemisphere’s largest economies and carbon emitters to move forward on climate goals together.

Biden and Lula are meeting today in Washington D.C. and Amazonia and climate change are key points of discussion. How can the two nations work together to help restore and expand on protections for the Amazonian environment and its people? Additionally, what other collaborations across borders can help?

The U.S. can join the Amazon Fund to provide financial support to help in combating illegal deforestation, but also enhance its ability to track illegal commodities that fuel deforestation. Passing legislation such as the Amazon 21 bill would provide support for local communities for forest preservation. These and more specific measures, including approaches that are not reliant on governmental partnerships, are outlined in Natalie Unterstell’s insightful policy brief for Climate Advisers.

For its part, Brazil needs to show the world that it has changed, and can stop deforestation. Governmental efforts need to go beyond punitive environmental control approaches.

The agenda needs to go further, and strengthen investment mechanisms to promote a green economy aligned with climate change mitigation initiatives and the protection of territorial rights and identities of traditional populations.

We have seen that environmental gains are delicate, and it is crucial that environmental governance can withstand future political changes. Multiple public policy efforts and broad societal participation are needed to promote long-term changes in the economic vision of the region that have centered on forest transformation as the key to development. One example of addressing these issues is the State of Pará’s ambitious Bioeconomy Plan (pdf), which aims to stimulate economic development and change how the forest is seen and valued.

Sunrise over the Pinipini river in the Amazon.
Sunrise over the Pinipini River in the Peruvian Amazon.  Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

While Brazil gets much of the attention and will be the focus of the summit, it is important to remember that ⅓ of the Amazon lies outside of Brazil, within the borders of eight other countries. Last month, at the 7th Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in Buenos Aires, Lula declared that he intends to create the Pan-Amazon Summit for the protection of tropical forests with all the countries of the Amazon Basin.

Such Pan-Amazonian thinking is increasingly seen as necessary, according to the Science Panel for the Amazon. USAID’s Partnership for the Conservation of Amazon Biodiversity represents a promising collaborative approach. We are involved in the recently created Fulbright Amazonia, a program that expands on long-term U.S.-Brazil relationships centered on educational exchange. For the first time, the focus will be on Amazonia, with the aim of promoting collaboration and research on Amazonia among a cohort drawn from the U.S., Brazil, and 7 other Amazon nations. The support for Amazonian research is also increasing within in Brazil, such as with the Amazonia+10 Fund of The São Paulo Research Foundation’s (FAPESP).

The time is right to make lasting changes in Amazonia. There is genuine enthusiasm and hope on the ground in Amazonia. And the Biden-Lula meeting today is another reason for optimism on the international stage. The U.S. must do its part to support the Amazon and the battle against environmentally destructive development and climate change. The long-term sustainability of Amazonia will require collaboration and support between the U.S., Brazil and other Amazon nations.

Jeffrey Hoelle is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at UC-Santa Barbara. Valério Gomes is a Professor at the Amazon Institute of Smallholder Agriculture at the Federal University of Pará, Brazil. They are the lead scholars for the inaugural Fulbright Amazonia program.

Header image: The Amazon rainforest. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: Will Lula’s election decide the fate of the Amazon? A discussion with Mongabay’s founder and CEO, Rhett Butler, listen here:

Brazil-U.S. cooperation is key for global forest conservation (commentary)

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