As a candidate, Joe Biden built up the world’s hopes when he committed the US to rejoining the Paris agreement, confronting the climate denialism of his opponent and signalling that he was ready to treat the climate crisis as a strategic priority. So far, that hope has become certainty – and relief for those of us who are striving to find structural and global solutions to the crisis.
For the Brazilian government, presided over by the climate change sceptic Jair Bolsonaro, the promise to rejoin the Paris accords sounded like a threat, even more so because it was followed by a promise made during one of the debates to mobilise $20bn (£14bn) in international funds for tropical rainforests – including for Brazil – to stop the destruction of the Amazon. Bolsonaro reacted by calling the plans “coward threats”.
Last year, Biden may not have been fully aware of the extent to which the current Brazilian government has transformed Brazil into an environmental pariah, the world’s greatest destroyer of tropical forests and the foremost threat to the planet’s already precarious climate equilibrium. By now, as Biden’s climate summit gets under way, he will have been fully informed and repeatedly warned of the risk of making deals that could strengthen Bolsonaro’s government and allow it to further advance its destructive policies.
Still, the Biden administration, along with ministers from Britain and Europe, has in recent weeks been negotiating a deal with the Brazilian government. For all the talk of cowardly threats, Bolsonaro’s environment minister, Ricardo Salles, is asking for a yearly instalment of $1bn – in return for which, he says, Brazil’s forest clearance would be reduced by between 30% and 40%. There are concerns that some of these funds could be channelled to the very land-grabbers who are behind the destruction of the Amazon.
Our warning is based on the following fact: deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is not the result of a lack of money, but a consequence of the government’s deliberate failure of care.
Receiving international funds to implement protective measures and the sustainable use of the forest is a normal and necessary transaction. The Amazon Fund is the most celebrated example: it operated with German and Norwegian resources until recently when, to the horror of the world, it was deactivated by the Brazilian environment ministry. The government made the decision to discontinue the fund, which still had about $500m in future donations, because it wanted to restrict how the money was used.
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions has never been a priority for the Brazilian government. Take its own climate fund, from which about $100,000 was channelled into sanitation measures rather than the mitigation of national carbon emissions. Of course, sanitation is essential to health and wellbeing in our cities, but it is far from a significant source of emissions. The government also slashed the budget of the Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama), the department within the environment ministry responsible for monitoring deforestation. In the first half of 2019, £2.2m was allocated for inspections; last year, the figure was £700,000.
What the government is missing is not cash, but a commitment to the truth. It denied the existence of fires in the Amazon as the flames were burning. Brazilian news is saturated with scandals that show persistent government action to weaken environmental bodies, roll back legislation, and ignore international agreements. Two years ago, it dismissed the head of the INPE – the National Institute of Space Research – for the simple fact that the institution had compiled data on the rise of deforestation. Last week, it dismissed the head of the office of the federal police, who had led the largest investigation into the illegal extraction of wood in the history of the Amazon. It has replaced experienced civil servants with individuals without any forestry expertise in several departments, and it intends to effectively shut down ICMBio, Brazil’s foremost institution dedicated to the protection of natural reserves.
To reach a billion-dollar agreement with Bolsonaro’s government at this crucial moment will only strengthen its resolve: it will be a boon for the farmers and land-grabbers who have illegally occupied public forests and indigenous land and send the precisely opposite message to that which is needed in this crucial year for the climate.
Marina Silva served as Brazil’s minister for the environment, 2003-8. Rubens Ricupero served as minister for the environment, 1993-4.