Illustration Credit: Carlos Latuff
Tensions have risen between the United States and Brazil ahead of President Joe Biden’s virtual Leader’s Summit on climate, scheduled to conclude today. In a letter sent to the White House on April 15, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro confirmed his participation in the summit, requesting President Biden’s “personal engagement” in combatting deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. During President Biden’s 2020 presidential run, he declared that he would focus on raising USD $20 billion to preserve the Amazon, a pledge that Bolsonaro has repeatedly referred to as a threat to Brazil’s economic and territorial sovereignty. Nevertheless, Bolsonaro’s Minister of the Environment Ricardo Salles has recently publicized a request for USD $1 billion in foreign aid in exchange for Brazil reducing deforestation by 30 percent to 40 percent in one year.
Bolsonaro’s letter follows his administration’s announcement of a new official plan for reducing deforestation over the next two years, which many Brazilian and international observers and activists have deemed woefully insufficient. The letter reinstates his administration’s commitment to eliminate illegal deforestation by 2030 (a pledge initially made under the Paris Agreement in 2015), and stated that Brazil’s goal would “not be contingent upon international support.” Salles has said that the new plan would require USD $10 billion annually in foreign aid to reach net zero carbon emissions by mid-century. A coalition of 198 Brazilian civil society organizations, comprised largely of environmental and indigenous groups, has implored President Biden to bypass the Bolsonaro government and instead focus its Amazonian policy on direct engagement with civil society organizations and Indigenous confederations.
Advocates in Brazil are not the only ones wary of Bolsonaro’s intentions. This week, more than a dozen U.S. Senate Democrats—including Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), as well as the chairmen of the Senate Appropriations and Foreign Relations Committees respectively, Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ)—urged President Biden to place conditions on any aid his administration provides to the Bolsonaro government. In their letter, the senators emphasized Bolsonaro’s woeful environmental track record and questioned his administration’s credibility on issues relevant to stemming deforestation, arguing that an American-Brazilian partnership on climate can only be possible if Bolsonaro begins to take his country’s climate and deforestation commitments seriously. Additionally, the senators threatened that continued inaction on deforestation would imperil their support for Brazil’s bid to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a coveted objective of Bolsonaro’s economic agenda. Dozens of celebrities, high-profile individuals, and non-profit groups—including actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Jane Fonda; teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg; Brazilian cultural icons such as Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Wagner Moura; and even former Brazilian environmental ministers Marina Silva and Rubens Ricupero—have joined the senators in expressing concern over the climate deal. In their open letter, such luminaries expressed their solidarity with Brazil’s civil society groups and Indigenous peoples and urged the administration of President Joe Biden “to hear their call and not commit to any agreements with Brazil at this time.”
Bolsonaro’s presidency has been marked by skyrocketing rates of deforestation—largely fueled by illegal wildcat mining, timber extraction, and the expansion of agribusiness and the cattle industry. Indeed, President Bolsonaro has overseen a 34 percent increase in deforestation since 2019, his first year as president. 2020 saw the loss of an estimated 11,000 square kilometers of forest in the Brazilian Amazon, a 12-year high roughly equivalent in size to the state of Connecticut; as well as historic rates of fire in both the Amazon and the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland and one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet.