The US is negotiating a multi-billion dollar climate deal with Brazil that observers fear could help the reelection of president Jair Bolsonaro and reward illegal forest clearance in the Amazon.
That is the concern of indigenous groups, environmental campaigners and civil society activists, who say they are being shut out of the most important talks on the future of the rainforest since at least 1992.
Senior US officials are holding weekly online meetings about the Amazon before a series of big international conferences. Ministers and ambassadors from Britain and Europe are also involved. But rather than those who know forest protection best, their Brazilian interlocutor is Bolsonaro’s environment minister, Ricardo Salles, who has overseen the worst deforestation in more than a decade.
Only a third of the money would go directly to forest protection, with the rest being spent on “economic development” to provide alternative livelihoods for those who rely on logging, mining or agriculture in the Amazon. This has prompted worries that Salles will channel cash to the strongly Bolsonarist constituency of farmers and land-grabbers, rewarding them for invading, stealing and burning forest.
On Tuesday, a group of 199 civil society groups published a joint letter to the US administration saying any deal with the Brazilian government was tantamount to appeasement. “It is not reasonable to expect the solutions for the Amazon and its people will come from negotiations made behind closed doors with your worst enemy,” said the letter. “The Bolsonaro government tries at all costs to legalise the exploitation of the Amazon, causing irreversible damage to our territories, peoples and to life on the planet.”
Scientists say international action is long overdue on the world’s biggest tropical forest. The Amazon is essential for climate stability, but human activity is turning the region into a source – rather than a sink – of atmospheric carbon. Some areas are close to a tipping point where the forest shrinks, dries and irreversibly degrades into a savannah.
The coming months ought to be the best opportunity to reverse this in many years. The US president, Joe Biden, has invited world leaders to a climate summit in Washington on 22 April, having promised $20bn for tropical rainforests during his election campaign. Later in the year, the UK will stage Cop26, the most important UN climate conference since Paris, in Glasgow. In between, world leaders are due to meet in Kunming, China to set biodiversity targets for the next 10 years.
But there can be no solution without the Amazon, which means anyone seeking progress has to deal with Bolsonaro and his ministers, despite their nationalist, anti-science and anti-environment policies.
“Brazil is too important to keep off the negotiating table,” said one insider familiar with the talks. “Many in civil society say ‘don’t deal with the Brazilian government’. But the US says they have to deal with elected leaders because they can’t put off the deforestation discussion for two or more years.”