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Bolsonaro’s sudden pledge to protect the Amazon met with skepticism

Smoke rose during a fire close to the Madeira River in the Amazon rainforest near Porto Velho, Rondonia state, Brazil.
Smoke rose during a fire close to the Madeira River in the Amazon rainforest near Porto Velho, Rondonia state, Brazil.Leonardo Carrato/Bloomberg

RIO DE JANEIRO — As the Biden administration rallies the international community to curb global warming in a climate change summit meeting this week, Brazil is pledging to play a critical role, going as far as promising to end illegal deforestation by 2030.

There is a catch: Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, wants the international community to pledge billions of dollars to pay for the conservation initiatives.

And donors are reluctant to provide the money, since Brazil under the Bolsonaro administration has been busy doing the opposite of conservation, gutting the country’s environmental protection system, undermining Indigenous rights and championing industries driving the destruction of the rainforest.

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“He wants new money with no real constraints,” said Marcio Astrini, who heads the Climate Observatory, an environmental protection organization in Brazil. “This is not a trustworthy government — not on democracy, not on the coronavirus, and far less so on the Amazon.”

For two years, Bolsonaro seemed unbothered by his reputation as an environmental villain.

Under Bolsonaro’s watch, deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, by far the largest in the world, has risen to the highest level in more than a decade. The destruction, which has been driven by loggers clearing land for cattle grazing and for illegal mining operations, sparked global outrage in 2019 as huge wildfires raged for weeks.

The Trump administration turned a blind eye to Brazil’s environmental record under Bolsonaro, a close ally of the former US president.

After the White House changed hands in January, the United States began pressuring Brazil to rein in deforestation, joining the European Union, Norway, and others in warning that its worsening reputation hampers the country’s economic potential.

“We want to see concrete results,” Todd Chapman, the US ambassador to Brazil, told a group of Brazilian business leaders earlier this month. “Illegal loggers and miners, all this illegal activity, why do you want to pay the bill for that?”

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Soon after President Biden took office, senior officials in his administration began meeting with Bolsonaro’s minister of the environment, Ricardo Salles, in an effort to seek common ground before the climate meeting this month.

The closed-door meetings were seen with trepidation by environmentalists, who deeply distrust the Bolsonaro administration. The talks prompted frantic campaigns by activists intent on warning American officials not to trust the Brazilian government.

The Americans also needed to smooth feathers that had been ruffled during the presidential campaign. After Biden declared during a debate that he would seek to raise $20 billion to save the Amazon, Bolsonaro bristled, calling it a “cowardly threat against our territorial and economic integrity.”

Yet the Brazilian president struck a far more conciliatory tone in a seven-page letter he sent Biden earlier this month.

“We have before us a great challenge with the increase in deforestation rates in the Amazon,” Bolsonaro wrote in the April 14 letter, which argues that Brazil’s reputation as an environmental malefactor is undeserved.

Addressing that challenge, the Brazilian leader added, will require a “massive investment.”

For starters, Salles said in an interview in March, the government would be happy to get the $20 billion Biden proposed, calling the sum “proportionate to the challenges we have in the Amazon.”

If the international community steps up, Salles said, “we will line up a series of actions that can bring quick results.”

Bolsonaro’s new commitment to fight deforestation — which effectively reinstates a commitment by the Brazilian government that his administration had abandoned — also comes as his government is beset by a deepening health and economic crisis from the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to kill thousands of Brazilians each day.

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The about-face and the demand for cash upfront were met with skepticism among foreign diplomats in Brazil and environmentalists, who argue that Brazil’s only real deficit is one of political will.

European and British diplomats have been working for months to pressure the Bolsonaro administration into committing to protect the environment before November’s United Nations climate summit.

Suely Araújo, a former head of Ibama, Brazil’s main environmental protection agency, said the government has access to hundreds of millions of dollars that could be spent on conservation efforts in short order.

Environmental and Indigenous organizations have expressed deep skepticism about Bolsonaro’s professed willingness to fight deforestation, and they have warned international donors to refrain from giving the Brazilian government money they fear could be used to undermine environmental protection.

In recent weeks, environmentalists have raised the alarm, and celebrities — including Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso and American actor Leonardo DiCaprio — signed a letter that conveyed “profound concern” about the talks.

Experts say there is little reason to be optimistic.

The yearly budget plan that the Bolsonaro administration recently submitted to Congress includes the lowest level of funding for environmental agencies in two decades, according to an analysis by Climate Observatory.

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After the country’s vice president, Hamilton Mourão, announced the government’s first target for deforestation reduction earlier this month, experts pointed out that reaching the goal would leave Brazil by the end of 2022 with a level of deforestation 16 percent higher than the one Bolsonaro inherited in 2019.

The Bolsonaro administration is backing a bill that would give land grabbers amnesty, a move that would open up a swath of the Amazon at least the size of Florida to largely unregulated development. Another initiative it is pressing in Congress would make it easier for companies to get environmental licenses and would pave the way for legal mining operations in Indigenous territories.