RIO DE JANEIRO — A year ago, as fires engulfed the Amazon, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil reacted to criticism from abroad with indignation.
“The Amazon is ours,” he said, arguing that the fate of the rainforest was for his country to decide.
Much has changed in a year.
Under pressure from European governments, foreign investors, and Brazilian companies concerned about the country’s reputation, Bolsonaro has banned forest fires for the four months of the dry season and set up a military operation against deforestation.
The new stance represents a notable turnaround by a government that has drawn widespread global condemnation over its environmental policies.
Environmentalists, experts, and foreign officials who have pressed Brazil on conservation matters are skeptical of the government’s commitment, afraid these actions amount to little more than damage control at a time when the economy is in deep trouble.
Bolsonaro and many of his political allies have long favored opening the Amazon to miners, farmers, and loggers, and his government has openly worked to undermine the land rights of indigenous communities. Deforestation has spiked under his tenure.
But as the political and business costs of policies that prioritize exploration over conservation escalate, some activists see an opportunity to slow, or even reverse, that trend by promoting private sector support for greener policies.
“Brazil is becoming an environmental pariah on the global stage, destroying a positive reputation that took decades to build,” said Sueley Araújo, a veteran environmental policy expert who was dismissed as the head of the country’s main environmental protection agency soon after Bolsonaro took office.
Brazil’s worsening reputation on the environment has also put in jeopardy two important foreign policy goals: the implementation of a trade deal with the European Union and its ambition to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a 37-country group. Both deals require Brazil to meet baseline standards on labor and environmental policies.
A striking sign of the potential economic damage to Brazil’s interests came in late June, when more than two dozen financial institutions that collectively control some $3.7 billion in assets warned the Brazilian government in a letter that investors were steering away from countries that are accelerating the degradation of ecosystems.
The message has clearly registered within Brazil. The country’s three largest banks announced this past week a joint effort to press for and fund sustainable development projects in the Amazon.
And a group of former Brazilian finance ministers and central bank presidents argued in a joint statement in July that the best way to jump-start the economy is by investing in greener technologies, ending fuel subsidies, and drastically reducing the deforestation rate.
But the clearest sign of the shifting politics on the issue lies in the fate of Ricardo Salles, Bolsonaro’s environment minister, who is fighting for his political survival amid criticism of Brazil’s growing deforestation.
Salles, the face of the Bolsonaro administration’s efforts to weaken environmental protections, was expelled from his party in May over his leadership of the ministry. He is also facing a legal complaint from federal prosecutors who are seeking his removal, arguing that his actions amounted to a dereliction of duty.
During the first six months of this year, loggers razed approximately 1,184 square miles of the Amazon, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. That area — slightly smaller than the state of Rhode Island — is 25 percent larger than the forest cover lost during the same time period in 2019.