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Biden Seeks a Deal with Brazil’s Far-Right President Over Amazon’s Protection.


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state governors, indigenous leaders and environmental groups in Brazil are sending a stark warning to President Joe Biden not to trust his Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro, as the U.S. attempts to strike a deal with the far-right leader to end deforestation in the Amazon.

Bolsonaro’s representatives have been in talks with Biden’s climate team since February, with billions of dollars in U.S. aid on the table if the two sides can reach an agreement on curbing deforestation in the world’s largest rainforest, along with other environmental goals. Just a week before a leaders’ summit on climate hosted by Biden, Bolsonaro sent the U.S. president a 7-page letter on April 14, promising to eliminate illegal deforestation––which accounts for an estimated 95% of deforestation in Brazil––by 2030.

But the governor of Brazil’s most populous state, São Paulo, tells TIME his president can’t be relied upon to keep that promise. “He won’t even try,” says João Doria, a political rival of the president. “Bolsonaro has demonstrated a total disregard for the environmental agenda and he hasn’t done anything to suggest he has any intention of changing his behavior.”

Doria is one of 23 state governors (out of 27 in total) planning to send a letter to Biden during the summit. Without mentioning Bolsonaro or the federal government, the letter, which has already been made public, lays out a potential partnership between the U.S. government and Brazilian states to protect the Amazon and other ecologically important Brazilian ecosystems. It points out that the states have “funds and mechanisms… available for the safe and transparent use of international funds, guaranteeing rapid and verifiable results.”

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Since taking office in 2019, Bolsonaro has gutted environmental agencies’ budgets and attempted to loosen environmental regulations to make it easier for businesses to exploit the land, while dismissing and insulting foreign leaders who attempt to intervene. Environmental campaigners say his actions have created impunity for loggers, miners and smallholder farmers who illegally cut down and burn trees to use land in the Amazon and other protected landscapes, reigniting a problem that previous governments had brought under control. From August 2019 to July 2020, more than 4,200 square miles of rainforest were lost in Brazil, an increase of 47% over the amount deforested in the year to July 2018, before Bolsonaro took office.

“The U.S. should not strike an agreement with the federal government because it won’t be fulfilled,” Doria says. “They should make deals with state governments, one by one, with well established commitments and independent, transparent auditing of how funds are used.”

President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro speaks during pronouncement on the new emergency aid amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro speaks during pronouncement on the new emergency aid amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
Mateus Bononi – Getty Images

Bodies representing Brazil’s environmentalists and indigenous communities, as well as 15 U.S. senators, have also sent letters to Biden. They warn that a deal that does not include input and monitoring from representatives of civil society and state governments would give Bolsonaro leeway to use U.S. funds to tighten his grip on the rainforest and reward political allies.

“We need to have a permanent dialogue with civil society and states. I’m very afraid of what will happen if they close a deal only with Bolsonaro’s government,” says Joenia Wapichana, Brazil’s only indigenous member of congress. “Many in Brazil would say that unless Bolsonaro radically changes his policies on the Amazon, they shouldn’t make a deal. “

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A State Department spokesperson tells TIME that the U.S. believes it is “realistic for Brazil to achieve a real decrease in deforestation” by the end of the 2021 fire season. “We would very much hope President Bolsonaro would use this opportunity to demonstrate his seriousness in addressing climate change, including emissions from deforestation in the Amazon,” they added.

Last chance to build bridges

Despite the risks, now may be Biden’s best chance of engaging Bolsonaro’s administration on the environment. The Brazilian president has suffered severe political setbacks in recent months, including his mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic ––classed as the worst government response in the world by Doctors Without Borders––which is now the subject of a senate inquiry and the overturning of corruption charges against key electoral rival for 2022, former leftist president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva.




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