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brazil climate pledges
Bolsonaro and Salles at the Leaders Summit on Climate (video conference) in April 2021. Photo: Marcos Corrêa/PRFoto: Marcos Corrêa/PR

3 ways in which Brazil ignored climate pledges made at Biden’s Summit

Last April, the newly elected president of the United States, Joe Biden, convened government leaders to a virtual Leaders Summit on Climate, in an attempt to promote climate action among decision-makers. 

During the summit, Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, pledged to end illegal deforestation by 2030 and reduce 43% of greenhouse gas emissions by the same year, as well as strengthening environmental inspections. 

Then, in a matter of days, Bolsonaro’s government cut the budget for forest inspections, relaxed rules on extractive activities, and is now under investigation for alleged illegal exports of Amazon timber. 

These actions show that Brazil’s government is failing to walk the talk on climate change, said Cristina Seixas Graça, prosecutor and president of the Brazilian Association of Members of the Public Ministry of Environment (Abrampa).

“Evidently, we have weak governance in relation to the Paris Agreement goals and to contribute to reducing the effects of climate change,” said Graça. 

Brazil’s contribution to climate action is very important. While the country is the sixth largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, it hosts up to 20% of the world’s biodiversity. The Amazon rainforest, which is mostly located within Brazilian borders, is one of the biggest carbon sinks on the planet. 

In this explainer, Climate Tracker breaks down the three main ways in which, in less than three months, Brazil’s government ignored its own climate pledges made at Biden’s summit.

1. Budget cuts

Just a day after promising to double resources for environmental inspection at the summit, president Bolsonaro signed a 24% cut to the Ministry of Environment’s budget.

This follows a series of cuts made to the 2021 Federal Budget, which were forced by rising costs from Covid-19 response measures, according to the government. This is affecting activities in many ministries — especially in Education, Economy and Science and Technology, among others.

Environmental protection and inspection agencies have faced budget cuts consistently since 2019, the first year of Bolsonaro’s administration. Now, however, they have the lowest budget in 21 years.

This is an example of how “government actions have been contrary to the president’s speech at the climate summit,” says Marky Brito, head of the department of studies, research and indicators at the State Secretariat for Planning and Management in Acre, Amazon region.

These cuts have weakened actions to combat deforestation and forest fires, notes Brito, who is also former director of forests at the State Secretary for Environment in Acre.

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Operation led by Brazil’s environmental protection agency, IBAMA, to fight forest fires in the Amazon in August 2019. Photo: Vinícius Mendonça/IBAMA

Only in 2020, Brazil had the biggest increase in deforestation rates in the last 12 years. The current figure is three times greater than the target established in the National Policy on Climate Change for that year, according to data from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

Brazil also closed 2020 with the highest number of wildfires in a decade, shows INPE. Only in Pantanal, despite being the world’s largest wetland, around 30% of the biome burned — most fires started in private rural properties.

Recent cuts could further weaken the ability of environmental agencies to act, and they may remain understaffed, the environment minister, Ricardo Salles, declared in Parliament. 

In fact, with the approved $50 million US dollar cut, fewer resources will be available for forest inspectors, firefighters and law enforcement officers to do their jobs.

Still, these budget cuts are not the only reason Brazil remains a global leader in forest loss. Aside from this, the direction and execution of public policy does not seem committed to combat deforestation effectively, said Clarissa Gandour, economist and head of policy evaluation at Brazil’s Climate Policy Initiative (CPI), an international research organization.

A recent study by the Brazilian Association of Public Health, for example, found that tax benefits granted to pesticide companies to produce or sell their products in the country, totaled $2 billion US dollars last year. That’s five times higher than the Ministry of Environment’s budget for this year.

Most of Brazil’s emissions come from forest loss and agricultural activities. Thus, better control of these activities should have been one of the government’s main climate efforts.

2. Softer rules

Besides promising to strengthen environmental protection, Bolsonaro declared at the summit his ambition towards “making bioeconomy a reality” in Brazil — valuing forests, biodiversity, indigenous and traditional communities.

However, three weeks after the event, the lower house of Congress passed a bill backed by president Bolsonaro that loosened environmental licensing rules. Currently, it’s still awaiting approval from the upper house of Congress. 

The bill exempts 13 types of activities from environmental impact assessment, granting them permits automatically. These activities include sanitation works, road and port maintenance, electricity distribution, and agriculture works in regularized properties.

As such, it is being contested by civil society organizations and indigenous groups. They argue this bill only serves the interests of a few groups, especially “ruralists” (large landholders), who are the bill proponents and who represent a key part of Bolsonaro’s political base.

Brito said the Brazilian government is also demonstrating a “lack of resolute action against theft of public lands and illegal mining on indigenous lands.”

Congress is about to vote on a series of bills related to this issue. One of them is the “land grabbing bill”, which aims to facilitate the regularization of illegally occupied public lands — a common practice by mining, farming and other extractive industries.

This bill could also pave the way for the grabbing of 43 million hectares of public land, half of which is covered by forests, analyzed researchers from the Federal University of Minas Gerais. This will likely result in more deforestation.

Another controversial bill to be voted on, known as Bill 191, proposes to legalize economic activities on indigenous lands, including mining and energy production. This has been openly defended by president Bolsonaro since the beginning of his term.

Most preserved forests are located in indigenous lands, where local communities make efforts to protect them. But these people and their territories must be safeguarded, said Sineia Wapichana, a Brazilian indigenous leader invited to participate in Biden’s summit.

During Bolsonaro’s presidency, invasions of indigenous territories reached record levels, according to data from the Brazilian NGO Pastoral Land Commission. Only in 2020, seven indigenous leaders were murdered in land conflicts, the report says.

3. Criminal investigation 

A few weeks after the summit, Brazil’s federal police began investigating the Minister of Environment, Salles, and other government officials, for alleged illegal timber exports to the United States and Europe.

Suspicions rose after timber shipments from Brazil were halted by U.S. border authorities due to paperwork irregularities. The same happened in Belgium and Denmark.

At the end of 2020, Federal Police found over 43 thousand logs of Amazon timber, illegally harvested on the border between Pará and Amazonas. This was the largest seizure of illegal timber in Brazil’s history.

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Illegal timber seized by the Brazilian Armed Forces in December 2020. Photo: Armed Forces/Public Domain

But when trying to investigate this case, Salles allegedly hindered the investigations. A former police supervisor from Amazonas then filed a complaint, which led to police investigating the minister.

The Brazilian Supreme Court now confirms the existence of suspicions of a “facilitation scheme for the smuggling of forest products.”

As a result, ten officials have already been removed from office in the Ministry of  Environment and the Brazilian Institute for Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama). Salles, who is also being investigated on suspicion of administrative crimes, resigned on June 23.

Last year, at a recorded cabinet meeting, Salles said the government should push through environmental deregulation while society was distracted by the pandemic. Some officials claim that this was actually put into practice. 

“We are observing a complete change in the National Environment System, including a structural and administrative reform of the Environment Ministry, in which we have had the paralysis of important public policies,” said Graça.

Just recently, more than 400 Ibama employees signed an official letter stating that all inspections of environmental infractions carried out by the agency are paralyzed. They also warned in the letter that environmental crimes have increased exponentially over the past two years, and not controlling them could result in unprecedented damage.

To replace Salles, Bolsonaro appointed Joaquim Leite as new environment minister. Leite was a former advisor to the Brazilian Rural Society, one of the main “ruralist” lobby groups — of which Salles was once the legal director.

Money for nothing?

At Biden’s summit, Bolsonaro called for international contributions to protect Brazilian biomes. Former minister Salles, on his part, asked for $1 billion US dollars to reduce deforestation rates in the Amazon by up to 40%. 

Graça, who is a specialist in environmental and climate laws, explained that wealthier countries should contribute with developing countries to reduce emissions, but they should make sure that emissions reduction programs work.

In Brazil’s case, donors should also ensure that the country “effectively demonstrates conditions for combating environmental crimes throughout its territory,” Graça said. Otherwise, “giving financial resources to the country will have no effect.”

Norway and Germany recently stopped financing the Amazon Fund, a program created to boost environmental conservation and climate action in Brazil, because of the lack of such evidence. 

But Brazil already has a “framework of public policies that have proven effective and that could be in place” to control illegal activities and promote environmental conservation, explained Gandour, CPI’s researcher.

Her research shows that the country achieved a reduction of about 80% in deforestation rates, from 2004 to 2014, mainly thanks to command and control policies. 

The Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Legal Amazon, for example, one of the key policies, structured government actions into three axes: environmental monitoring and inspection, territorial planning, and promotion of sustainable productive activities. But that plan was discontinued during Bolsonaro’s government.

“Today, Brazil needs to recover those policies that have proven effective in the past and move forward on new fronts: both to end deforestation and to conserve native vegetation. But, it depends on political will!” said Gandour.