Sao Paulo, Brazil – Brazil’s government wants billions of dollars upfront from the United States and other wealthy nations to protect its Amazon rainforest, a crucial natural bulwark in the fight against climate change.
But Indigenous leaders, climate activists and a group of US Democratic senators have warned US President Joe Biden not to hand over any cash to the government of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s far-right populist president, under whom deforestation has soared.
“The current Brazilian government is simply not to be trusted,” Sonia Guajajara, coordinator of Brazil’s Articulation of Indigenous Peoples (APIB), an Indigenous advocacy collective, told Al Jazeera.
Both administrations had hoped to carve out a deal to be announced when the White House hosts the Leaders Summit on Climate on April 22 and 23, people close to the talks said. But this week, hopes of a deal appeared to stall.
Bolsonaro’s Environment Minister Ricardo Salles told the Reuters news agency on Friday night that he did not expect a deal to be announced at next week’s summit, but that talks with the US would continue.
“President Jair Bolsonaro’s recommitment to eliminating illegal deforestation is important. We look forward to immediate actions and engagement with indigenous populations and civil society so this announcement can deliver tangible results,” special climate envoy John Kerry tweeted on Friday.
Meanwhile, Raoni Metuktire, one of Brazil’s most iconic Indigenous leaders, released a video urging Biden to ignore Bolsonaro’s promise to reduce illegal deforestation to zero by 2030 if his government received funding from the US.
Environmentalists noted that the 2030 target had already been promised by Brazil when it signed the Paris Agreement in 2015 under then-Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. But since then deforestation has continued to climb year on year.
Fifteen US senators, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, also sent a letter to Biden on Friday warning that any aid given to Brazil must be conditioned on deforestation reduction results.
The senators referenced a 2019 Human Rights Watch report, Rainforest Mafias, to note how “deforestation was driven largely by powerful criminal networks that use intimidation and violence – with near total impunity – against those who seek to defend the rainforest”.
“President Bolsonaro’s rhetoric and policies have effectively given a green light to the dangerous criminals operating in the Amazon, allowing them to dramatically expand their activities,” they said.
Brazil’s Amazon deforestation remains far below its 2004 peak but has risen sharply in the two years since Bolsonaro took office, during which time the president has slashed environmental and Indigenous protection budgets and stacked agencies with loyal allies.
In 2020, despite the coronavirus pandemic, Amazon deforestation surged to a 12-year high with 11,088 square kilometres (4,281 square miles) of forest felled, according to Brazil’s National Space Agency – a 9.5 percent increase from the year before.
Meanwhile, March 2021 was the worst month of March in recent history with 367.61 square kilometres (141.94 square miles) destroyed, a 12.4 percent increase from the year before. The month marks the end of heavy rains in much of the region and the onset of the dry season, when loggers, farmers and land grabbers traditionally clear land ahead of the August fire season.
The uptick in deforestation and forest fires has led to confrontations between Bolsonaro and world leaders, including France’s President Emmanuel Macron, and provoked threats of boycotts and divestment from European companies and fund managers.
During a US presidential debate in September last year, Biden suggested Brazil could receive $20bn to “stop tearing down the forest” but warned of “significant economic consequences” if it failed to do so, comments Bolsonaro labelled at the time as “disastrous”.
Salles, Brazil’s environment minister, told the Estado de S Paulo newspaper earlier this month that with $1bn annually from the US and other countries, Brazil could reduce deforestation by 40 percent.
But environmentalists scoffed at Salles’ request, pointing out that $540,000 (BR$3bn) has been sitting idle since 2019 in Brazil’s Amazon Fund, provided mostly by Norway and Germany for projects to reduce deforestation.
“If reducing deforestation was really their priority they would use the money in the Amazon fund,” Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of the Brazilian Climate Observatory, a network of 50 civil society groups, told Al Jazeera.