It is not just meat companies in Brazil that are under pressure over rising deforestation and widespread fires in the Amazon. The government has been forced to react after international investors and CEOs of Brazilian companies have protested, and now its own environmental officials have joined the chorus.
But its response is hobbled by a deep distrust of global heating, fed by a far-right ideology reluctant to admit that the climate emergency has a human cause.
Brazil’s foreign minister, Ernesto Araujo, has warned that climate change was a plot by “cultural Marxists” and President Jair Bolsonaro made a campaign promise to pull Brazil out of the Paris climate accord before reluctantly backing off.
The international community has fought back, with Jan Erik Saugestad, CEO of Norway’s Storebrand Asset Management, leading a group of 29 investors with $3.7tn under management who warned that rising deforestation and the dismantling of environment agencies was “creating widespread uncertainty about the conditions for investing”.
Virtual meetings with Brazil’s vice-president, Hamilton Mourao, environment minister Ricardo Salles and leaders of the Brazilian congress have since been described as “positive”.
“The vice-president expressed that the government is committed to keeping deforestation to a historically minimum level,” Saugestad said. “This represents a start of the dialogue.” But he added: “Of course we need to see action on the ground.”
Mourao runs Brazil’s Amazon Council and heads up an army operation to counter deforestation and fires. He is sometimes presented as a more moderate counterpoint to the fire and brimstone of his boss, Bolsonaro. But in July last year, Mourao told the Guardian during an event that climate change was “being discussed … if this is a seasonal change, as has already happened in the history of Planet Earth, or if it is something that came to stay”.
Salles called the climate crisis “secondary” in 2018. In a cabinet meeting this April – a video of which was released by a supreme court judge – Salles recommended the government use media attention on the Covid-19 pandemic to weaken environmental regulations – exactly what environmentalists had argued the government was already doing. Last September, during an interview with foreign journalists, finance minister Paulo Guedes told the Guardian that “there is still a precarious scientific basis” to climate change science.
Such radical views do not sit well with everyone in that group of 29 nervous international investors.
“All countries will have to react to the way the international investment community sees things,” said Eric Pedersen, head of responsible investment at Nordea Asset Management. “If that is really what they think then they are really quite alone in the international community.”
Bolsonaro is unlikely to care very much. He has long made controversial statements about the Amazon and what he sees as European interest in exploiting, not preserving it. He shows no signs of moderating his position.
Last July, he responded to rising deforestation by sacking the head of Brazil’s Space Research Institute, the government body in charge of monitoring deforestation. After the highest number of fires since 2010 raged through the Amazon last August and caused an international storm, Bolsonaro falsely accused actor Leonardo DiCaprio of giving money to set it on fire.
He said Brazil was being unfairly criticised over rising deforestation because of commercial interests, an accusation he provided no evidence for. “Europe is an environmental sect,” he said.
Agriculture minister Tereza Cristina repeated the accusation the same month. “There is an orchestration there abroad against Brazil,” she said, citing tensions over the trade deal between Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, and the European Union, which countries like Austria have signalled they will not ratify.
The Brazilian government does have a plan to fight deforestation, as Cristina noted. It involves regularising the land titles of as many as 97,000 small properties, some of which have been there, she argued, since Brazil’s military dictatorship encouraged Amazon migration in the 1970s. Mourao told foreign reporters on 15 May that land ownership confusion was a major cause of deforestation. “[If] we don’t know who owns the land, we can’t bring them to justice,” he said.
But environmentalists disagree. They say regularising so many land titles, many of which were the result of invasions of public or protected land, means rewarding land grabbing. And current legislation already allows land occupied until 2011 to be regularised, said Brenda Brito, a land specialist and researcher at the Amazon non-profit group Imazon.
In fact, Brazil already knows who is behind much of its Amazon deforestation, she said – even though many fines are ignored. A study published in May by MapBiomas – a non-profit group of universities, NGOs and technology companies that studies the Amazon – found over three quarters of deforestation alerts in 2019 overlapped with property with an owner registered on a self-declaratory system.
The government argues that developing the Amazon will provide jobs and prevent people struggling to escape poverty from destroying the forest for wood, minerals and land. In May, Mourao said Brazil needed international help to develop into a “new economic model for the 21st century. It has to include biodiversity, innovation and a great deal of technology to reach its full potential,” he said.
Last Tuesday, over 600 employees of Ibama wrote an open letter to the organisation’s president, Mourao, as well as the president of Brazil’s supreme court and congress leaders, stating: “Even though other government measures to generate jobs and income in the Amazon region can’t be left aside, without firm action against environmental crimes, the destruction rates of the Amazon forest will not decrease.”
Staff at the agency are banned from talking to the media. Key officials have been sacked for essentially doing their jobs and attacked by Bolsonaro for burning equipment belonging to loggers and miners as they are legally mandated to do.