Biden’s hopes to save the Amazon fade around Brazil’s ‘crooked’ environment minister
Ever since Brazil’s environment chief suggested “running the cattle herd” through the Amazon, hopes that the country would halt rising deforestation have been relegated.
A little over a year later the man who should be the leading voice on protecting the world’s biggest carbon sink is now accused of running an illegal timber operation out of the rainforest.
Ricardo Salles — who boasted he had “never visited the Amazon” before being appointed Jair Bolsonaro’s environment minister in late 2018 — faces a criminal probe into clandestine exports to the EU and the US
But the investigation, authorised Supreme Court this week, is not just damaging on a domestic level.
Mr Salles’s toxic presence in the Bolsonaro administration, already suffering from something of a reputational issue, has undermined optimistic efforts by the Biden administration to work with Brazil to protect the Amazon.
Joe Biden dislodged Donald Trump after a campaign in which he promised to reverse the country’s role as a climate laggard, including pledging $20bn (£14bn) to help save tropical rainforests.
Halting and even reversing destruction in the Amazon has become a way for Mr Biden to prove that the US can be a global leader on climate change once again, and he has toyed with the idea of setting up a global fund to pay Brazil to stop cutting down the rainforest.
But dealing with the South American giant is proving tricky, with Mr Salles rapidly eroding the credibility of an already hostile administration.
Ahead of a virtual climate summit in April hosted by Mr Biden, Mr Salles led calls for direct payment to end deforestation, saying Brazil would need a $10 billion annual fund from the rest of the world to be carbon neutral by 2050.
In the lead up to the summit Mr Salles was having frequent talks with John Kerry, Biden’s climate tsar. A trip to the UK by Mr Salles was also on the cards.
But shortly before the summit, nearly 200 Brazilian civil society groups and 15 US senators separately wrote to the administration, appealing for him to back away from doing a direct deal, and arguing that it was “not sensible to expect any solutions for the Amazon to stem from closed-door meetings with its worst enemy”.
“It was made very clear from a wide range of civil society groups that a deal with Bolsonaro would have been worse than nothing,” said Daniel Brindis, international strategy adviser at Greenpeace US.
The police investigation of Salles may also have caused a reevaluation of who in the Bolsonaro government is a credible negotiator.
“I think they have taken a step back and taken stock,” said Mr Brindis.
Since coming to power in 2019, Jair Bolsanaro has built himself a reputation as a climate sceptic on par with his friend Donald Trump.
Under his presidency, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has hit a 12-year high as his government has loosened environmental regulations.
In April alone, 224 square miles of forest — an area equivalent to the size of Leeds — were destroyed, an all-time record for the month.
Diplomatic observers say there is no chance of keeping the goals of the Paris Agreement within reach without getting Brazil to the table. Not only has the Brazilian Amazon flipped from being a carbon sink to being an emitter in recent years, but Brazil is holding back its cooperation on the remaining unsolved principles of the Agreement.
As Mr Kerry told the US Congress last month: “If we don’t talk to them, you can be sure that forest will disappear.”
Certainly, Mr Bolsonaro is finding it harder to make alliances against climate action; even China has an ambition to be carbon neutral by 2060. And he has dropped hints that he may be willing to reverse course on his environmental record, at a price.
There is a recognition that protecting the rainforest will require funding for Brazil. But green groups in both Brazil and the US say Mr Bolsonaro has yet to prove that he’s a changed man.
Last month, Brazil’s congress approved a bill slackening environmental licensing laws countrywide, which NGOs say will effectively legalise destruction in the Amazon.
That is just one of the 57 legislative measures introduced by the Bolsonaro government to weaken environmental controls, over half of which came during the pandemic, according to research from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
“The Bolsonaro government is trying to legalise the exploitation of the Amazon at all costs, causing irreparable damage to our land, people and life on this planet,” said Alberto Terena, of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples in Brazil.
While several members of Mr Bolsonaro’s original cabinet have come and gone amid public scandals and rifts with the president, Ricardo Salles is one of the few who have dodged his boss’s axe, despite global criticism of his laissez-faire environmental policy.
Despite the mounting criminal cases, Mr Bolsonaro appears unwilling to part with his loyal environmental ally, hailing Mr Salles as “exceptional” and lamenting the pressure he has faced from “environmentalist Shiites.” Salles denied any wrongdoing and called the operation “exaggerated” and “unnecessary” in a press conference on May 19.
Meanwhile, Jair Bolsonaro is on the ropes, seeing his support from the electorate dip below 30 per cent for the first time since taking office.
Polls show he is losing the backing of the wealthy and middle class in Brazil’s south and heavily populated southeast, with his largest regional constituency now residing in the north, home to the very farmers, miners and loggers who are tearing down the Amazon rainforest.
Hundreds of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets last week to demand Mr Bolsonaro’s impeachment, and another nationwide rally is scheduled for 19 June.
While addressing the nation on Wednesday evening, the president’s words were drowned out by vociferous pot-banging protests in most of Brazil’s major cities.