Is Brazil stepping back from environmental leadership, just when it’s needed the most?

Michel Temer in April 2016. Credit: Fabio Rodrigues-Pozzebom/ Agencia Brasil via Wikimedia Commons.

Every conversation I have with my Brazilian friends and colleagues these days starts off with a discussion of whose political crisis is worse. It’s a hard question. But Brazil’s President Temer has the chance to show a little real leadership June 19th if he decides to veto a blatant giveaway of a large swath of protected Amazon forest to land grabbers and environmental lawbreakers.

U.S. and Brazilian presidents: The 19th-century take on development and the environment

Wildly unpopular U.S. President Trump was elected by maybe a third of eligible voters, with a substantial minority of votes cast. He is doing everything he and his staff can think of to roll back environmental protections in the United States and stymie progress on climate change globally. His ill-conceived scheme to pull the United States out the Paris Agreement would have us abdicate international leadership and surrender the enormous economic opportunity of the new, renewable, energy economy to China and other competitors.

Wildly unpopular Brazilian President Temer was put in power by an even more wildly unpopular Congress in an ultimately failed bid to shut down judicial investigations that are sending herds of them, and their business associates, to jail for massive graft and corruption. He (and his predecessor, who mismanaged the economy into the worst recession in Brazil’s modern history) has totally dropped the ball on controlling Amazon deforestation, which, in the absence of budget for enforcement has increased for two years running for the first time since 2004.

Brazil’s Amazon at risk

Since the weight of corruption scandals Temer is personally implicated in has him clinging to power by his fingernails, the yahoos in the “rural caucus” of the Congress (the voting bloc of big ranchers’ and agribusiness’ representatives) are taking the opportunity to run hog-wild with proposals to gut forest protections and roll back indigenous territories – two of the major reasons why Brazil became the world leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by decreasing deforestation by about 80% from 2004–2014.

By June 19th, Temer has to decide whether to veto measures that would deliver 600,000 hectares in an Amazon protected area to land-grabbers – and rampant deforestation. It's not just 600,000 hectares of forest at stake – caving to a flagrant play to carve up a federal conservation area to benefit slash-and-burn land grabbers is a terrible precedent for all of the Amazon protected areas.

All of this is rapidly eroding Brazil’s international climate leadership, and is bad news for the Paris Agreement. Brazil’s demonstration that a major emerging economy could reduce large-scale emissions while growing its economy and bringing millions out of poverty was a beacon of light in the climate negotiations that is dimming by the moment.

Brazil’s President Temer can show a little real leadership if he vetos a blatant giveaway of a large swath of protected Amazon forest to land grabbers and environmental lawbreakers

The abandonment of Brazil’s successful deforestation control program by President Temer and former President Dilma, if continued, will only hinder Brazil’s economic prospects in the 21st century global economy – like President Trump’s radical misreading (or ignorance) of the economic implications of the Paris Agreement for the United States. Increased deforestation will likely cause Brazil to lose market share as major commodity traders and consumer goods companies that have committed to zero-deforestation beef and soy supply chains curtail market access. Rampant violence and human rights abuses against indigenous peoples and grassroots environmental activists will expose public-facing companies to increasing reputational risk – and send them looking for lower-risk places to source.

On the other hand, support for sustainable development first movers such as Acre state and agriculture powerhouse Mato Grosso could make Brazil the go-to supplier for zero-deforestation commodities worldwide. And, as Amazon states, civil society and green business leaders have consistently advocated, if Brazil opened up to carbon market crediting for reduced deforestation in emerging international markets, it could unlock the finance needed to end deforestation in the Amazon and Brazil’s other mega-diverse biomes; make family and industrial agriculture 100% sustainable; and create sustainable prosperity in the 200 million hectares of indigenous territories and protected areas of the Amazon.

It’s hard to say whose loss is worse under U.S. and Brazil’s lamentable current policies, but maybe even harder to say whose gain would be greater if Trump and Temer would wake up and recognize the real opportunities in the 21st century economy.

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