Criticizing Brazil over Amazon conservation challenges will likely backfire


  • Although Brazilians share a concern for the Amazon, and even hosted the groundbreaking Earth Summit in 1992, polls show less consensus on who is responsible for Amazon deforestation, who is best addressing this problem, or the role of foreign actors.
  • When activists or leaders from abroad single out Brazil and its president as bad actors on the environment, they risk potential backlash from Brazilians who often view such attacks as a double standard.
  • The heavy-handed tone that the Biden Administration has adopted may create unfortunate roadblocks to the progress which is possible, argue two authors from the Amazon Environmental Research Institute and the University of São Paulo.
  • This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.

The climate and environmental crisis the world has long been experiencing is embedded in concern for future generations. But research shows that consequences are already affecting the world’s population and that the tipping point is imminent. At both COP 26 next November and the recently held Leaders’ Climate Summit, any initiative that seeks global results must include keeping tropical forests standing – the safest and most cost-effective means of avoiding carbon emissions.

Brazil boasts the world’s largest tropical rainforest, but negotiations with the country are uncertain due to current political conditions. On the ground, current President Jair Bolsonaro and his Environment Minister Ricardo Salles are moving Brazil in the opposite direction of what is negotiated through international diplomacy. Their effort has included the scrapping of an environmental enforcement agency, encouraging mining on Indigenous lands, and loosening environmental legislation.

This may leave some environmentalists abroad wondering: how could such policies and ideologies come to be enacted in Brazil, host of the groundbreaking Earth Summit in 1992 (Rio 92), and the caretaker of the Amazon? Here, we try to explain a few contributing factors that may not be so obvious for a foreign audience, particularly for Americans.

  • Whether Democrat or Republican, ‘gringos are gringos’

Although U.S. elections are followed intently in Brazil and can cause U.S. foreign policy aims in the region to change drastically, little distinction is made between parties when it comes to U.S. involvement in Brazilian affairs. While many Brazilians hope their country will someday achieve U.S.-levels of economic development, most are weary of moves that increase U.S. influence. This should come as no surprise given the troubled and bloody history of U.S. interventions in Latin America.

Fire in the Jaci-Paraná Extractive Reserve, in Porto Velho, Rondônia state. Taken 16 Aug, 2020. CREDIT: © Christian Braga / Greenpeace
Fire in the Jaci-Paraná Extractive Reserve, Porto Velho, Rondônia state, August 2020. Photo © Christian Braga / Greenpeace.

It goes without saying that the U.S. and Brazil may not be exactly in lockstep while Biden and Bolsonaro are in power. By singling out Brazil as a bad actor, Biden may be trying to establish a ‘common enemy,’ a move which could draw broad support both within the U.S. and abroad. However, partly because of the reasons mentioned above, efforts to intimidate Bolsonaro to acquiesce to U.S. demands will likely provoke an equal and opposite reaction in Brazil, summoning a sense of nationalism against foreign influence. In other words, while the pressure on Bolsonaro to step up enforcement may improve accountability, veiled economic threats may in fact have the opposite effect, by consolidating support for the Brazilian president.

Most forest cover in the U.S. has been logged at one point or another, a fact Bolsonaro has drawn attention to more than once. Additionally, Brazilian greenhouse gas emissions per capita are much lower than in the U.S. Although it is mostly Brazilian actors contributing to actual deforestation on the ground, American environmentalists would be wise to consider their own inadvertent contributions to this system: meat or soy products bought at a grocery store…

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