Eye on the Amazon

Biden Listened to Civil Society and Chose the Amazon. It's Up to Us to Make Sure He Continues to Do So.

Photo credit: Amazon Watch

After weeks of intense mobilization by more than 300 Brazilian and international organizations, social movements, Indigenous leaders, traditional communities, policymakers, and artists from Brazil, the United States, and other parts of the world, President Biden heard the message and made a choice: the Amazon rainforest. Contrary to recent speculation, including comments by a State Department spokesperson, Biden did not announce any deal with Bolsonaro at the Leaders Summit on Climate last week. Sometimes a “done deal” isn't so done, after all. Civil society organized against it and we prevailed.

Amazon Watch worked with a coalition of several organizations in Brazil and the U.S. Together, we sent letters to President Biden, engaged the media and members of the U.S. Congress, and mobilized artists who signed a letter calling on Biden to choose: the Amazon or Bolsonaro. It was a powerful and impressive collective effort to avoid possible agreement on the rainforest between Bolsonaro and Biden. Today, we celebrate that any agreement crafted behind closed doors never made it to fruition.

Despite his environmental track record, Bolsonaro was included as one of the Summit's 40 global leaders but did not interact directly with Biden. At the event, Bolsonaro presented a commitment to reduce deforestation and to end illegal deforestation by 2030, adding that it would reduce the country's greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 50% by that date. Bolsonaro also pledged to double funding for environmental enforcement efforts and called for international support for Brazil's climate efforts. However, Bolsonaro had previously eliminated deforestation from the country's environmental goals, and his new pledge for Brazil to reach carbon neutrality in 2050 was rightfully met with skepticism by Brazilian civil society and Indigenous leaders.

During that day's White House press briefing, John Kerry didn't mention Brazil or Bolsonaro in a list of notable countries and leaders in the climate effort until explicitly asked by a journalist. He was surprised by Bolsonaro's discourse but mentioned that the question now is whether or not Bolsonaro will do what he says and whether there would be follow-through and enforcement.

In a vivid and concrete demonstration of his bad faith, less than 24 hours later Bolsonaro signed off on the 2021 federal budget that included BR$ 2 billion reais (US$ 365 million) for the Environmental Ministry and the agencies it oversees, a budget cut of 24 percent, initially approved last year. Now we are one week after Earth Day and Bolsonaro's allies in the Brazilian senate attempted to approve a land-grabbing bill that would grant amnesty to those responsible for past deforestation, ultimately incentivizing it in the future. Again, after significant pressure from civil society and the Brazilian press, the Brazilian Senate pulled the bill for now. But it will likely be back soon.

For now, Biden appears to have chosen to keep the United States on a proactive path for tackling the climate crisis. Even if this is only because it could be too risky for the U.S. to reposition itself as a protagonist in the fight against climate change, while also supporting the Bolsonaro administration whose policies have been disastrous for the Amazon and its peoples.

But wouldn't an international environmental agreement to protect the Amazon rainforest be a good thing? Yes, it would, but if it is led by civil society, Indigenous, and traditional peoples and based on communities based-solutions. Unfortunately, this is the opposite of what Bolsonaro wants, because he's made it abundantly clear that his real intention is to “develop” the Amazon and exploit its resources. Fundamentally, it's essential to ensure the inclusion of social movements and civil society in the negotiation. The issue isn't a lack of money, as framed by Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, who can't stop talking about all the money the international community should send for the Amazon. It's about the lack of political will to protect the forest, and the peoples who live in it. That's why it's important to stay alert, continue monitoring, and keep up the pressure.

We won a couple of battles in the last few days – and for that, we must celebrate – but the struggle to defend the Amazon rainforest and Indigenous peoples' rights continues. As we approach the next burning season in the Brazilian Amazon, we hope that Biden will call for accountability and leverage his new relationships to demand an end to the destruction. Otherwise, Biden will risk failing to reclaim the country's essential role as a leader on climate.

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