“The Brazilian government is doing exactly the opposite of what needs to be done. It is actively stimulating deforestation through its policies,” said Erika Berenguer, an expert on Amazon land use change at the Universities of Lancaster and Oxford. “Until recently this was through decrees and ministerial policy changes that cut budgets for combating deforestation. Now, they have taken more important roles in Congress so we are seeing even more dangerous bills being passed.”
This is a global concern. The US president, Joe Biden, and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, have warned of the dangers posed by the decline of the rainforest. Supermarkets and financial organisations in the UK, Norway, Germany, France and Australia have threatened to boycott Brazilian products unless supply chains can be guaranteed deforestation free.
On Wednesday, 40 companies, include Iceland, Waitrose, Lidl, Tesco and Sainsbury’s issued an open letter warning that further erosions of environmental legislation and indigenous rights would force them to reconsider using Brazilian agricultural commodities. “We would like to reiterate that we consider the Amazon as a vital part of the Earth system that’s essential to the security of our planet as well as being a critical part of a prosperous future for Brazilians and all of society,” they said. Green groups said they now expected these companies to put their threats into effect.
Among many consumers Brazil is seen as a toxic brand, and Bolsonaro looks increasingly isolated on the world stage. But this international pressure has had little impact. Last month, Bolsonaro sacked his environmental minister, Ricardo Salles, after a tipoff by the US embassy about his alleged involvement in illegal timber smuggling. But Salles had already gutted the forest surveillance and enforcement bodies, and the real power behind him – the agriculture minister, Tereza Cristina Dias – remains in place.
This is partly because commodity prices remain high and demand is strong, particularly in China where the government puts resource procurement above environmental ethics and media pressure is limited by strict censorship. China is Brazil’s biggest market by a large margin.
But the major reason is the nationalist ideology of the president. According to Astrini, Bolsonaro is so exclusively focused on domestic politics that he is indifferent to international reputation or global markets. “He is the first Brazilian president who has an overt agenda of destroying environmental protections for political gain. He is not concerned about the country, only his re-election. It’s all about the electoral base,” Astrini says.
On a more positive note, he sees Bolsonaro as a catalyst for change. Since he took power, the Amazon rainforest has moved to the centre of political debate. Several candidates in next year’s presidential election now have zero-deforestation commitments in their manifestos.
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