Between the lines

Joe Biden mulls Jair Bolsonaro climate deal amid ‘record assault’ on Amazon

Area of rainforest equivalent in size to Isle of Man destroyed in April alone

Joe Biden is risking the wrath of critics by pursuing climate talks with the man overseeing one of the world’s most aggressive deforestation campaigns.

Biden’s “ambitions to save the planet comes down to a delicate dance” centring on a key issue, says Politico - whether he can “cut a deal” with Brazil’s President Jair Balsonaro, “whose allies are slashing and burning the Amazon”.

Flanked by John Kerry, the first ever US climate change envoy, Biden has “dived headlong into talks” with his controversial counterpart in a bid to achieve that goal, the news site continues. But “allies and activists inside and outside of Brazil” are warning that the so-called “Trump of the tropics” cannot be trusted.

Rainforest assault

Bolsonaro has been “accused of accelerating his dismantling of the Amazon rainforest as land clearances and the destruction of habitats increase”, The Times reports.

“An area the size of the Isle of Man was cleared in the Brazilian Amazon last month alone, setting a frightening record that points to an environmental catastrophe in the dry season ahead,” the paper adds.

This deforestation rate was 43% higher than the same period last year, even though the total amount of land cleared in 2020 was greater than any previous year since 2008. Satellite images captured by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research showed that an area seven times the size of London was razed last year to make way for cattle farms, mines and soya bean production.

The deforestation “is off the charts”, Ane Alencar, science director at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, told The Times. “Brazil has a political, ideological and institutional problem when it comes to the protection of the Amazon.”

Indeed, agreeing a “climate bargain” with Bolsonaro is a “politically and ethically fraught bargain for any American president to contemplate”, Politico says. The Brazilian populist has even demanded “a $1bn-a-year pay-off in return for pledges to stop the deforestation, while refusing demands for accountability”, the site continues.

Biden and Kerry are pushing on with the talks, however, because Bolsonaro “holds the keys to 60% of the Amazon, a crucial resource that absorbs 5% of the world’s annual carbon dioxide emissions”.

Many activists fear Biden’s bid is doomed to failure, but Brazilian Environment Minister Ricardo Salles has hit back at the sceptics, telling Politico that “the narrative has been absolutely wrong”.

“People said we wouldn't have a dialogue, but all the conditions are in place for achieving something positive,” Salles said. “They said this dialogue would never occur, and now that they realised it’s going well, they say: Don’t trust him! Don’t talk to him! But who are they supposed to talk to? We’re the government!”

A burning area of Amazon rainforest reserve south of Novo Progresso in Para state

A burning area of Amazon rainforest reserve south of Novo Progresso in Para state

Carl De Souza/AFP via Getty Images

The warnings about how far Biden can trust his counterpart are not confined to activists, however. “State governors, indigenous leaders and environmental groups” in Brazil have also warned the US president “not to trust” Bolsonaro, Time reports.

The governor of Brazil’s most populous state, Sao Paulo, told the magazine that his country’s leader “won’t even try” to reduce deforestation. “Bolsonaro has demonstrated a total disregard for the environmental agenda and he hasn’t done anything to suggest he has any intention of changing his behaviour,” said Governor Joao Doria.  

Bolsonaro’s critics point to new legislation “looming that could grant loggers legal protections”, The Times reports. Senators in Brazil’s National Congress parliament are expected this week to green-light the bill, which “will legalise the private occupation of public land, mostly in the Amazon basin” - prompting fears of further logging.

Deal with the devil?

While some commentators claim that Biden is being naive in his dealings with Bolsonaro, a person “familiar” with the US team’s “thinking” told Politico that “the risk of talking to him and exploring with him is outweighed by the risk of doing nothing and just letting the forest disappear”.

Other insiders said that the US officials leading “negotiations with Bolsonaro have never viewed him as a reliable partner”, but that “protecting the Amazon is simply too important to climate change to ignore”.

As The Times notes, since taking office in 2019, Bolsonaro has “repeatedly said the rainforest should be exploited ‘in a reasonable way’”, and has been “a fierce critic of his country’s environmental regulations and law enforcement agencies”.

The Brazilian leader has “gutted environmental agencies’ budgets and attempted to loosen environmental regulations to make it easier for businesses to exploit the land”, adds Time.

“The US should not strike an agreement with the federal government because it won’t be fulfilled,” Sao Paulo Governor Doria told the magazine. “They should make deals with state governments, one by one, with well established commitments and independent, transparent auditing of how funds are used.”

But if Biden is to deliver on his ambitious environmental pledges, a “climate bargain” with Bolsonaro may be a necessary evil, argues Politico. And handing over hefty amounts of money “may be the only way to persuade” the Brazilian president to stem the tide of the climate crisis, the site concludes.

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