Brazil has unveiled its plan to protect the Amazon. Critics say it’s not enough

Retired army general and vice-president Hamilton Mourao published the Amazon Plan 2021/2022 on the Brazilian official gazette on Wednesday. It prioritizes for deforestation mitigation five of the nine states within the “Legal Amazon,” itself equivalent to some 60% of Brazil’s territory, and previews several changes in the way the federal government and the states comprising the basin handle the vast area.

Among the policy changes, the plan describes strengthening and merging agencies that surveil and fight illegal activities related to environment and land usage. It also calls to regularize land ownership and bring new economic alternatives to the people living in the region, including promoting business development and expanding healthcare and educational infrastructure.

By 2022, the Amazon Plan also aims to lower annual deforestation loss to the average recorded between 2016 and 2020 — an area of approximately 8,700 square kilometers. It’s a significant drop from the current level of destruction — Brazil’s Institute of Space Research (INPE), which tracks forest loss by satellite, estimates that 11,088 square kilometers were lost to deforestation in 2020.

However, the 2022 target still allows for about 16% more deforestation than in the year before Bolsonaro took office — hardly a reversal of losses in the world’s biggest rainforest, an essential bulwark in the effort against climate change. According to INPE, 7,500 square kilometers of the Amazon were deforested in 2018.

Carlos Nobre, one of Brazil’s leading climate scientists, describes the 2022 deforestation goal as “very modest.” He says that “to generate any optimism, the goals for 2021-2022 should be at least 2,000 square kilometers smaller than the (2016-2020 average). And with a medium-term goal of reducing annual deforestation to less than 4000 square kilometers in three years.”

“The official document by the Federal Government in very general and is not specific on actual measures that have shown pronounced positive effect in the past,” Nobre adds.

Marcio Astrini, head of the Brazilian environmental advocacy network Climate Observatory, says the government’s plan essentially admits to allowing increased forest clearing. “It means that Bolsonaro’s government is pledging to deliver, after four years, a deforestation rate … higher than when his government began. It’s is not a target, it is an environmental crime confession,” Astrini said.

He blames Bolsonaro’s government for encouraging illegal activity and forest clearing in the Amazon, noting a package of proposed laws currently before Congress would make it easier to develop protected lands. “Under Bolsonaro, the forest is alone and under criminals’ control,” Astrini said.

Deforestation has skyrocketed during Bolsonaro’s presidency. In 2019, his first year as president, INPE data shows the Amazon lost 10,129 square kilometers to deforestation — an increase of 34% from the previous year.

Though the President has passed several executive orders and laws to protect the Amazon, he has simultaneously slashed funding to government-run environmental protection and monitoring programs, and pushed to open indigenous lands to commercial farming and mining.

The plan’s unveiling comes just one week before Brazil participates in a high-profile virtual climate conference organized by US President Joe Biden, which begins on April 22.

Emphasizing their distrust for Bolsonaro’s environmental commitments, last week nearly 200 nongovernmental organizations publicly called on Biden not to strike any deal on protecting the Amazon with Bolsonaro without broader consultation with civil society and indigenous groups.

On Monday, the US Ambassador to Brazil Todd Chapman meet with members of the Articulation of the Indigenous People of Brazil (APIB) after it requested a “direct channel” of communication with the US on issues related to the Brazilian Amazon.

State-level officials in Brazil have also sought to establish a direct line to Washington for environmental negotiation. Representatives from 22 of Brazil’s 26 states plus the Federal District this week wrote a public letter to Biden asking that the US partner directly with state governors, promising transparency and “verifiable results.”

“Our states have funds and mechanisms especially created to respond to the climate emergency. [The funds are] available for a safe and transparent use of international resources, guaranteeing quick and verifiable results,” the letter said.

Nobre, the climate scientists, says one bright spot in Brazil’s efforts to fight deforestation does not come from the government at all, but from big businesses assuming greater responsibility for their supply chains. “The one somewhat positive indicator does not come from government. It is emerging from big agribusiness companies of meat and soy chains that have made commitments to drive deforestation-free supply chains in the next 5 years,” he says.

“Many companies committed to zero deforestation (illegal and legal) up to 2025. That is likely to have sent a clear message to organized crime behind most of the illegal deforestation that traceability systems under implementation will make much harder for them to trade mostly meat from illegally deforested areas, even lands grabbed by criminals.”

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