By Nestor Bailly, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – It is clear the Amazon rainforest is extremely important for the global climate, sequestering over 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year and harboring a vast diversity of life. It is also clear that there is a plethora of challenges with the Amazon, from severe droughts, floods and environmentally destructive dams, to uncontrolled deforestation and land speculation, also known as grilagem.

Slash and burn agriculture in the Amazon
Slash and burn agriculture in the Amazon, photo by Threat to Democracy/Flickr Creative Commons License.

The fate of the Amazon is a global concern, but also one that the Brazilian government is fiercely protective of. Recently released U.S. diplomatic cables from WikiLeaks hint that the U.S. interest in the Amazon is somewhat passive, and of course political.
In general, as Brazil has tried to reign in deforestation and illegal speculation, the U.S. has remained supportive yet skeptical. In 2005 when then-Environmental Minister Marina Silva announced a presidential decree aimed at combating deforestation it was met with a tepid response by the U.S. embassy in Brasilia.
“In the end, these measures are generally being viewed positively, although with a degree of skepticism. Brazil already possesses some of the most stringent environmental laws anywhere in the world. The problem is a lack of enforcement and effective management of public lands. There exists a huge divide between saying/creating and actually doing.”
However, the following year saw the creation of the Brazilian Forest Service, which officially put 13 million hectares of Amazon forest along the infamous BR-163 highway under Federal authority, invalidating illegal land claims and promoting a sustainable forest-based economy. From this point forward, the cables convey a positive tune in the U.S. analysis, advocating further cooperation across a wide range of areas.

Map representing deforestation
Map representing deforestation, image courtesy of Agência Brasil.

In early 2009, two new provisions on deforestation and settlers occupying public land drew the approval and almost surprise of the U.S embassy. The first proposal reduces the mandatory reforestation of illegally cleared forest to 50 percent, much easier to comply with than the previous 80 percent.

The second addresses the land title confusion, so settlers illegally occupying public land would get legal titles but must adhere to strict Forest Code requirements. With these new practical measures, the cable reads, “[t]he [Government of Brazil] shows a new flexibility and willingness to solve the problem.”

While seeking to help preserve the Amazon through institutional and NGO collaboration, during the run-up to COP 15 in 2009 the U.S. sought to align Brazil with its own interests for the conference. Brazil was described as playing “a pivotal role” in the negotiations before the conference, specifically because China and India’s receptiveness to agreeing on the U.S.’s interest in binding emissions controls were perceived as partly hinging on Brazil’s position.
However, Brazil’s main interests were defined as focused on “growth, growth, growth,” while not considering “climate change an immediate threat” and unwilling “to sacrifice other priorities to address the problem.”

Brazil’s concerns at the time were characterized as fearful of a punitive emissions regime that Europe and the U.S. would use to tax and sanction developing nations unable to meet emissions targets, reducing their competitiveness and growth. This is not far out of line with Brazil’s usual sensitivity on sovereignty issues.

United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen (COP 15) in Denmark, 2009
United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen (COP 15) in Denmark, 2009, photo provided by Pete Souza/Wikimedia Creative Commons License.

At the time, early 2009, the U.S. Mission in Brasilia recommended a wide-ranging effort, using “the tools at their disposal,” to convince the Brazilian authorities to toe the line with the U.S. on the negotiations. Everything from financial assistance, technology transfers and a charm offensive was recommended, tying it all into leveraging the U.S.’s superior organizational and logistical resources to help stem Amazonian deforestation.
Ultimately, the COP 15 conference was largely considered a failure by most of the world, but Brazil’s delegation came home proud. Although frustrated by the lack of real progress, which President Lula blamed squarely on the U.S. as not ambitious enough and inflexible, he hailed Brazil’s proposal and conduct at the conference as considered “the best,” and as a “white knight at COP 15” as a U.S. diplomatic cable puts it.
The harsh criticism of the U.S. was followed by a unique move. Going to the conference, Brazil had an ambitious ‘voluntary national goal’ of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 36.1 percent to 38.9 percent by 2020. In late 2009, these benchmarks were codified into domestic legislation, accompanied by a National Climate Change Fund financed partially by future oil and gas revenues.


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