Can Brazil’s new President Save the Amazon from Total Destruction?
John Lubbock explains the challenges awaiting President Lula, and how the rest of the world is also implicated in deforestation
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Most people have never heard of many of the companies whose production of beef, soy, palm oil, and other commodities are responsible for much of the ongoing destruction of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. Yet Brazil’s – and the world’s – biggest packaged food producer, JBS, is a company with a $65 billion revenue in 2021, and whose economic activity could decide the fate of our planet’s ecosystem.
As Brazil emerges from a divisive election campaign, narrowly won by former President Lula of the Workers’ Party, his ability to stop or reverse the deforestation of the Amazon is of global importance. “We will fight for zero deforestation in the Amazon… We are going to restart the monitoring and surveillance of the Amazon and combat any kind of illegal activity,” Lula said in his first speech after winning the vote.
Cattle ranching is the single biggest driver of deforestation in the Amazon. Global Witness recently published a report showing that “JBS’s links to Amazon deforestation and human rights abuses are aided by UK, US and EU financiers, importers and supermarkets”. Cattle ranching in Brazil occupies an area roughly the size of Sweden, and research shows that about 70% of felled Amazonian rainforest is now populated by cattle, of which JBS is the largest buyer.
Over the past 50 years, about 17-20% of the Amazon has been cleared, and if this reaches around 25%, it could trigger a permanent drying out of the Amazon basin’s climate, a phenomenon known as ‘dieback’. Given that the Amazon produces between 6 – 9% of the world’s oxygen every year, the seriousness of this cannot be underplayed.
UK financial institutions are heavily involved in financing companies like JBS that produce beef. Barclays and HSBC both finance Brazilian beef producers, among many other banks.
Governments and financial institutions have a huge role to play in preventing the financing of deforestation, and there are options on the table – for example, the inclusion of financial services in a landmark EU deforestation law is currently under consideration.
JBS pledged to reach net zero by 2040 in March 2021, and representatives and its financiers alike have also attended climate conferences like COP26 where they made pledges to reduce their environmental impact. The new Brazilian government and leaders sitting in key financial centres should hold these firms accountable to such pledges.
Companies seeking to illegally mine or log the Amazon were given carte blanche to do what they wanted under Bolsonaro’s government, with deforestation in 2021 rising to its highest level since 2006 and indigenous communities often suffering violence and land theft as a result. 181 officials running for office in the recent elections received fines for environmental violations, as have many of Bolsonaro’s campaign donors.
Lula, by contrast, has promised an overhaul of environmental policy with legislation similar in scale to the proposed US Green New Deal. It would include giving 500,000 square kilometres of the Amazon protected status. However, as Reuters points out, getting his agenda through Brazil’s legislature could easily be blocked by allies of Bolsonaro.
Environmental enforcement agencies had their budgets slashed under Bolsonaro, meaning that little was done to stop illegal deforestation. These agencies need to be properly funded again, and serious fines and prosecutions should be brought against individuals and companies responsible.
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Lula also needs to convince poorer Brazilians that development and prosperity are possible without destroying the Amazon. Lula has said that it is possible to increase farm output without more deforestation, while the government could also do more to encourage better forest management by working with farmers to incentivise sustainable land usage.
The UN-supported Principles for Responsible Investment commissioned a report which anticipates that it will be almost impossible to meet Lula’s goal of net zero deforestation by 2025. “However, the re-election of ‘Lula’ da Silva would make an end to illegal activity by 2030 (if not well before) and the achievement of net zero emissions from the Brazilian Amazon possible.”
If global net zero deforestation is not achieved by 2025, the report states, the target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C “would be in danger”.
Brazil cannot do everything alone. Protecting the Amazon should be a priority for the whole world, especially for nations in the global north where the commodities produced in Brazil are consumed. Brazil needs more financial support to recover degraded farmland. Big financial institutions must also reduce their exposure to ‘forest-risk’ investments in companies like JBS.
Brazil can also help increase transparency around the supply chains of companies like JBS by legislating to require them to report data on where they source their beef from.
At COP 26, 145 countries signed the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration On Forests And Land Use, which aimed to “halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030” and to align financial flows accordingly. This is not the first time world leaders have made such a pledge – the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests had a similar objective. The agreement aimed to halve deforestation by 2020, a target that was not close to being met.
Global Witness also reported in the run-up to COP26 that banks and asset managers based in the UK, USA, EU and China provided an estimated financing of $157 billion between 2015-2020 to just 20 agribusinesses implicated in deforestation. Both governments and the public need to put more pressure on banks to stop financing the climate crisis.
COP27 is a chance for governments and financial institutions to put their money where their mouths are. A lot of the discussions will revolve around financing a transition to low-carbon economies, and especially a $100 billion per year promise by developed countries to advance climate adaptation in poorer countries which isn’t being met. With a world dealing with the war in Ukraine and rising food and fuel prices, the ability of governments to think about the long-term future of the planet is very much in doubt.
We need leadership from our own politicians too. Time is running out to stop the climate from going past a tipping point which could cause a feedback loop of climate collapse, yet the UK government is missing in action.
Everyone needs to take responsibility by doing what they can, but those in power have a special responsibility. Lula has a chance to rescue the Amazon from collapse, but he’s going to need a lot of help.
John Lubbock works in communications for the ‘Global Witness’ charity’s forests team