Aerial image of a fire in the Jacundá National Forest, in the Amazon biome. Photo: Bruno Kelly/Amazônia Real/Fotos Públicas

Agro giants and NGOs stand together against Jair Bolsonaro

This Tuesday, the Brazilian President will open the UN General Assembly debates and intends to address deforestation in the country

The 19th-century essayist Charles Dudley Warner once said “politics make strange bedfellows.” The quote is appropriated to describe a newly-formed alliance between environmentalist NGOs and major agricultural producers — who together are calling for the Jair Bolsonaro administration to enforce deforestation controls in biomes such as the Amazon rainforest and the Pantanal wetlands. In a document sent out this week to Vice President Hamilton Mourão, who presides over the Amazon Council, 230 institutions put forward a list of measures the government should immediately implement to curb deforestation rates.

The so-called Climate, Forest, and Agriculture Coalition unites entities as diverse as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Youth Climate Leaders, the World Resources Institute (WRI), alongside companies usually on the opposing side of the ring — for instance, meat giants JBS and Marfrig, food-processing firm Amaggi, and German fertilizers producer Bayer

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“The coalition is at the government’s disposal to provide information, help with coordinating efforts with multiple sectors, or any action that could speed up a solution to this grave scenario,” the group said in the open letter.

This movement comes as, once again, Brazil faces a major international image crisis due to increasing levels of deforestation. In the first 14 days of September, almost 20,500 fires were registered in the Amazon region — already more than in the whole month of September 2019 (19,925). Meanwhile, the number of fires in the Pantanal wetlands has reached record-shattering levels in 2020.

This Tuesday, the eyes of the world will be on Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who will open the United Nations General Assembly debates. He will try to spin the narrative by presenting the latest initiatives by the Environment Ministry to contain the flames, highlighting the government’s efforts to protect at-risk Amazon jaguars.It is safe to say, however, that his pre-recorded speech will not address recent statements by his Environment Minister, who in April talked about taking advantage of the press’ undivided attention on the COVID-19 pandemic to “run the cattle herd” through the Amazon, “changing all of the rules and simplifying standards.”

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Proposed measures to contain deforestation

The list of proposals from the coalition can be summarized into six core points. Some of them seem like obvious no-brainer moves, but, tellingly,  haven’t been put in place by the administration:

  • Resume and revamp environmental inspections in farms, holding transgressors accountable for infractions;
  • Suspend all exploitation permits within public forest areas, punishing illegal deforestation actions;
  • Destine 10 million hectares of land for sustainable land use and environmental protection;
  • Issue a credit line to local communities based on their environmental track record and socioeconomic indicators;
  • Guarantee that deforestation data will be gathered and published with transparency;
  • Suspend land permits in properties which have deforested land since June 2008.

Deforestation is a bad business move

The fact that meat giant JBS is trying to take the moral high ground on environmental issues speaks volumes about the Jair Bolsonaro administration. A recent report points out that JBS’ supply chain was responsible for the destruction of at least 1.7 million hectares of native vegetation in the Amazon and the savannah-like Cerrado biome since 2008.

But as ESG principles — environmental, social, and governance — become the norm among major investment firms, big players are forced to play by certain standards to avoid being blacklisted by markets. JBS, for example, was dropped from the portfolio of major European financial services firm Nordea Asset Management for its transgressions.

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Moreover, European Union countries are using Brazil’s uncontrolled — and criminal — wildfires as a way out of the free-trade deal with Mercosur. A group of 30 NGOs asked French President Emmanuel Macron to “bury once and for all” the agreement. Meanwhile, eight European countries urged Brazil to take “real action” to protect the rainforest.

The Brazilian government, however, has offered little hope that it will change its stance. Bolsonaro called the outcry “disproportionate,” and Mourão has done little more than offering to take foreign ambassadors on a trip to the Amazon.

This article was originally published on The Brazilian Report, a website that explains Brazilian politics and economics to foreign audiences.