Nice planet you have there. It would be a shame if someone were to, say, burn down a region that holds the greatest biodiversity, plays host to thousands of endangered or not yet discovered species, and provides a home to ancient and isolated human cultures.
That’s not exactly what Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said in his speech at President Joe Biden’s climate summit on Thursday, or the content of a proposal that Bolsonaro circulated to world leaders on Wednesday. But it certainly seems to be the implication. After falsely stating that he has worked to constrain the expansion of slash and burn agriculture and reduce illegal logging when his policies have explicitly encouraged the expansion of both, Bolsonaro said the world should provide "fair payment for the environmental services of our biomes to the planet."
As The Wall Street Journal reports, Bolsonaro has put some numbers to what appears to many to be outright extortion: Provide $1 billion and Bolsonaro’s administration will reduce deforestation by 40%. Left unsaid is that they will do this by simply enforcing at least some of the existing laws that were abandoned when Bolsonaro entered office. Bolsonaro’s offer consists of nothing less than promising to do some of what he’s already legally required to do … for $1 billion. And, strangely enough, this comes after Bolsonaro made it a point of his campaign that he would reject offers from outside nations and organizations seeking to secure sections of the Amazon basin, and after Bolsonaro has pointedly refused to protect areas that were supposedly protected by land purchases made by environmental organizations.
Holding the Amazon rainforest for a billion-dollar ransom is a move that might have been lifted from a Bond villain. But is it also a bargain?
Almost everything Bolsonaro claimed in his speech, and his proposal to world leaders, is simply a lie. His administration has not worked to protect the environmental resources of the Amazon. Instead they have stood aside as the Amazon burned and massive areas were illegally harvested, burned, and turned into low-production farmlands. Bolsonaro spent a good part of his speech talking about “the Amazonian paradox” in which those living in the richly diverse area of the forest have very low levels of income, but there is no paradox.
The same factors that make the Amazon so diverse are exactly those that make it highly unsuitable for long-term occupation by large numbers of humans. The rainforest provides a high level of biological resources as long as it remains intact. As has been demonstrated again and again around the world, rainforest lands make horrible farmlands. The soils and environmental conditions there are utterly unsuited for either farming or ranching, and after only a few years, production from these lands slips to almost nothing while the thin, bare topsoil washes away and goes toward ruining the ecology of both rivers and oceans. In fact, Bolsonaro’s policies in allowing more expansion into the region are making this disparity infinitely worse, resulting in not just more destruction, but more people who feel that their only chance at survival lies in carving ever deeper into a land that cannot sustain them.
There’s no reason to either believe Bolsonaro, or to trust that if he had a billion in hand, he wouldn’t go right on encouraging his cronies to burn through the forest.
On the other hand, Bolsonaro is right about one thing: Brazil’s historic contribution to the greenhouse gases now driving climate change has been relatively low. At Biden’s climate summit on Thursday, several national leaders were in the position of being in charge of small, ecologically sensitive regions threatened by climate change that they had very little to do with triggering. Many of those nations are asking for investments in not just reducing future greenhouse gases, but assistance in mitigating the damage already done, or in relocating people displaced by climate-related floods and droughts.
What’s different is that Bolsonaro is not looking for investment to repair damage done by forces beyond his control. He’s asking to be paid to stop doing something he’s doing right now.
If a $1 billion investment could really protect the Amazon, it would be the most fantastic of bargains. Biden might not even need to tap the national budget, as many people would be willing to dip into their pockets immediately to contribute toward such a deal.
Except that’s not what Bolsonaro is offering. He’s offering to slightly apply the brakes on destruction that has vastly accelerated on his watch. He’s not offering to replant a single tree, or even to halt illegal extraction, burning, and expansion into the area. He’s just going to stop causing a little of the pain that he has generated. For cash. The word for that is simply extortion.
Bolsonaro ran on a platform that expressly called for not halting the destruction of Amazon forests. As The Washington Post reported in 2019, Bolsonaro described this as required for Brazil’s development. At the time of the statement, 90% of the fires in the Amazon were burning illegally, and Bolsonaro was refusing to stop them.
“Deforestation and fires will never end,” said Bolsonaro. “It’s cultural.”
At the climate summit, Biden is fighting to overcome four years in which Donald Trump stomped on U.S. commitments. That’s a tough challenge. The Amazon deserves good stewardship, and if the world needs to contribute to make that happen, it can and will. But there is absolutely no reason to trust Jair Bolsonaro now, or ever.