Brazil urgently needs to agree on a national project for the protection and development of the Amazon. It must combine the preservation of the standing forest, rivers and biodiversity with the local populations’ needs for human development, based on science, technology, and the knowledge and traditions of indigenous peoples. The support and engagement of long-established communities in the region is crucial.
“About 20% of the Legal Amazon has already been deforested, 20% is degraded, and 60% has forest that is conserved (in different grades). To avoid reaching the tipping point, when the rainforest will irreversibly transform into savanna, we cannot deforest anything else,” warned agronomist Beto Verissimo, co-founder of the Amazon Institute of Man and Environment (Imazon), during the webinar that brought together eight guest speakers with diverse but complementary experiences. It also counted on special appearances by former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Defense Minister Raul Jungmann, and environmentalist Marcelo Furtado (as mediator).
Founded on the unquestionable Brazilian sovereignty over the Legal Amazon's five million square kilometers (59% of the country's territory), such a national project must have good coordination with the other eight South American countries with whom we share the largest rainforest on the planet, and should benefit from the possibilities of partnerships and resources made available by other nations due to the Amazon's primary importance in facing the global climate crisis.
These were the main takeaways of the “The World has an Eye on the Amazon: Threats and opportunities for Brazil” webinar, held by the FHC Foundation and the IREE Soberania e Clima, on April 22, Earth Day, when 40 heads of state or government participated online in the Climate Leaders Summit, hosted by Joe Biden, the new U.S. president.
“The Amazon is currently in a power void; it has no voice nor effective communication in the national agenda. Brazil has no national project for the region suitable for 21st-century challenges. The Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary branches must join forces to change this situation. The country must use its entire apparatus – legislation, inspections, infrastructure, development, and credit lines – and partner with the private and third sectors," said Raul Jungmann. As former president of the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) and the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) and former defense minister, he accumulated substantial experience in the region.
“Everything we achieved in the last decades is being abandoned in favor of a 1970s view, centered on the idea that the forest must be vanquished to develop the region. We have the legal framework, adequate monitoring systems, and an abundance of knowledge and successful experiences. However, the current administration's environmental denialism prevents us from building a new perspective for the Amazon, going as far as taking us out of the global leadership position in such matters,” said Adriana Ramos. Adriana is the coordinator of the Social and Environmental Policy and Law Program of the Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA). The environmentalist believes a different solution must be built involving the local communities formed by indigenous peoples, caboclos, and quilombolas, guaranteeing their territorial rights, supporting the management of these territories, and investing in health, education, communication, and technology.
“The world increasingly sees the Amazon as part of the solution for facing the climate crisis, not as a problem. Brazil can get a lot of resources in the emerging international carbon credit market and invest them in innovative, highly technological environmental management that unifies the forces of the public and private sectors," said Pedro Passos, co-chairman of the Board of Directors of Natura & Co and former president of the S.O.S. Atlantic Forest Foundation (Fundação SOS Mata Atlântica). He believes the value of the more than 200 million hectares of indigenous reservations and environmental protection units that already exist must be recognized and their forests, waters, and natural resources be correctly managed. “The percentage of private land that can be deforested under the Brazilian Forest Code also has enormous climate management potential. To take advantage of this, we must keep the trees standing, activate the forest chains, and learn to sell carbon credits,” said the businessman.
“It's impossible to have one inspector for every hectare of preserved forest. Therefore, there will be no end in deforestation, either legal or illegal deforestation, unless doing so generates opportunities for project sponsors and the local population. Only fair remuneration for forest services can reverse the destruction of the Amazon,” stated Flávio Dino, governor of the Brazilian state of Maranhão.
According to the politician, recently-elected president of the Interstate Consortium of Sustainable Development of the Legal Amazon, establishing bold goals for the region's preservation is possible as long as they are economically and socially productive for the people of the Amazon. “We have elections every four years. Voters are demanding their survival and know how to defend them their own interests. If a conservative political plan does not prove viable, it will get shut down by the public in the next elections,” he warned.
Despite the pragmatism, Dino said the Climate Summit organized by President Biden represented a beacon of light in the darkness, “The new international cleavage that promises to boost the low-carbon economy breathes life into our utopias. We need hope to defeat denialism and authoritarianism.”
“The Brazilian political elite has not been looking at the Amazon region as they should. Brazil’s national budget must include the Amazon and give the State the true capacity to monitor compliance with laws, which is not the case today, and to guarantee the rights of the local population. The rarefied government presence at its various levels is one cause of the destruction,” said the Retired General Sergio Etchegoyen, former Secretary of Institutional Security of Brazil.
According to the former Chief of Staff of the Brazilian Army, the Amazon exerts a centripetal force and, if preserved and explored sustainably and legally, it will be the radiant of a new economy and global insertion for Brazil. "We are living in a time of rearrangement of international power, and Brazil is the number one environmental and agricultural power of the world. We know how to play the diplomatic game, and we have everything to return to this arena and occupy a prominent place,” said Etchegoyen.
Beto Veríssimo (Imazon) believes it is necessary to act urgently to avoid turning the rain forest into a savanna, but it’s an illusion to think that zero-deforestation can be obtained by decree. "We need to create a step-by-step transition policy that takes us towards the concept of an Amazon 4.0,” said one of the coordinators of the 2030 Amazon Project, an initiative by Brazilian researchers to develop an action plan for the Amazon. The private sector has a very significant role in the sustainable development of the Amazon, but Brazil (the three branches of power – legislative, executive, and judicial – and the three levels of government – municipal, state, and federal) must set the course. “Either the government has a plan, works to put it into practice, and monitors compliance, or we just keep flapping our gums,” said Veríssimo.
“Brazil once had the ambition to do big and transformative things, but this has been lacking recently. There is an area in the Amazon the size of the state of Paraná that has already been deforested and is literally abandoned. We can reforest this entire area and thus reverse ten years of deforestation. The Amazon is a perfect opportunity for us to think big again and recover our self-esteem as a people and as a nation,” said Amazonian businessman Denis Benchimol Minev, CEO of Lojas Bemol, a retail chain throughout the Northern region of the country.
Minev, who is former Secretary of Planning and Economic Development of the State of Amazonas, explained that the economy of the Amazonian states depends almost exclusively on federal transfers, as there is practically no productive base, and informality and illegality are normal there. “The country's greatest wealth, the Amazon, is practically a beggar. We depend on the federal government for everything; we depend on resources from the Municipal Participation Fund (FPM), Fund for Maintenance and Development of Basic Education and Valuing Education Professionals (FUNDEB), Bolsa Família (Family Allowance, in English—a social welfare program of the Government of Brazil). We need to face the illegalities head-on because here, nobody has title to anything. It's all illegal and informal,” he explained.
“What went wrong in the Amazon?” Minev asked the lawyer and environmental activist Rachel Biderman, Conservation International's Vice President for the Americas. “We have an incredible Federal Constitution and very good environmental legislation, both set the bar high up there, but inspections did not follow through. Instead of investing in forest preservation as a condition for the region's development, we also opted for cattle ranching, agriculture, and mining, all often carried out illegally and in a disorderly manner. Finally, subsidies for the region are dysfunctional, which do not take the region's natural vocation into account,” said Biderman.
Biderman, who’s also the co-facilitator of the Brazilian Coalition on Climate, Forests and Agriculture believes that “the preservation of the Amazon depends on looking carefully at the frontiers of deforestation, but also on greater synergy with the eight countries with which we share the forest.” She asked Raul Jungmann about the reasons for mistrust between the military and environmentalists. “With the strong notion of sovereignty over the territory, the Armed Forces believe that the environmental discourse is externally motivated. It is also necessary to recognize that environmentalists have some resistance to having the military in the Amazon. How does one overcome that?” She asked the former defense minister.
“The Armed Forces have been in the Amazon for centuries. They know the region deeply and, without their participation, we are not going anywhere in terms of protecting the forest. Likewise, we will not be successful without a consistent environmental vision. Therefore, it is essential to reduce resistance and mistrust and promote convergence between the military, activists, and environmental organizations. The only way to align national sovereignty with the global climate issue is the sustainable development of the Amazon. We are committed to this,” said Jungmann, president of IREE Soberania e Clima, co-organizer of the event.
“It is clear that we need to find a balance between taking care of the largest still-preserved forest on the planet and the survival and dignity of the people who live there. It's easy to say, but it's hard to do. It is better for us Brazilians to agree on a coherent and consistent policy than to let foreigners do it for us,” said the former Brazilian president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
Otávio Dias is a journalist specializing in politics and international affairs. A former correspondent for Folha in London and editor of the estadao.com.br website, he is currently the content editor at Fundação FHC.
Portuguese to English translation by Melissa Harkin & Todd Harkin (Harkin Translations)