“Which country in the world has an environmental preservation policy like ours? You are invited to get to know our Amazon.”
The question followed by an invitation was asked before heads of state around the world by President Jair Bolsonaro (PL) in his speech at the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) last year.
The Amazon was part of all three of Bolsonaro’s speeches at the UN and may be mentioned in this year’s speech, scheduled for this Tuesday (20).
Bolsonaro is expected to arrive in New York on Monday night (19), after attending the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, in London. As usual, the Brazilian head of state will be the first to speak at the debate session of the UN General Assembly.
But at a time when Bolsonaro will address leaders around the world, the data register highs in the number of fires and deforestation in the region, putting the government’s rhetoric in check.
The system that monitors fires from the National Institute for Special Research (Inpe) detected 74,700 fires in the Amazon biome between January 1 and September 17 of this year (data are available with a delay of two days).
Compared to the same period last year, the increase is 51%. Analyzing the historical series, it is the highest number of fires in the Amazon in this period since 2010.
The situation is so serious that, according to the G1 portal, Inpe’s satellites recorded, in early September, a cloud of smoke spread over an area of 5 million square kilometers, equivalent to 58% of the entire area of Brazil, which is 8.5 million square kilometers.
Deforestation on the rise
In terms of deforestation, the scenario is also up. According to Inpe’s Prodes system, which measures deforestation in the Amazon annually, in the first three years of the Bolsonaro government, the rate of forest destruction was over 10,000 kilometers per year.
In the period between August 2020 and July 2021, accumulated deforestation reached 13 thousand square kilometers, equivalent to almost nine times the city of São Paulo.
In 2022, the data shows that the trend continues upward. According to the Real Time Detection system (Deter), also run by Inpe, 1,600 kilometers of forest were deforested in the Amazon in August this year, an increase of 81% compared to the same month in 2021. It is the second highest rate since 2015.
In addition to the increase in fires and deforestation, the Bolsonaro administration is also marked by support for garimpo activities and mining in now protected areas (the Executive sent a bill to the National Congress to regulate mining on indigenous lands) and the difficulties in the collection of environmental fines.
During his election campaign in 2018, Bolsonaro promised to end what he classified as the “fine industry” in the environmental area.
In 2019, the government promoted changes in environmental inspection rules, such as the creation of conciliation centers.
From then on, environmental violators had the possibility to wait for a conciliation hearing with IBAMA before the fines actually took effect.
Environmentalists criticized the measure on the grounds that it could delay the punishment of environmental crimes and lead to the statute of limitations for most fines, when the state is no longer able to collect the fine or punish the violator.
The government defended the measure claiming that it would speed up the receipt of amounts owed and avoid the lengthy bureaucratic process.
In August of this year, BBC News Brasil published a report showing that R$ 300 million in environmental fines may expire in 2022. Experts consulted claim that the creation of conciliation centers may be related to this number.
At the time, IBAMA did not comment on the matter.
Last week, BBC News Brasil also questioned Ibama, the Ministries of the Environment, the Presidency and Vice-Presidency of the Republic about the country’s environmental policy and the data presented by Inpe, but there was no response.
Amazon and sovereignty
The history of Bolsonaro’s speeches at the UN shows that the Amazon was one of the most strongly mentioned topics by him over the years.
In the first speech, in 2019, the term “Amazon” appeared six times. The tone mixed the defense of national sovereignty and the country’s environmental policy.
At the time, Brazil was being criticized by the international community due to the increase in the number of fires in the region. In August of that year, French President Emmanuel Macron posted on his Twitter profile a photo of a burning of the Amazon and saying: “Our house is burning. The Amazon forest.”
In his speech, Bolsonaro reacted and even said, without presenting evidence, that part of the fires would be carried out by indigenous peoples.
He also acknowledged that Brazil had problems, but criticized what he called “sensationalist attacks” driven by a “colonial spirit”.
“It is a fallacy to say that the Amazon is a patrimony of humanity and a mistake, as scientists attest, to say that our forest is the lungs of the world. Using these fallacies, one country or another, instead of helping, embarked on media lies and behaved disrespectfully, with a colonialist spirit,” Bolsonaro said at the time.
In 2020, even in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the environmental agenda took more space in Bolsonaro’s speech than the health agenda.
The excerpt dedicated entirely to Covid-19 had 418 words. The section on the environment had 518.
That year, Bolsonaro again attributed part of the fires to indigenous peoples and rebutted criticism from other countries of Brazilian environmental policy.
“We are victims of one of the most brutal campaigns of disinformation about the Amazon and the Pantanal. The Brazilian Amazon is known to be very rich. This explains the support of international institutions for this campaign, supported by hidden interests that join Brazilian associations, profiteers and unpatriotic. , with the objective of harming the Government and Brazil itself”, he said.
In 2021, the agenda was also present in Bolsonaro’s speech, but was in the background. There were only two mentions of the term “Amazon”.
In addition to defending the government’s environmental policy, Bolsonaro emphasized that 83% of the country’s energy matrix is from renewable sources.
‘Achilles heel’ and ‘antidote’
Sources from Itamaraty with whom BBC News Brasil spoke assess that deforestation in the Amazon is, in fact, the “Achilles heel” of the Brazilian government’s environmental management.
To counterbalance and create a kind of discursive “antidote”, diplomats recommended that the president include in his speech this year the achievements in the environmental area of his administration. Among them is the presentation of Brazil’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) at the 2021 United Nations Climate Conference, COP26.
The government has promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 37% by 2025 (based on 2005 data), a 43% reduction by 2030 and neutrality in emissions by 2050. Diplomats assess the Brazilian target as bolder than the some developed countries such as the United States. Despite this, in Brazil, it is the target of criticism from environmentalists.
They consider that before announcing the new NDC, the government carried out a technical review of the country’s total emissions in 2005. This review would allow Brazil to emit 200 million to 400 million more tons of carbon dioxide by 2030.
Former president of Ibama and current senior public policy specialist at the non-governmental organization Observatório do Clima, Suely Araújo, says that Bolsonaro will arrive in New York with a legacy of “complete implosion of environmental policy” in Brazil.
“The Bolsonaro government leaves a legacy of complete implosion of environmental policy, practically deconstructing forty years in four in this field of public policies. In addition to losing control of deforestation in the Amazon and other biomes, they stimulated invasion of indigenous lands, gave support to the illegal mining, delegitimized environmental agencies and their agents,” he said.
In Suely Araújo’s assessment, Bolsonaro will find it difficult to convince the international community about the success of his environmental policy.
“It is impossible to convince anyone that the current government paid attention to the Amazon or other biomes. […] The reality is very destructive. False narratives and simulacra of government actions have zero chance of sustaining themselves with the international community,” said the expert.
The coordinator of Politics and Law at the Instituto Socioambiental, Adriana Ramos, said that Bolsonaro would have been “consistent” in his environmental management with what he promised during the campaign.
“We are approaching the end of Bolsonaro’s first term with a policy for the Amazon that is consistent with everything he defended. A policy that did not fight crime, that denied deforestation, fires and that defended illegal activities such as mining “, evaluated Adriana Ramos.
Like Suely Araújo, Adriana Ramos says that it would be impossible to convince the international community given the current data on the Amazon.
“There is no way to defend the management of the Amazon in the face of everything he said and the data we have available. He will never be able to convince the international community that he took good care of the Amazon,” he said.
BBC News Brasil sent questions on the matter to the Ministries of the Environment, of International Relations, to the Presidency and Vice-President of the Republic, but none of them responded.
This text was originally published on the BBC News Brazil website.