Brazil has strict environmental laws on the books, but enforcement budgets and campaigns were slashed after Bolsonaro took office this year. Sometimes called “the Tropical Trump,” Bolsonaro dubbed environmental enforcement an impediment to economic growth during his election campaign.
Salles said his trip also aimed to promote “a bio- economy agenda”. He said Brazil was inviting investment from global pharmaceutical companies, cosmetic-makers and other industries to develop methods to harvest plant-based materials from standing forests to produce makeup, oils, chemicals and other goods.
Salles, a lawyer, said that to protect the Amazon, Brazil needed stronger laws and procedures to guard intellectual property rights for companies developing industries that will extract resources from, but not level, forests. Within six months, the government would launch a new Amazon fund to attract investment from the private sector, he said.
“We need to give the financial and tax incentives,” he said. “The private sector needs to be involved in this effort in developing products and supply chains related to the bio-economy. It can generate jobs, opportunities and income, and then it’s the main source of revenue to keep the forest preserves.”
Carlos Rittl, a tropical biologist and the executive secretary of the Brazilian Climate Observatory, a coalition of civil society groups in Sao Paulo, questioned the rationale and sincerity behind this approach.
“How can we be sure that the nice word of ‘bio-economy’ is compatible with sustainable development?” he said. “There is nothing sustainable so far about what this government has done in terms of policies and actions related to the Amazon.”
Satellite data from the Brazilian Space Agency has shown a sharp increase in deforestation and forest fires over the past year. In August, the space agency issued an alert that fires in the Amazon had increased 84 per cent in the first seven months of this year, compared with the same period in 2018.
Salles quibbled about the satellite maps, saying that cloud cover could obscure readings. “They couldn’t see due to the clouds, because the Amazon has a lot of clouds,” he said.
However, scientists say that the data is reliable and that Brazil’s space agency is one of the most respected in the world.
“The problem is very severe. There are almost zero natural fires in the Amazon,” said Carlos Nobre, a climate scientist at the University of Sao Paulo. “The fires happen because people are deliberately lighting fires to clear land for new cropland or cattle pasture.”
Facing global scrutiny over deforestation, the government has in the last month launched a new crackdown. “We have an unprecedented mobilisation of the federal forces at this moment, from the past almost 30 days” to curb illegal deforestation, Salles said.
Observers wonder whether the intention is to safeguard the rainforest or generate positive publicity.
“They changed their political speech, but only because of the global outcry,” said Nobre. “It doesn’t necessarily match the facts on the ground.”
Next week, Bolsonaro is expected to speak at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York. Salles said the President’s remarks will aim to “present the reality of the Brazilian environmental situation, which is very sustainable.”
Rittl said looking for ways to boost agriculture that is compatible with preserving the forests is an idea with merit. The harvesting of Brazil nuts, for example, has provided work and income in standing rainforests.
The publication, founded by Glenn Greenwald and run out of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, said the documents and leaked presentation audio recordings showed the government believed it necessary to develop infrastructure that would “bring guaranteed returns, such as hydroelectric plants and roads, to guarantee the area’s development” and the government’s oversight of it.
On Friday, schoolchildren worldwide joined a school strike for climate action, urging leaders to take seriously the urgency of addressing climate change.
Salles said he supported the role of youth activism. “My children are also concerned,” he said.
AP, The Age