Should Biden trust Bolsonaro when it comes to the Amazon?

Since Jair Bolsonaro took office as Brazilian president at the beginning of 2019, it has been abundantly clear that environmental conservation would not be on the agenda. Indeed, after crisis after crisis in the Amazon, the administration issued its very first target to reduce deforestation — and it was suitably underwhelming.

Vice President Hamilton Mourão promised to reduce deforestation rates to “the yearly average between 2016 and 2020,” or 8,700 square kilometers a year. Before the Bolsonaro government took office, Brazil registered 7,500 square kilometers of deforestation a year.

In short, the “target” is not to cut deforestation — it is to leave it 16 percent higher than when President Bolsonaro won the election.

The environment is the major sticking point between the Brazilian government and U.S. President Joe Biden, who is seeking to make climate pledges the legacy of his nascent term in office. 

During last year’s debates, the Bolsonaro government ridiculed Mr. Biden’s declarations on the Amazon, laughing down his offer of USD 20 billion in aid and condemning him for his threats of sanctions. But the Bolsonaro administration believed Donald Trump was a shoo-in for re-election, and is now going to Mr. Biden cap in hand.

Ahead of a Climate Leaders Summit later this month, Jair Bolsonaro promised the U.S. he would end illegal deforestation by 2030, providing that he gets enough foreign aid. Despite being purely words in the wind, as we say in Brazil, it shows that the current Brazilian administration is worried about potential sanctions, not with the Amazon itself. In Brazil, sometimes the right thing happens for the wrong reasons. 

Meanwhile, civil society is in an uproar, fearing that the U.S. may be about to write a blank check for one of the most environmentally destructive Brazilian governments in recent memory. Should Bolsonaro be trusted?

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