Brazil has gotten a bad rap for fires choking up the “lungs of the world” in the Amazon, but the country’s U.S. envoy said critics fail to tell the full story of what he presented as solid environmental stewardship that is only getting stronger.
As the COP26 climate meetings continued in Glasgow, Scotland, Ambassador Nestor Forster took a moment in Atlanta to recount Brazil’s track record on land conservation, biofuel usage and accelerated commitments to carbon neutrality.
He didn’t mention Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro vehement denial recently of Amazon fires, even as his government produced data showing they’re on the rise.
“The perspective I want to bring to you is one based on facts, on data,” Mr. Forster said during a Nov. 4 luncheon with the Atlanta Council on International Relations. “There is no spin here.”
Mr. Forster conceded that illegal logging and related burning has grown since 2013, but he pointed to government figures showing a 30 percent decline in deforestation attributable to these activities during the first four months of this year compared to 2019. In early 2021, Mr. Bolsonaro sent 3,000 troops to crack down on deforestation as criticism of the president’s handling of the crisis mounted.
“The results are there on the ground,” Mr. Forster said.
But he also noted that Brazil faces the “Amazon paradox,” the fact that Brazilians who live in Amazon basin — an area the size of Western Europe that is one of the world’s richest regions in both natural resources and biodiversity — tend to be the country’s poorest inhabitants, including indigenous peoples that have been living off the land for thousands of years.
“So what do we do about it? Do just put a fence around the Amazon, and turn it into a theme park for rich Europeans to go there spend their vacation and feel good about saving the planet and not care about the people who are there? I don’t think that’s the right way.”
The answer, he said, is the framework for sustainable development put forward at the Rio de Janeiro environmental summit in 1992. Brazil must find new ways to include these groups in sustainable economic activities including forestry, eco-tourism, pharmaceuticals, fishing, cosmetics and more, Mr. Forster said.
“There are big challenges on different fronts. We need to be very serious and firm about deforestation, but we cannot forget about 25 million Brazilians who live there,” he said. Also not mentioned was Mr. Bolsonaro’s antagonistic relationship with environmental activists and indigenous groups.
Before rich countries point the finger at Brazil, Mr. Forster said, they should note that some two-thirds of the land in the country is preserved, about half as government-own areas and the other half by private landowners.
Brazilians farming or developing their property are bound by law to preserve natural vegetation on at least 20 percent of it, with the threshold growing more stringent heading from Rio Grande do Sul northward to the Amazon, where it hits 80 percent.
Coupled with land conservation, the country has made huge strides on agriculture and energy that have justified major accelerations in the projected timeline for reaching net-zero emissions.
Instead of 2060, as perviously planned, Brazil has doubled its funding commitment in line with a plan to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, Mr. Bolsonaro announced in April at an Earth Day summit called by U.S. President Joe Biden. That’s in line with the ambitious goals of countries like the United States and 10 and 20 years ahead of China and India, respectively.
At COP26, Brazil also made a number of commitments that come due at the end of this decade. It joined a global pact to limit methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030, as well as committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in general by 50 percent from a 2005 baseline by 2030, up from its previous 43 percent commitment, and moved up the time frame for ending deforestation to 2028.
Mr. Forster conceded it would be easy to make empty commitments but based Brazil’s optimism on data showing efficiency gains in agriculture and quicker-than-expected uptake on renewable energies: 48 percent of Brazil’s power grid comes from renewables, much of it hydropower, while 38 percent of its fuel consumption comes from biofuels.
“It’s not an empty target, an abstract idea, there is something supporting that very clearly,” Mr. Forster said.
He added that “science-based agriculture” enabled by investments in the government-run research organization Embrapa in the 1980s has greatly increased yields while in some cases reducing the amount of land cultivated. Soybean production is up 400 percent from the 1970s, when Brazil was still a net importer of food. Only 33 percent more acreage is devoted to the crop. Since the 1990s, beef production has increased by 140 percent, while land devoted to it had decreased by one-third. Brazilian agricultural exports now feed 1 billion people, about five times its own population.
“This is something that is there to stay — this need for more food will not go away, and Brazil is set to play tremendous role in addressing this worldwide need, and I think there’s tremendous areas for cooperation in the U.S. both at the federal level and then at the state level in that regard.”
Georgia would be well-positioned, given the growth of Brazilian agribusiness firms in the state in recent years.
Coming off the signing of a memorandum of understanding with South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, the first of its kind between Brazil and a U.S. state, Mr. Forster said he would be interested in striking a similar deal with Georgia.
In addition to the ACIR forum, the ambassador’s busy three days in the state included a meeting with Gov. Brian Kemp, a roundtable discussion with business leaders at the Metro Atlanta Chamber, a reception with the World Affairs Council of Atlanta and a visit to Brazilian manufacturer WEG Electric in Suwanee, which is celebrating 30 years in the United States.
Mr. Forster noted that Brazil’s economy is expected to grow 5.2 percent this year in comparison to 2020 as the hard-hit country — second only to the U.S. in deaths attributable to COVID-19 — comes out of the worst of the pandemic.
After outlining substantial targeted cash transfers that boosted 67 million people during the pandemic, he added that 95 percent of Brazilians have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, with 70 percent fully vaccinated.
“We just don’t have the phenomenon of vaccine hesitancy in Brazil,” he said.
Georgia recently hit the 50 percent mark for full vaccinations among its adult population.
To wrap up my stay in Georgia, I visited in Duluth the manufacturing facilities of @weg_usa. A global leader in the electric machinery industry, WEG was founded in the state of Santa Catarina in 1961 and, thanks to the vision of its founders, is celebrating 30 years in the U.S. pic.twitter.com/SbnwD5DP5X
— Nestor Forster Jr. (@BRAmbassadorUS) November 6, 2021
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