The United States’ full-throated support of Latin American dictatorships in the 20th century is well documented. What is harder to understand at a moment when America itself has recently faced an unprecedented attack on its democracy is US President Joe Biden’s apparent embrace of Brazil’s authoritarian leader Jair Bolsonaro. The Biden and Bolsonaro administrations are currently negotiating a multi-billion dollar investment in the Amazon rainforest behind closed doors, the result of which could be announced on April 22 at the US-hosted Leaders Summit on Climate.
As the man responsible for the most damage to the Amazon rainforest and its indigenous peoples since Brazil’s 1964-1985 dictatorship, Bolsonaro is bitter as his popularity drops amid his poor handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many Brazilians see his friendly overtures to the Biden administration as a way to improve his international image and confer legitimacy on a leader accused of genocide by indigenous peoples at the International Criminal Court (ICC). There is also a well-founded suspicion that any US investment will line the pockets of speculators, landowners and mining companies, and feed a support base for his re-election in 2022. It is understandable, necessary and desirable that Biden should want to invest in protecting the rainforest, but it is unfathomable, unbelievable and unacceptable that he should do so by giving money to the greatest enemy of the Amazon and its peoples. Bolsonaro is responsible for the deforestation of more than 18,000 square kilometers of the Amazon since he was elected in 2018, an area equivalent to 30 cities the size of Madrid. Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, who was convicted of environmental crimes in 2018, is the chief negotiator in the Biden charm offensive.
Donald Trump always played nice with Bolsonaro, but he never considered giving his administration a significant amount of money
Last week, 199 Brazilian civil society organizations signed a letter asking Biden to demur from shaking Bolsonaro’s outstretched hand. “The US president has to choose between fulfilling the promise of his inauguration speech or giving Bolsonaro resources and political prestige. It’s impossible to have both,” the letter said. The Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) then released a video in English with the following plea: “Dear Joe, we know the White House is making a secret climate deal with Bolsonaro. We Brazilians must warn you: do not trust Bolsonaro. Do not let this man negotiate the future of the Amazon. He declared war on us, on indigenous peoples. He is spreading Covid, lies and hate. He is an extremist who said your election was a fraud…. It’s either the Amazon or Bolsonaro. You can’t have both. Which side are you on?”
Donald Trump always played nice with Bolsonaro, but he never considered giving his administration a significant amount of money. Any financial support that Biden intends for the rainforest could actually mean giving a right-wing extremist the kind of backing he has only ever dreamed of. If protecting the Amazon is too urgent to wait for the end of this predatory government, those who really take care of it in the face of Bolsonaro’s aggression must be permitted to participate in these negotiations. Any future funds must also be very tightly linked to specific action and tangible results. If these closed-door negotiations continue, Biden could get his hands dirty right when he is trying to lead the democratic world to take real action on the climate crisis. By propping up Bolsonaro, he risks interfering in Brazil’s destiny in a way no US government has done since the dictatorship. The Amazon is ever closer to the edge and urgently needs international cooperation to protect it. For this reason, billions of dollars must not be given to the man who represents the Amazon’s biggest threat, and to his band of rainforest destroyers.
Eliane Brum is a writer, journalist and documentary maker and author of the book ‘Brasil, construtor de ruínas: um olhar sobre o país, de Lula a Bolsonaro.’