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Brazil’s Amazon Governors: Deliver Results to Secure Support

International Funding Largely Depends on Reducing Deforestation, Protecting Rights

Governors and vice-governors of Brazil’s Amazon states at the 17th Forum of Governors of the Legal Amazon, March 2019. © 2019  Marcelo Loureiro / Secom ©

(São Paulo) – The governors of Brazilian Amazon states should take immediate measures to deliver on their pledges to curb illegal deforestation, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The success of the governors’ efforts to secure international funding for their states will largely depend on their ability to demonstrate real progress in protecting rights and addressing the escalating destruction of the Amazon, even as the federal government of President Jair Bolsonaro continues to sabotage environmental law enforcement.

Human Rights Watch, in a letter to the Amazon Governors Consortium, said that states should investigate violence linked to environmental crimes; disclose information needed for law enforcement action on the cattle supply chain, the main driver of deforestation in the Amazon; and cancel fraudulent land claims that encroach on Indigenous lands and other protected areas. These measures would signal to criminal networks driving environmental destruction and violence in the Amazon that states will not turn a blind eye to their illegal activities.

“While the federal government’s policies are largely to blame for the accelerating destruction of Brazil’s rainforest, the state governments in the Amazon also have a crucial role to play in fighting deforestation and protecting local forest defenders,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “The federal government’s failure to act makes it all the more urgent that the states step up to fulfill this obligation.”

The administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, who took office in 2019, has sabotaged Brazil’s environmental law enforcement agencies, harassed and sought to marginalize civil society organizations, and weakened the protection of Indigenous territories. His anti-environmental rhetoric and policies have effectively given a green light to the criminal networks that are driving much of the illegal logging, mining, and land invasions in the Amazon.

The Bolsonaro government is also promoting changes in the law to provide large scale amnesty for land invasions, encouraging deforestation, and to severely curtail Indigenous peoples’ land rights, in contravention of international human rights law.

The mounting environmental destruction and related rights setbacks have tarnished Brazil’s image abroad. The European Union has indicated the Amazon crisis is a major factor in the delay in the ratification of a commercial agreement with Mercosur, a South American trading block of which Brazil is the largest market. Failure to address the crisis has also hindered the country’s aspirations to become a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and investment funds and supermarkets have threatened to boycott Brazilian agricultural commodities linked to deforestation. 

Given the Bolsonaro administration’s record, and the crucial role that state-level agencies have in addressing the Amazon crisis, Human Rights Watch has urged foreign governments, including the United States, to offer assistance directly to states to support their efforts to address the crisis.

In April, the United States, the United Kingdom and Norway along with major businesses initiated the Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest finance (LEAF) Coalition. The coalition is pledging at least US$1 billion for governments, including subnational governments such as the Amazon states, that can demonstrate they are reducing greenhouse gas emissions from tropical deforestation and forest degradation, which effectively requires them to reduce deforestation rates.

To be eligible for funding, the Coalition says, jurisdictions must ensure the “full and effective” participation of Indigenous peoples and local communities and uphold land tenure rights in their deforestation reduction projects. Amazon states have welcomed the initiative and some have reportedly taken steps towards submitting applications.

Citing Human Rights Watch research, in April, 15 US senators – including the chairs of Senate committees that play a major role in shaping foreign policy – made clear in a letter to President Joe Biden that any such assistance should be conditioned on Brazilian authorities making significant and sustained progress on reducing deforestation and ending impunity for environmental crimes and acts of intimidations and violence against forest defenders. Subsequently, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change John Kerry and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken have echoed the call for results.

It is encouraging that the Amazon Governors Consortium is seeking to build alliances with the international community to support conservation and sustainable development that benefits the millions of Brazilians residing in the Amazon, Human Rights Watch said. Some states have already made progress in curbing deforestation, and some have sought to increase the sustainability of agricultural commodities produced in the Amazon.

Yet much remains to be done. According to the National Space Research Agency (INPE) PRODES monitoring system, between August 2019 and July 2020 more than 11,000 square kilometers of rainforest were lost, nearly triple the maximum 3,925 square kilometers target that Brazil committed itself to reach by 2020 as part of its National Climate Change Policy. Preliminary estimates by INPE’s DETER monitoring system indicate there between January and May 2021 roughly 2550 square kilometers were deforested, a 25 percent increase in relation to the same period last year. Serious acts of violence and threats against Indigenous leaders in the Tapajós basin and Yanomami Indigenous lands also show the extent to which criminal groups driving the destruction of the Amazon feel emboldened.

Human Rights Watch identified three urgent policy measures that states should adopt to reverse the trend of accelerated deforestation and impunity in their respective jurisdictions. These measures are also conceived with the understanding that state governments are operating with limited resources that have been strained by the Covid-19 pandemic, and thus consist largely of political decisions that could be executed at the governors’ discretion with existing or moderate resources. These measures include the following:

  • Increase transparency of the cattle supply chain to enable law enforcement to detect and suppress illegal cattle ranching in Indigenous lands and other protected areas.
  • Cancel fraudulent land claims that encroach on Indigenous lands and other protected areas.
  • Instruct state police to respond promptly to acts of violence and intimidation linked to illegal deforestation and other environmental crimes.

Human Rights Watch also urged the Consortium to convene the relevant authorities within their states – including civil and military police, public prosecutors’ offices, and environmental agencies – to develop a coordinated strategy for dismantling criminal networks linked to illegal deforestation and violence against defenders. In addition, states should strengthen or create programs for the protection of human rights defenders at risk, ensuring adequate representation of Indigenous peoples and civil society in their governance structure.

“We applaud the commitment that several governors have made to fight illegal deforestation in the Amazon and support their efforts to seek international cooperation to address the crisis in the rainforest,” said Canineu. “However, if governors’ efforts are to succeed, they have to address environmental and human rights issues jointly, and they have to begin delivering results.”

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