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COP26: Don’t Be Fooled by Bolsonaro’s Pledges

Brazil Still Lacks Credible Plan to Save Rainforest as Amazon Crisis Persists

Fires near Novo Progresso, Brazil on August 23, 2020, burned land deforested by cattle farmers. © 2020 Andre Penner/AP Images

A previous version of this news release was published in Portuguese on November 1. This version has been updated.

(Sao Paulo) – Brazil’s climate commitments and policies fall far short of what is needed to address the environmental and human rights crisis in the Amazon rainforest, Human Rights Watch said today. Brazil’s delegation arrived in Glasgow for the global summit on climate change with a national climate action plan that is less ambitious than its original one from 2016, and with new forest conservation goals that lack an operational plan for implementation. 

On October 25, 2021, Environment Minister Joaquim Leite announced a “National Green Growth Program” to advance sustainable development and promote forest conservation, touting Brazil’s potential to be a “leader of the new global green agenda." On November 1, the Brazilian delegation to the United Nations Climate Conference (COP26) announced a new climate action plan – a “Nationally Determined Contribution” or NDC – that does not represent an increase in ambition in relation to its first plan submitted in 2016.  

“The Bolsonaro government now wants the world to think it is committed to saving the rainforest,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “But these commitments cannot be taken seriously given its disastrous record and failure to present credible plans for making urgently needed progress in fighting deforestation.”

The “Green Growth” program does not require adoption of an operational plan for its implementation until September 2022, and while “protecting biodiversity” and “reducing greenhouse gas emissions” are among its stated objectives, it does not include an explicit commitment to reduce deforestation, the main driver of Brazil’s emissions.

At Glasgow, Brazilian representatives also committed to end illegal deforestation by 2028, but the government has not presented an operational plan to deliver on this goal. The government also has not presented a plan for protecting forest defenders and prosecuting the environmental crimes and related acts of violence committed by the criminal networks driving the destruction of the Amazon. The Bolsonaro government also continues to maintain a hostile stance towards Indigenous peoples’ rights, promoting the adoption of several legislative initiatives that would arbitrarily curtail their rights to their territories, which are among the best protected forests in the Amazon.      

Since taking office in January 2019, the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro has weakened environmental law enforcement, effectively encouraging criminal networks that drive deforestation and that use threats and violence against forest defenders. Those responsible for these attacks are rarely brought to justice.

Deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon increased dramatically during Bolsonaro’s first two years in office. While preliminary estimates suggest a slight drop in deforestation in 2021 compared with 2020, the dire trend has hardly been reversed. With 10,800 square kilometers having been clear cut last year, Brazil is far from meeting its prior commitment of reducing deforestation in the Amazon to 3,925 square kilometers per year by 2020.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is pushing the rainforest toward an irreversible tipping point that, if crossed, could cause it to dry out, releasing billions of tons of carbon dioxide, disturbing weather patterns across South America, and decimating agriculture.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental economic organization, canceled a discussion about upgrading Brazil’s status on its environment committee because of President Bolsonaro’s policies, negatively affecting Brazil’s ambitions to join the organization as a permanent member.

Several European leaders have said they would not ratify a pending trade agreement between the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, unless Brazil reduced Amazon deforestation and forest fires. A billionaire fund stopped selling assets from the Brazilian meat giant JBS in 2020 due to the high risk of illegal deforestation in its supply chains. A group of 15 United States senators signed a public letter in April stating that US military and economic cooperation with Brazil – including support for Brazil’s OECD bid – should be conditioned on Brazil demonstrating results in reducing deforestation and ending impunity for crimes against local forest defenders.

After two years of downplaying the Amazon crisis and dismissing calls for action, the Bolsonaro administration changed the tone of its public statements in 2021. In April, at the climate summit hosted by US President Joe Biden, Bolsonaro pledged for the first time to curb deforestation and increase resources for environmental law enforcement. In September, at the United Nations General Assembly, he acknowledged that Brazil had “environmental challenges” and said the government was combatting illegal deforestation. Brazil’s international partners should press the Brazilian government to take immediate steps to reverse the environmental destruction encouraged over the past two years:

  • Specifically, Brazil should Submit a reviewed national climate action plan (NDC) that is more ambitious than its 2016 plan and aligns with the goals of the Paris Agreement;
  • Produce a plan with concrete, operational steps and measurable targets to dramatically reduce deforestation, protect forest defenders, and prosecute environmental crimes and related acts of violence.

“Brazil is completely out of step with the growing international consensus on the need to preserve forests and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said Daniel Wilkinson, Acting Director of the Environment and Human Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. “Its pledges mean very little without concrete and credible operational plans for meeting them.”

Brazil’s Empty Promises

Rising Greenhouse Gas Emissions
In April, President Bolsonaro pledged that Brazil would reach climate neutrality in 2050 instead of 2060, which would be an improvement compared with its 2020 plan, but the commitment has not been formalized in law or policy. Nor are there policies detailing intermediate, short-term targets that would enable Brazil to reach that goal. Instead, its emissions have sharply risen, including during the pandemic, according to the most recent estimates.

Brazil’s emissions in 2020 were higher than any other year since 2006. Land use change activities, including converting forests to agriculture fields or pasture for cattle, accounted for 46 percent of Brazil’s emissions in 2020, according to an analysis by the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Estimates System (SEEG), a collective of scientists from Brazilian and international environmental organizations. Emissions from deforestation in the Amazon rainforest and the Cerrado wooded savannah made up 90 percent of emissions from land use change.

The emissions from agriculture and cattle-raising, the leading drivers of deforestation in the country, accounted for 27 percent of overall emissions and increased by 2.5 percent from the previous year, reaching its highest level ever measured, even as the government carried out a plan intended reduce pollution from the sector, SEEG found.

Regressive Climate Action Plan
In its December 2020 climate action plan, Brazil reiterated the same emissions reduction goals as in its 2016 plan, rather than establishing more ambitious targets, as the Paris Agreement required. Moreover, the plan increased the baseline value against which reductions are calculated, allowing Brazil to appear to meet its targets while making significantly smaller emissions reductions than originally pledged.  

The new plan also removed the commitment in the previous plan to reach zero illegal deforestation by 2030. In April 2021, President Bolsonaro pledged that Brazil would reach climate neutrality in 2050 instead of 2060, which would be an improvement over the 2020 plan. But the commitment has not been formalized in law or policy, and the latest estimates show that Brazil’s emissions have sharply risen, contrary to this stated objective.

The Climate Action Tracker, which provides independent scientific analysis, rated Brazil’s 2020 overall plan “highly insufficient” to meet the Paris Agreement goal to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. If all other countries had plans similar to Brazil’s , warming would reach over 4°C by the end of the century. 

The latest plan submitted at COP26 partially addressed the rollbacks that the 2020 submission introduced, but does not represent an increase in ambition in relation to the 2016 plan.

Inadequate Environmental Plans

In the lead up to COP26, President Bolsonaro and several of his ministers announced a “National Green Growth Program” on October 25 at an event in the presidential palace. The program, officially adopted through a presidential decree, states its aim as promoting “the conservation of forests and the protection of biodiversity” and “reduc[ing] greenhouse gas emissions.” However, the decree provides that an operating plan to carry out the program would not have to be adopted until September 30, 2022, potentially postponing implementation for a year.

In April, the Amazon Council, a body created by presidential decree in February 2020 and headed by the vice president, adopted a plan to reduce deforestation to 8,670 square kilometers annually in the Amazon by 2022. This would be a reduction from the last official estimate of 10,800 square kilometers in 2020. However, it is still 15 percent higher than deforestation in 2018, before Bolsonaro took office, and nowhere near the 3,925 square kilometer mark that Brazil was to reach in 2020, based on prior climate commitments. No formal commitment has been made to continue to reduce  deforestation by a specific figure after 2022.

Preliminary figures suggest that deforestation may drop 5 percent in the Amazon from 2020. However, preliminary figures usually underestimate final estimates by several thousand square kilometers.


August 2015 – July 2016

August 2016 – July 2017

August 2017 – July 2018

August 2018 – July 2019

August 2019 – July 2020

August 2020 – July 2021


DETER Preliminary Deforestation Estimates in the Legal Amazon, Brazil (sq km)









PRODES Final Deforestation Estimates in the Legal Amazon, Brazil (sq km)








Sources: Brazil’s National Space Research Agency (INPE) Deforestation of the Legal Amazon Satellite Monitoring Project (PRODES) and Real-Time Deforestation Detection System (DETER). The final estimates are provided as a consolidated annual figure for the period August through July.

In May 2020, the Environment Ministry published a national plan through 2023 for “controlling” illegal deforestation in all biomes. The plan did not establish targets to reduce deforestation, however. The operational plan to carry out the commitment, published almost a year later, did not set such targets either. It stated “reducing deforestation and perfecting environmental enforcement” as an objective. The only indicator noted to track progress was the number of environmental law enforcement actions conducted by the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio) – one of the Environment Ministry’s agencies – in lands designated as federal conservation units, and not whether deforestation in these areas actually diminished.

While protecting conservation units is important, these lands accounted only for 12.4 percent of all deforestation in Brazil in 2020, and the plan fails to establish actual goals for reducing deforestation even in these areas. The plan also does not provide short- or long-term goals to measure progress in reducing deforestation in other areas under pressure, such as undesignated public forests or Indigenous territories.

At Glasgow, Brazilian representatives committed to ending illegal deforestation by 2028, but the government is yet to present an operational plan to deliver on this goal, or to protect forest defenders and prosecute the environmental crimes and related acts of violence committed by the criminal networks driving the destruction of the Amazon.

Violence and Intimidation Against Forest Defenders
Indigenous peoples and local communities have always played an important role in efforts to protect the environment. However, the retreat of environmental enforcement officials during the Bolsonaro administration and impunity for environmental crime put frontline communities at greater risk as criminal networks use violence and intimidation against forest defenders who report or oppose their activities.

In the Tapajós basin, an epicenter of illegal gold mining in the Amazon, Munduruku communities that oppose extractive activities in their lands have faced threats and intimidation. In May, for example, people engaged in illegal mining sought to impede an environmental law enforcement operation and set fire to houses belonging to an Indigenous leader and her family.

Public officials, Indigenous leaders, and other local residents who spoke with Human Rights Watch in October said that the situation of forest defenders in the Amazon has worsened under the Bolsonaro administration, as many criminal groups feel empowered to pursue their illegal activities.

In Indigenous territories, which are protected areas, illegal invasions, logging, land grabbing, and other incursions in Indigenous lands increased by 137 percent, in 2020, compared with the year before President Bolsonaro took office, according to the Indigenist Missionary Council, a nonprofit organization with offices across Brazil.

Under this administration, deforestation in Indigenous lands is the highest its been in during the past decade, and 2019 marked the worst year in Indigenous territories at least since 2008, according to official data.

In July 2021, a federal oversight body released an assessment that concluded that public statements from federal authorities, in particular from the president, dismissing the accomplishments of the government’s environmental agencies have harmed the enforcement efforts of the Environment Ministry’s Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), potentially encouraged deforestation, and coincided with increasing reports of threats and violence against environmental enforcement agents.

The National Association of Environmental Careers, an association that represents agents from the Environment Ministry and its environmental enforcement agencies IBAMA and ICMBio, filed a petition in August with  federal prosecutors offices alleging “harassment” of agents by senior officials  The petition cites 64 cases of harassment and retaliation, among other practices that interfered with their work.



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