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Letter to OECD Ambassadors on the Environmental and Human Rights Crisis in the Brazilian Amazon

Dear Ambassadors,

Following press reports that the OECD is considering granting Brazil’s request to open accession discussions, and the announcement that deforestation has dramatically risen for the third consecutive year in the Amazon, we urge you to send a clear signal to the government of President Jair Bolsonaro that reducing deforestation in the Amazon, as well as demonstrating concrete results in reducing impunity for violence against forest defenders and for environmental crimes, are essential steps to initiate this process and eventually gain permanent membership.

Since our letter to you in January, there has been a change in the tone of the Bolsonaro government. High level officials, including President Bolsonaro, pledged to fight illegal deforestation and made new commitments at the climate summit in Glasgow. However, their actions continue to fall far short of what is needed to address the environmental and human rights crisis in the Amazon rainforest: last week, Brazilian authorities revealed that between August 2020 and July 2021, more than 13,000 square kilometers of rainforest were cleared, a 22 percent increase in relation to the previous year and the highest rate in fifteen years.

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

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.

At Glasgow, Brazilian representatives committed to end illegal deforestation by 2028, but the federal government has not presented an operational plan to deliver on this goal – and, most importantly, deforestation in the Amazon has increased dramatically on its watch. The federal 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. The Bolsonaro government has not demarcated a single Indigenous territory since it took office, even though the federal government is obligated to do so under Brazil’s Constitution. Between 2004 and 2012, when Brazil slashed deforestation in the Amazon by 80 percent, the demarcation and protection of Indigenous territories was a key tool to curb deforestation, according to policy makers in government who oversaw these successful efforts. Research in following years has shown that in the face of overall rising deforestation, Indigenous stewardship has continued to result in better preserved forests in their territories in relation to other comparable areas.

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. In July of this year, a federal oversight body concluded that the public statements of senior government officials, in particular President Bolsonaro, have undermined environmental law enforcement and potentially contributed to rising deforestation and an increasingly intimidating environment for forest defenders.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has increased dramatically during Bolsonaro’s first three years in office. in 2021, deforestation increased 22 percent in relation to the previous year, and hit its highest level in 15 years, according to official data released on November 18. (Scientists in charge of elaborating the estimates presented their conclusions on October 27, but the federal government reportedly withheld the figures to sidestep criticism while at COP26.) With 13,235 square kilometers having been clear cut from August 2020 through July 2021, Brazil is far from meeting its prior commitment of reducing deforestation in the Amazon to 3,925 square kilometers per year by 2020.[1]

Continuous deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon paired with climate change is increasingly pushing the rainforest toward an irreversible tipping point that, if crossed, could cause vast areas to dry out, releasing billions of tons of carbon dioxide, disturbing weather patterns across South America, and decimating agriculture. A groundbreaking study published in July this year concluded some areas of the Amazon, particularly in Brazil’s northeast where most deforestation is taking place, are already releasing more carbon than they absorb.

In this context, we welcome the OECD-Brazil report “Evaluating Brazil’s progress in implementing Environmental Performance Review recommendations and promoting its alignment with OECD core acquis on the environment” released this year. Human Rights Watch shares the report’s assessment that “increasing deforestation rates and other strong pressures on Brazil’s natural wealth require more efforts at all levels of governments” to implement the country’s existing environmental legislation. Currently, nearly all deforestation in Brazil can be presumed to be illegal or irregular.

Below we offer recommendations that would enable Brazil to take steps towards applying a policy framework “aimed at ensuring efficient long-term conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and its related resources”, in line with Recommendation of the Council on the Use of Economic Instruments in Promoting the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity (OECD/LEGAL/0326) and the roadmap laid out in this year’s report, as well as with the Secretariat’s priority to “drive and promote global leadership on ambitious and effective action on climate change to achieve global net-zero emissions by 2050”.

OECD member states should press the Brazilian government to take immediate steps to reverse the environmental destruction encouraged over the past three 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 to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels;
  • 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; and
  • Resume demarcation of Indigenous territories and withdraw support for legislative initiatives that would arbitrarily curtail the rights of Indigenous people to their territories and lead to increased deforestation.

 

Analysis of Brazil’s 2021 policies and commitments to address deforestation and climate change

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. Instead, however, emissions have sharply risen, even as global emissions lowered overall as a result of the Covid-19 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, while not as regressive as the 2020 submission, still does not represent an increase in ambition in relation to the 2016 plan, as it does not pledge a larger reduction of emissions.

Inadequate Environmental Plans

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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. Deforestation increased by 22 percent in 2021, and hit its highest level in 15 years, according to data released on November 18, indicating the federal government is not even on track to meet these modest objectives.

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 front-line communities at greater risk as criminal networks are reportedly even more emboldened to use violence and intimidation against forest defenders who 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 non-profit 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.

 

[1] Brazil pledged at the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as the Copenhagen Summit, to reduce deforestation in the Amazon region by 80 percent by 2020 compared to average annual deforestation in the region between 1996 and 2005. That average was 19,625 square kilometers, which means that to achieve its pledge, Brazil would have to reduce deforestation to 3,925 square kilometers per year by 2020. Brazil established a National Policy on Climate Change by law in 2009, implemented by Decree 7,390 in 2010, which was replaced by Decree 9,578 in 2018. The decrees incorporated into domestic law the pledge that Brazil made at the Copenhagen Summit. Law 12,187, December 29, 2009, http://www.planalto.gov.br/ccivil_03/_ato2007-2010/2009/lei/l12187.htm (accessed June 30, 2019); Decree 9,578, November 22, 2018, http://www.planalto.gov.br/ccivil_03/_Ato2015-2018/2018/Decreto/D9578.htm (accessed January 26, 2021).

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