How can Brazilian foreign policy address the environmental crisis in the Amazon and Cerrado? Invasions of indigenous lands, illegal logging and the rampant expansion of illegal mining have caused unprecedented destruction and degradation in these regions, with serious consequences for the populations that live there.
Since the beginning of Jair Bolsonaro’s government, the Amazon has registered record rates of deforestation. In the first quarter of 2022 alone, 941.34 square kilometers of forest were cut down — the equivalent to nine times the size of Paris — in just three months.
Rivers are contaminated by mercury from mining; the air is polluted by fires caused by human action. Environmental destruction and climate denialism have contributed to Brazil’s isolation on the international stage.
In turn, the impunity surrounding environmental crimes fuels threats and violent attacks on those who defend the environment and land, making Brazil the fourth most violent country in the world for environmental defenders — precisely those who are on the front line in protecting endangered biomes.
According to “The Last Line of Defense” report by Global Witness, published in 2021, 20 environmental defenders were murdered in Brazil, most of them in the Amazon region. Such attacks quickly become international issues — condemned, for example, by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Regional Office for South America.
These alarming numbers are the result of an ongoing federal government-led process of dismantling of the institutions in charge of monitoring and protecting the forest, which have faced successive budget cuts and a reduction in the number of employees with technical experience in the environmental area.
However, they are also a consequence of Brazil’s inaction at the international level, including in relation to the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, known as the Escazú Agreement.
The agreement, signed in 2018, currently has 24 signatures and 12 ratifications by countries that include Mexico and Argentina. Its first Conference of the Parties (COP) took place between the 20th and 22nd of April 2022, in Santiago, Chile. Brazil participated only as an observer. This is because, although Brazil signed the document during the presidency of Michel Temer, the government of Jair Bolsonaro has refused to submit the agreement to ratification by the National Congress.
While Brazil was in Chile as a secondary player, many Latin American countries have already realized that Escazú provides a unique opportunity to deal with three central problems — the lack of transparency on environmental issues, the violence against environmental defenders and the scarcity of sustainable investments in the region.
In Santiago, the 12 countries that have ratified the agreement began to design concrete paths to not only ensure access to rights and protection for environmental defenders, but also ensure that these actors and society as a whole are meaningfully incorporated into environmental protection and natural resources management mechanisms, as well as in efforts to promote sustainable development.
On the economic front, representatives of the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) believe that the implementation of the agreement could help attract new sources of sustainable investments to the region.
Despite the advances that Escazú represents, the Brazilian government’s rejection of the treaty based on unsubstantiated arguments — such as the suggestion that the agreement would harm national sovereignty — suggests that the current process of destruction of the forest and the violation of forest peoples’ rights will persist at least until the end of 2022.
If the country’s presidential elections produce a new government, it is essential that the new administration treat the speedy ratification of the agreement as a priority. In addition, Brazilian diplomacy must assume a proactive role aimed at implementing concrete solutions for regional cooperation on the subject — For example, through a platform aimed at monitoring the implementation of the agreement’s commitments that includes not only government actors, but also actors from civil society, indigenous peoples and traditional communities in the region.
At the same time, it’s important that efforts to advance an environmentally responsible agenda internationally are accompanied by corresponding public policies at the domestic level. It is imperative, for example, that Brazil develop public policies to advance the three central principles of the Escazú Agreement.
First, environmental, investigative and law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Public Ministry and the judiciary branch, should strengthen the transparency of data on environmental crimes and other environmental matters by complying with Brazil’s Access to Information Law and transparency guidelines and best practices.
Second, social participation in environmental issues must be expanded, including through the revitalization of existing mechanisms, such as the National Environment Council (CONAMA), and the creation of new participatory channels to, among other things, help advance the right to a healthy environment and the respect for the right of free, prior and informed consultation to indigenous and traditional peoples, as prescribed by the Convention Nº 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO).
Third, access to justice in environmental matters must be expanded, including via a greater allocation of resources to ensure prompt and impartial investigations and, ultimately, the effective punishment of crimes against the environment and its defenders.
It is equally urgent that rural workers and communities affected by conflicts over land and water have full access to the justice system and that mechanisms to protect environmental defenders and witnesses are expanded and improved.
Advancing Escazú’s principles at the domestic and international levels offers an opportunity not only to defend the environment and human rights — aspects that are central to the consolidation of democracy and the rule of law — but also a channel for the re-emergence of Brazil’s leadership in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Authors: Adriana Erthal Abdenur, Maiara Folly e Gabrielle Alves
* This article was originally published in Portuguese by the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo