How the U.S. Can Help Save the Amazon

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In his push to combat climate change, President Joe Biden has vowed to take action to protect the Amazon rainforest. That means getting Brazil’s populist government to cooperate. A combination of incentives and creative diplomacy offers the best chance of success.

Over the last half-century, development in the Amazon basin, a region that spans eight countries, has shrunk the rainforest by 17%. In Brazil, which accounts for more than half of the basin, deforestation caused by logging, mining, cattle ranching and farming has increased by 47% since the election of President Jair Bolsonaro in 2018. Last year’s clear-cutting was the highest in a decade. Scientists fear that the ecosystem is approaching a tipping point and will no longer be able to replenish itself. Further depletion of the world’s largest carbon sink would put the Paris Agreement’s global-warming goals in jeopardy.

Bolsonaro has cut funding for the agencies that publish data on deforestation and enforce land-management rules. He’s excoriated foreign leaders for complaining about unlawful development, turning sovereignty over the rainforest into a rallying cry for his nationalist base. In a meeting with Latin American leaders last year, Bolsonaro said there hasn’t been “one bit of deforestation” and called reports of the Amazon’s plunder “a lie.”

As a close ally of Donald Trump, Bolsonaro encountered little pushback from the U.S. During last year’s election campaign, Biden promised action: He said he’d push for $20 billion in assistance to governments in the region to stop deforestation and vowed “significant economic consequences” if they refused.

Recognizing the global importance of the Amazon is long overdue, but the threat of sanctions isn’t the best way to change Brazil’s behavior. The U.S. should offer incentives that help Bolsonaro sell conservation to his supporters. Given Bolsonaro’s affinity for the armed forces, the U.S. might consider extending limited technical assistance to Brazil’s military to support some of its actions against illegal deforestation. Active U.S. backing for Brazilian membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — a priority for business elites concerned about Bolsonaro’s handling of the economy — should be in part tied to environmental improvements.

At the same time, the U.S. can show that it’s willing to go around him if need be. American diplomats should deepen ties to Brazilian governors and mayors and provide direct aid to municipalities that demonstrate progress in forest protection. Support for local climate-focused initiatives such as MapBiomas, which uses satellite data to map deforested areas, would help promote public awareness about the scale of the crisis.

Working with other governments and financial institutions, the U.S. should help Brazil and other countries in the region to profit from conservation — for instance, by creating a more efficient global system for exchanging carbon credits. And it should engage the leaders of Brazil’s agribusinesses, which stand to lose most if Bolsonaro’s intransigence causes investor backlash or loss of access to international markets.

Protecting the world’s rainforests from irreversible damage is critical to the planet’s health and the fight against climate change. Biden is right to make it a priority. Success means persuading Brazil’s leaders it’s in their interests, too.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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