Hope for Brazil’s forests?

Helen Burley

A Bolsonaro puppet on the climate march at COP24, Katowice

Fears about the potential impact of Brazil’s incoming president on climate emissions from deforestation have been prevalent at the UN climate talks in Katowice (COP24), with indigenous communities from Brazil among those raising the alarm.

Jair Bolsonaro has threatened to pull the country out of the Paris Agreement and talked about the need for more development in forest areas.

But Carlos Rittl, Executive-Secretary of Brazil’s Climate Observatory, speaking at a side event organised by Imaflora at COP24, said Brazil had too much to lose by pulling out of the Paris Agreement.

A sustainability leader?

Brazil’s forests play a crucial role in global climate regulation — and Brazil has prided itself on its leadership on sustainable development, hosting the Rio summits which launched the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, as well as the Sustainable Development Goals.

The country also has the second largest forest in the world, which provides a vast store for carbon dioxide, but Ane Alencar, Director of Science at IPAM explained that forest loss primarily due to agricultural expansion has meant the country is a net emitter of greenhouse gases.

Brazil is also a major global food producer, with the third largest agricultural area in the world. Despite on-going agricultural expansion, emission levels have stabilised in recent years, suggesting that development and conservation can go hand-in-hand.

“If we continue on that path, we will meet our targets by 2020, but we don’t know what is going to happen,” Alencar explained.

And indeed recent figures have shown that deforestation rates may already be rising.

Changing direction

Ahead of COP 24, the Brazilian government announced that the new Bolsonaro government, which comes into power in January 2019, would not host next year’s climate summit. As a result the future of the country’s commitments under the Paris Agreement hang in the balance.

But Rittl warned that pulling out of the Paris Agreement would be bad news for Brazilian agriculture, and bad news for the Brazilian economy — with studies showing that cutting emissions would bring economic benefits.

Crucially, forest loss would mean reduced water supplies for farmers — jeopardising soy production.

“If the government thinks that they can gain something, they are wrong,” he said. “We have a lot to lose. Not only the forests are at stake.”

Agribusiness threat

But for indigenous communities represented at a COICA hosted side event, the threat to Brazil’s forests came primarily from agribusiness expanding soy, palm oil and cattle pasture into their lands.

And Nara Bare from COICA pointed to a new threat, with legislation being considered would allow sugar cane to be added to the commodity crops grown in the Amazon.

Studies from the Woods Hole Research Centre have shown that emissions are lower from indigenous areas, with less deforestation, and greater gains from forest growth. Preliminary results for Brazil show a net balance for forest carbon in indigenous territories, compared to a five percent loss outside of indigenous territories and protected areas.

COICA were calling for greater recognition of their land rights, and increased access to climate finance to support sustainable livelihoods in the forest.

Nara Bare said there were concerns that the new government would not take the rights of indigenous communities seriously.

“We are not a threat, we are going to fight this,” she said. “We will always be resisting…”

A balancing act

The challenge for the new government is to find a balance in the pledges made around economic growth and to the agribusiness lobby, with a need to maintain trade with key markets that require high environmental standards, and so maintain the natural resources which sustain communities across Brazil.

For example, Bolsonaro has proposed merging the agriculture and environment ministries, drawing opposition from the current Agriculture Minister, Blairo Maggi, who has flagged the importance of market demand for more sustainable produce.

This balancing act is crucial in the Cerrado, where soy is expanding into areas of natural vegetation, and where pressure is growing from the private sector to stop conversion through the Cerrado Manifesto.

Recognising the rights of the indigenous communities is essential for sustainable development in the Cerrado. By protecting their lands, and by protecting the area’s rich biodiversity, the resources needed for food production can be maintained.

Find out more about the challenges facing the Cerrado when Arnaldo Carneiro from Global Canopy speaks at the 30x30 Forest, Food, Land Challenge event at COP 24 on Wednesday 12 December at 12pm, in the PandaHub.