Disappointment as Brazil declines to sign up to UN deforestation agreement

Brazil fails to commit to a landmark new pledge to protect the world’s rainforests in order to curb carbon emissions and combat climate change, as many other countries sign up.

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Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. The South American giant has refused to sign up to a new international pledge on eliminating deforestation worldwide by 2030. Photo courtesy of Greenpeace via the BBC.

Governments, businesses and environmentalists have come together to sign a landmark declaration pledging to end deforestation by 2030, widely regarded as being the first official declaration of its kind. The New York Declaration on Forests, unveiled earlier this week as world leaders gathered in New York for a special Climate Summit and the annual UN General Assembly, also includes a promise to halve the rate of deforestation by 2020, and a commitment to restore over a million square miles of degraded land around the world. Supporters claim that if the terms of the agreement are fully implemented, it could lead to between 4.5bn and 8.8bn tonnes of carbon emissions being prevented each year – a saving on a similar scale to taking all of the world’s cars out of circulation.

Among the countries to have signed up to the declaration are the United States, Canada, and several major European countries, as well as many other countries from tropical areas which are home to some of the planet’s most important forest zones. The declaration was also signed by companies ranging from Kellogg’s and Nestlé, to Cargill and Asia Pulp and Paper, and by charities and NGOs such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the Rainforest Alliance, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Furthermore, it includes a plan to strengthen the UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) programme, a proposed mechanism to provide financial rewards to countries and landowners who protect and suitably manage forested areas.

Brazil’s Environment Minister, Izabella Teixeira, who has expressed disappointment at what she sees as Brazil’s ‘exclusion’ from the declaration. Photo courtesy of Reuters.

However, one crucial country was missing from this new plan of action, putting the chances of it being properly carried out in danger: Brazil, which is home to a majority of the Amazon rainforest, one of the most important forest systems on the planet. The Brazilian Environment Minister, Izabella Teixeira, told the Associated Press on the day the declaration was unveiled that her country had not been consulted about it, saying that her government was “not invited to be engaged in the preparation process” and instead was simply given a copy of the text after it had been drawn up.

“I think that it’s impossible to think that you can have a global forest initiative without Brazil on board”, Teixeira said. “It doesn’t make sense”. The government of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff had also raised concerns that the proposed declaration would clash with its own national laws, which focus on stamping out illegal logging but allow for some ‘managed’ deforestation within the Amazon basin. Teixeira reaffirmed Brazil’s commitment to protecting the Amazon, pointing to the fact that deforestation rates in Brazil are almost 80% down on what they were a decade ago. Indeed, Brazil’s achievements are outlined in the declaration’s text, making the South American country’s omission from the process appear even more of a paradox.

Charles McNeill, a senior environmental policy adviser for the UN’s Development Programme (UNDP), told AP: “There were efforts to reach out to Brazilian government people but there wasn’t a response. There was no desire to exclude Brazil; they are the most important country in this area”, adding that “an effort that involves Brazil is much more powerful and impactful than one that doesn’t”.

Meanwhile, Marina Silva, the popular environmentalist who has a decent shot at winning next month’s presidential election against current President Dilma Rousseff, criticised her rival’s government over Brazil’s exclusion from the declaration. Silva, who is widely credited with having helped turn Brazil’s deforestation rate around while serving as the Environment Minister from 2003 to 2008, told a pre-election rally: “Brazil is one of the countries with major forests, we have 60% of our territory covered with forests and woods and Dilma did not sign in support of protecting those forests, which is regrettable and disappointing”. In a further sign that there is a somewhat lack of consensus on the matter in Brazil, three Amazonian states – Acre, Amapa, and Amazonas – signed the declaration, along with other state and regional governments from Peru and Spain.

peru amazon fellipe abreu bbc
Peru, 60% of whose territory is covered by the Amazon rainforest, has signed up to the declaration as well as signing a deal with Norway where the South American country will receive financial rewards for protecting and maintaining its forests. Photo courtesy of the BBC – Fellipe Abreu.

The comments from both Teixeira, on the one hand, and McNeill and Silva on the other, suggest that disappointment over Brazil’s exclusion from the New York Declaration on Forests is mutual across both sides. This could still be the key to Brazil eventually signing up to the pact, before it is due to be adopted after next year’s crucial UN COP21 climate summit in Paris. The aim is to get other parties, including Brazil and Greenpeace – who also refused to sign the declaration after voicing concerns that the pledges were not ambitious enough and lacked legally binding commitments – on board between now and next December, when the Paris summit is scheduled. However, observers are already pointing out that the problems in getting Brazil to play ball on the Declaration on Forests show how difficult it can be to gain broad consensus among all parties when it comes to formulating concerted action on tackling climate change.

Hopefully, Brazil can be persuaded by the actions of some of its Latin American neighbours. Five of the region’s countries had signed up to the declaration by the time of its initial publication: Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Peru. The latter is a notable highlight, not only as Peru is Brazil’s neighbour and another country that has a considerable stake in the future of the Amazon rainforest – more than 60% of its territory falls within it – but also given that Peru will play host to this year’s annual Conference of the Parties to the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

A further highlight among Peru’s commitments to protecting rainforests is a new bilateral deal with Norway, unveiled during the UN summit this week, that will see the northern European country pay Peru some US$300m up to the year 2021, in exchange for concerted efforts by the Peruvian government to reduce its carbon emissions stemming from deforestation in the Amazon. Peru will receive the money from as early as 2017, in exchange for “verified reductions in emissions generated by projects in Peru that succeed in cutting deforestation, consequently reducing the amounts of carbon dioxide currently being emitted”, according to a Thomson Reuters Foundation report.

The deal, which will also count on contributions from Germany and which goes hand in hand with a similar deal struck with the West African nation of Liberia, will include additional plans to grant land titles to Peruvian indigenous groups, covering some five million hectares of land. This will hopefully help them to protect their lands – almost invariably located within the Amazon rainforest – from the destructive activities of mining and logging companies.

The topic of land disputes between indigenous people and loggers has come into sharp focus in Peru recently, following the murder of the well-known indigenous environmentalist Edwin Chota and several of his companions, supposedly at the hands of illegal loggers. Recent studies have suggested that empowering indigenous communities to protect their own rainforest territories is a crucial element in combating climate change, as these groups tend to be far more effective at ensuring that forested areas stay standing. This is even more relevant in Peru, which in 2011 saw 46% of its carbon emissions come from deforestation and land use change, according to a report from Mongabay.

The recent murder of Edwin Chota, an indigenous Peruvian activist who had fought for indigenous rights against illegal logging, has brought the issue of land disputes in the Peruvian Amazon into focus. Photo via Amazon Watch.