Fires and anger rage during Latin America Climate Week

Protests against the Brazilian government and its hostility towards environmentalists mark UN event

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Ricardo Salles, Brazil's environment minister, was roundly heckled at Latin America and Caribbean Climate Week in Salvador, Brazil

Brazil’s environment minister Ricardo Salles (centre) was roundly heckled at Latin America and Caribbean Climate Week in Salvador, Brazil, as anger at deforestation in the Amazon grows (image: UNclimatechange)

Booing. Lots of booing. As fires decimate the Amazon rainforest, capturing the world’s attention, shouts of “criminal”, “killer” and “exterminator of the future” directed at Brazilian environment minister Ricardo Salles became the hallmark of the UN Climate Week for Latin America and the Caribbean that wraps up Friday in Salvador, Brazil.

Salles was invited to represent the Brazilian government, even though he had openly tried to stop the event from happening, as he had with the UN’s COP25 climate talks, which relocated to Santiago, Chile, after Brazil’s withdrawal.

The minister even told the press that the meeting was nothing more than an excuse to “do tourism in Salvador”.

When young people mobilise and boo the minister, it is because they know that this denialist attitude endangers their future

Regional climate weeks are preparatory events leading up to COPs, which this year aims to agree on a plan for implementing the Paris Agreement, the global pact to fight climate change.

The minister’s ambivalence was demonstrated by the length of his speech – three minutes. Though he made a vain attempt to please the crowd by underscoring the event’s significance:

“Everything that is talked about here will impact the actions we are taking,” he said, his voice muffled by audience shouts.

Salles didn’t convince. He was drowned-out with onlookers making it clear that, though Climate Weeks usually present an opportunity for governments to debate environmental protection policies, the minister wanted activists only to listen.

“[He] was placed there to undo environmental protection policies,” said Fabiana Alves, climate and energy coordinator at Greenpeace Brasil. “Somehow they have to listen.”

Impassive, selective and “paranoid”

Salles refused to respond to criticism and exited the stage, going straight to his car, which sped off with windows up.

He was scheduled to mediate a panel with environment ministers from other Latin American countries the following day but sent a representative.

Roberto Castelo Branco, secretary of international relations from the Ministry of Environment, presented on an apparent decrease in deforestation in Brazil – without showing data from this year.

80%

the increase in fires in the Amazon in the past 6 months

Deforestation estimates vary. The NGO Imazon pointed to a likely 15% increase in deforestation in the last 12 months, whereas the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) put the figure at 40%.

Recent data on fires is also alarming. Over the past six months, INPE shows an 80% increase in the number of fires in the Amazon.

Seasonal forest fires are not uncommon in Brazil as farmers often burn land in preparation for planting crops. However, researchers analysing INPE’s data said that the number of fires this year is abnormally high.

Under Bolsonaro, Brazil has dismantled environmental protections, suggesting they place on strain on sectors driving economic growth, such as agriculture.

While his minister was booed in Salvador, Bolsonaro made the unsubstantiated claim that NGOs had deliberately started recent fires.

“There may be, yes, there may, I am not saying there is, criminal action by these NGO people to draw attention against me, against the government of Brazil,” said the president. “This is the war we face.”

satellite images show clouds of grey smoke swirling over the Amazon (image: NASA)

Paulo Addario, a senior forest strategist at Greenpeace, said the president was “paranoid” and makes such statements to keep civil society from responding to government policies.

“Civil organizations operate where the state has no capacity to act. Criminalising [them] is a deliberate desire to discredit them because the president does not believe in civil organizations, he thinks they’re manipulated by the left, by the communists,” Addario said.

Environmentalists left the event with no greater clarity on Brazil’s climate policies, one of the event’s stated goals.

“Latin America has always been fragmented on this issue, but this event is for dialogue and to connect the dots,” said Peruvian Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, global climate and energy policy leader at the World Wide Fund for Nature.

“When young people mobilise and boo the minister, it is because they know that this denialist attitude endangers their future.”

Awareness vs government paralysis

A recent analysis by the New York Times showed that actions to combat deforestation have decreased by 20% over the past six months.

Changes to public policy councils, traditional forums held by the Brazilian government that invite researchers, activists and decision makers to debate policy, have also meant fewer opportunities for civil society organizations to have dialogue with the government.

the president does not believe in civil organizations, he thinks they’re manipulated by the left, by the communists

With little hope of engaging the government and getting it to change tack on environmental protection, many activists’ plan is simply to keep shouting.

“We should keep up with public disclosures about our actions and continue to act, with demonstrations that demand the government take a stand,” said Suelita Rocker, an analyst at 350.org, an anti-fossil fuel movement.

Renato Cunha, who coordinates the state-level Bahia Environmental Group (Gambá), is less defiant.  With the government as an adversary, it will difficult for actions and mobilisations to result in safeguards against climate change.

“If the government itself weakens the enforcement agencies and works to end environmental permits,” he said, adding; “it is putting an end to the tools that could alleviate the effects of climate change.”