A weakened Brazil will be part of the biodiversity COP

Amazon deforestation and other environmental problems cast a shadow over the role played by the world’s most biodiverse country

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sloth-Pernambuco Brazil biodiversity

A sloth on Itamaraca island, Brazil's Pernambuco state. Brazil will participate in international negotiations to protect biodiversity but faces diplomatic challenges after rolling back environmental protections (image: Alamy)

Brazil, home to the greatest variety of species on Earth, has historically been a leader in multilateral negotiations on biodiversity. But to avoid arriving in a weakened state at the most important biodiversity meeting in a decade, COP15, it will need to make up for recent setbacks in its environmental policy.

COP15 (the 15th UN Conference of the Parties) to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is expected to define a global agreement on preserving biodiversity for the next ten years. The meeting was scheduled for October in the Chinese city of Kunming, but has been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The goal of a workable global agreement on nature has elevated the CBD, which had been relegated to the background among UN conventions, to a role of unprecedented importance. “This is a make-or-break moment,” says Mariana Napolitano, who has followed the conservation agenda through WWF-Brazil since 2009.

According to Napolitano, an ambitious agreement could still reverse the trend of mass species extinctions (one million plant and animal species are threatened worldwide), as well as contribute to stabilising the climate, disease control, food production and water security.

Did you know…?


20% of the planet's species are found in Brazil

At conferences like COP15, eyes invariably turn to Brazil, since the actions taken by this mega-diverse country – home to 20% of the planet’s species – will impact the future of all.

The clearest example is deforestation in the Amazon. Scientists warn that the biome may be irreversibly turned into a savannah if destruction continues at its current pace. Destroying the rainforest would make it virtually impossible to control global warming.

“Up to 2018, Brazil was the major leader [at the biodiversity COPs], was respected, and had advanced policies,” says Carlos Joly, a professor at UNICAMP and a leading expert on biodiversity. “Suddenly it changed completely, [it] isolated itself”.

Brazil slows biodiversity negotiations

In the meetings leading up to COP15, the Brazilian contingent has been putting the brakes on the negotiations for the CBD global agreement, according to a recent report by the Folha de São Paulo newspaper. Diplomats told the newspaper Brazil had made “absurd” statements at the February meeting in Rome, arguing that biopiracy and not massive deforestation was the biggest threat to protected areas in the country. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated in a note to the newspaper that the country’s strategy was to obtain more financial resources for the CBD agenda.

Although Brazil has long insisted that developed countries should be responsible for supporting conservation, restoration and environmental compensation activities, the tone of its diplomats’ message irked some other countries. “This sounded unfriendly to some delegations,” explains Braulio Souza Dias, a scientist who was at the Rome meeting.

Even so, former CBD executive secretary Souza Dias considers this criticism of the Brazilian committee to be exaggerated. He argues that there was little room for negotiation, and that the process is just beginning. “There is still a long way to go, and many places where Brazil can contribute,” he says.

the pressures of extinction still need to be significantly reduced

Souza Dias notes that Brazil has made significant progress over the past three decades in implementing the biodiversity agenda. As an example, he cites the last report that Brazil submitted to the CBD secretary on its fulfilment of the Aichi Targets, which parties to the convention agreed upon to slow biodiversity loss and implement between 2011 and 2020.

The expectation is that Brazil will reach ten of the 20 targets and make considerable progress towards the other ten. This includes goal 11, one of the most debated, which addresses protecting areas essential to biodiversity and ecosystem services. Although the country has serious shortcomings in management, protected areas account for 18% of its land and 26% of its seas, surpassing the established minimums.

Meanwhile, goal 12, which is also a headliner for the COPs and addresses extinctions, will only be partially met by Brazil. Although it recognises progress, the report says “the pressures of extinction still need to be significantly reduced”.

The document, which was delivered behind schedule by the Ministry of the Environment this year, assesses the scenario in Brazil up until 2018 and was produced jointly with entities independent of the government.

Internal setbacks

The election of Jair Bolsonaro as president in late 2018, however, sparked a major transformation. For Cláudio Maretti, vice president for South America of the World Commission on Protected Areas, the new administration halted four decades of progress on domestic environmental conservation strategies.

“There were oscillations, but in general the advance [had been] increasing and progressive,” he said.

During the 1980s, efforts began to preserve the Amazon, and institutional frameworks were defined as a national environmental policy. In the 1990s, Brazil hosted the Earth Summit (1992), created the first reserves where mining was prohibited, began demarcating indigenous lands, and started slowing the advance of agricultural frontiers and urbanisation into native forests.

In the 2000s, one of the largest ground-breaking projects to preserve biodiversity in the world, Arpa, defined actions which are still underway for sustainable development of the Amazon region. Over the next decade, Brazil again hosted a UN convention, Rio+20, and its role was strengthened after the COP10 biodiversity conference in Japan that established an international agreement and directed domestic policies for the next ten years.

But in the past year there has been a strong decline in the national environmental policies, according to the specialists we spoke to. The federal government began to defend reducing conservation areas, and permitted mining and other polluting activities in indigenous reserves.

39%

the growth in fires in Brazil's Amazon region in 2019 compared to the previous year

The government also limited the actions of protection agencies such as IBAMA, ICMbio, and the Secretary of Biodiversity, and passed a new law (MP 910) that facilitated schemes to acquire and sell illegally cleared land. Meanwhile, deforestation increased by 30% and fires grew by 39% in the Legal Amazon Region in 2019 compared to the previous year. “The national environmental policy is being dismantled,” said Jaime Gesisky of WWF-Brazil.

Gesisky adds that Brazil needs to respond effectively to the environmental setbacks in the country so that before the COP15 conference, it will be able to negotiate and demand the financial resources necessary to implement the goals it has agreed to.

Civic organisations take the wheel

Before biodiversity COPs, the Ministry of the Environment traditionally encouraged public consultations to support the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But in the absence of a ministerial agenda this year, independent groups are taking over.

One network has been developed with the scientists that comprise the BPBES platform. On the eve of COP14, which took place in Egypt in 2018, the group launched its first diagnostic of Brazilian biodiversity, which supported decision-makers in such things as how to productively harness ecological diversity.

“We have proposed debates, as we always do. Many of us are even part of the Brazilian delegation at the conferences,” explains platform coordinator Carlos Joly. “But at the federal level we have not been able to have any influence.” The alternative, according to Joly, has been to strengthen sub-national representation, through states and municipalities.

Another example is Bio2020, a meeting that took place in February with 350 politicians, scientists, activists, entrepreneurs and others who drafted the “São Paulo Letter” containing proposals for COP15.

The initiative could pressure the ministry into be more proactive as well as informing other countries that Brazil is taking action on environmental policy.

Maretti led one of the discussions at the meeting in São Paulo. “The letter has no formal weight, but politically it could make a difference,” he said.