Deforestation in Brazil reached a 15-year high during outgoing President Jair Bolsonaro, who pushed for legal and illegal mining and logging in the Amazon – a crucial biome for the entire role that plays a key role against climate change. Now, the US has decided to take a stronger stand and sanction environmental criminals across the country.
The plan, unveiled by Reuters, represents a change in the US strategy to tackle climate change, adding sanctions to its toolkit of tax incentives and multilateral agreements. Back in August, the US approved its largest climate investment plan in history, a much-needed policy change from the Trump days. This was followed by a recent pledge by President Biden at COP27 to boost US climate action.
The US approach will be hailed by Brazil's new leadership.
President-elect Lula da Silva will be taking office in January, replacing Bolsonaro, and in terms of the environment, it seems to be a full U-turn. As Biden, Lula was also at COP27, where he vowed to implement strong environmental policies – including restoring the Amazon rainforest and prosecuting the many environmental criminals.
The US, Brazil, and the Amazon
Brazil is home to the biggest part of the Amazon rainforest, one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. It provides a shelter for millions of animals and plant species that play a big role in regulating the global climate. However, extractive activities are gradually turning the Amazon into an area releasing carbon dioxide instead of capturing it.
While Lula has pledged to act as soon as he takes office, there are still open questions on how he will pull it off. Bolsonaro will leave office soon but his political party remains strong in Congress, meaning he could block any legislation proposed by Lula. Also, the country is dealing with economic challenges, which could limit any new ambitious plans.
But the US believes it could help the president-elect.
One of the options on the table for the US is to implement the so-called Magnitsky sanctions on environmental criminals in Brazil. The Magnitsky act enables the US government to sanction foreign government officials who are human rights offenders. The US can freeze their assets and ban them from entering the country. Initially, this act was aimed at human rights violations from Russia, but it could be expanded to environmental rights violations.
The plan started to take shape in June at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, Reuters said. Back then, the US and Brazil announced a joint task force to fight illegal deforestation in the Amazon – “disincentivizing the use of the international financial system in association with illegal activities,” a press release from back then reads.
Brian Nelson, the Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a visit to Brazil in August that the Summit of the Americas meeting led to conversations with Brazil on “to manage the challenge that we are all facing around climate change.” He specifically mentioned the “deforestation in the Amazon.”
US officials in Brazil have already started to identify and investigate specific targets, with potential punishments going from visa blacklists to Magnitsky sanctions, Reuters said. While this can take a while, it could be a big deal for Brazil, the leading country in the number of deaths of environmental defenders over the last decade.
Since 2012, a total of 1,733 activists have been killed worldwide, with Brazil being on top of the list, according to a report by the NGO Global Witness. The Amazon has become the hotspot for violence and impunity against defenders, the report’s authors said, blaming Bolsonaro for allowing illegal activities and reducing environmental budgets.