Brazil’s Minister of the Environment has a vision for the Amazon – as a lucrative business open for business.
In meetings with international fund managers, Ricardo Salles presents the rainforest as a new opportunity for investment. Where conservationists see a fragile region in urgent need of protection, Salles sells an image of cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies exploiting the myriad of exotic herbs, nuts and fruits of the jungle.
“We have to attract private capital to the Amazon,” said Salles, 45, in an interview last month in his Brasilia office, a large map of Brazil’s ecologically protected areas on a wall and a view of the peak trees of the capital behind him. “This is my approach in all the meetings I have in Europe and the United States”
This is an ambitious proposition for many, given that the Amazon is under threat. In June, 29 global fund managers with $ 3.7 trillion in assets told Brazil that President Jair Bolsonaro’s government had to prove it had control over forest destruction if it wanted to see any money. Joe Biden’s loss to Donald Trump, a Bolsonaro ally, means Salles will soon have to face a US administration that pledges to “run the world to face the climate emergency.”
Salles is not discouraged. While his plans have sparked unease at home and abroad, they characterize the unorthodox attitude of one of the world’s most controversial environmental officials.
Brazil is home to more than half of the Amazon rainforest, a landscape containing one in ten of Earth’s known species that acts as a sink for around 90 to 140 billion tonnes of carbon, according to the Global Fund’s conservation group. nature. This alone makes Salles a global player.
But with deforestation occurring at an all-time high, he is also at the forefront of international condemnation of the government’s response to destruction.
Bolsonaro lambasted foreign interference in the Amazon and declared the jungle a sovereign entity of Brazil. But the global outcry over the images of the devastated jungle has forced the administration to change its mind about international donations to its Amazon Fund.
Now Salles says the doors are open for outside investments that are “sustainable,” although he hasn’t set green standards for business. “I don’t want charity,” he says. “I want you to come and invest in the Amazon, have laboratories, research and production lines, and do business efficiently.”
An area of rainforest larger than Jamaica has been destroyed in the first seven months of this year, more than was lost in 2019, according to the Brazilian National Space Agency Institute. The damage isn’t limited to Brazil – Bolivia, Peru and Colombia are also affected – but Brazil is the worst culprit in a way. And the destruction worsens under Bolsonaro.
The main cause is clear cutting, often by fire, to create grazing areas for livestock and agriculture. The fires mean that Brazil’s carbon dioxide emissions are on the rise, even as the pandemic-induced slowdown has led to a global drop in CO2 production. Bolsonaro blames environmental nonprofits for starting the fires to bring attention to their cause. Salles argues that poverty is the main driver of destruction, and says that wealth creation is the answer.
Born in Sao Paulo to a family of lawyers and trained in Portugal, Salles looks like a member of the Brazilian elite, in designer clothes and round boutique glasses. He speaks methodically as he refutes the attacks on his office as being misinformed.
There is much to refute.
During an April cabinet meeting, he was caught on a leaked tape saying the government should use the distraction provided by the pandemic to water down environmental laws. That same month, he signed a measure that would allow agricultural and livestock activities on land designated as “permanently kept”, only so that the prosecution could block it. In September, it removed protections for mangroves and coastal vegetation. Here again, the prosecutor’s office and then the Supreme Court thwarted his efforts.
“Salles is a termite that devours the interior ministry,” said former environment minister Carlos Minc.
As a member of the left-wing government of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Minc is hardly impartial. But he is also far from being the only one in his assessment. In June, the nine former environment ministers sent an open letter to the federal prosecutor’s office asking for an investigation into Salles’ actions.
“When the government started, Bolsonaro thought about getting rid of the environment ministry,” Minc said. “Maybe it would have been better.”
Salles, who trained as a lawyer, was embroiled in controversy soon after starting his political career as environment secretary in the state government of Sao Paulo. In 2018, the courts found him guilty of administrative irregularity for having modified the maps of the riparian forests of Sao Paulo for the benefit of mining companies. Salles is appealing the conviction.
His decision to order the removal of a statue of a resistance leader against the Brazilian military dictatorship caught the attention of Bolsonaro, a former army captain, and in 2019 the president appealed to Salles for the federal cabinet.
Before Covid-19, Salles was a frequent traveler to pitch on Amazon. Now the events are digital. Typically, it brings together groups of 20-30 investors at meetings hosted by organizations such as the Brazil-US Business Council.
At every meeting, Salles is peppered with questions about how he plans to save the Amazon. He recommends making it into a mosaic of plots of land, some for businesses and others kept as part of his flagship program “Adopt1Park”, where for 10 euros ($ 12) per hectare, anyone can “sponsor A piece of rainforest.
It is more private sector involvement than many environmentalists would like.
Carlos Nobre, an internationally renowned climatologist known for his work on the region, says he does not disagree with the idea of attracting funds to develop and protect the Amazon, but that the state must play a role. “The forest will only remain sustainable with a public-private partnership,” he said.
The companies themselves are wary. Brazil’s Suzano SA, the world’s largest producer of wood pulp, told the government its lax protections are contributing to the destruction of the rainforest and the loss of billions of dollars in carbon credits.
Some formidable international opponents are also lining up. French President Emmanuel Macron and Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio are among those who have expressed concern about Brazil’s attitude towards the Amazon.
Far from being threatened, Salles seems to relish the controversy: when DiCaprio called out to Brazil on Twitter, Salles responded by tracking him down.
expensive @LeoDiCaprio Brazil is launching the “Adopt1Park” preservation project which allows you or any other company or individual to choose one of the 132 Amazonian parks and sponsor it directly at 10 euros per hectare per year. Are you going to put your money where your mouth is? https://t.co/VMG817oUX8
– Ricardo Salles MMA (@rsallesmma) September 10, 2020
Perhaps the most difficult of all, Salles now has to sell his land to Biden. The president-elect has proposed a carrot and stick approach, offering $ 20 billion to stop the fires while suggesting economic sanctions could result from the continued decimation of the forest. Bolsonaro rejected the proposal; Salles laughed at it.
“Is the $ 20 billion a year?” He asked.