Brazil’s Bid to Outsource Amazon Conservation Finds Few Takers

This article was produced in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Investigations Network.

RIO DE JANEIRO – Faced with strong international condemnation of the destruction of the Amazon, the government of President Jair Bolsonaro developed a strategy: It offered companies the opportunity to “adopt” a piece of rainforest.

However, the plan, which calls on companies to contribute money to preserve the forest, has been marred by disorganization and has met with skepticism from critics. They see it as an effort to “wash green” the poor environmental record of the Bolsonaro government.

It didn’t find many buyers either.

The program was announced in February when the Biden government made it clear that it expects Brazil to reverse some of the forest loss and environmental degradation that marked Mr Bolsonaro’s first two years in office.

As suggested, the Adopt-a-Park program would accomplish two of the Bolsonaro government’s goals: to dissolve Brazil’s tarnished environmental image, which industry leaders have feared it could lock them out of international markets, and to reduce the cost of maintaining it at times to outsource increasingly tight budgets.

“Many of these companies, mutual funds, that have signed letters expressing their concern about the Amazon,” said Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, “now have a concrete, very simple and efficient way to get their statements in at Adopt a Park To implement measures. ” . ”

The government offered 132 federal reserves in the Amazon for sponsorship. So far, only three foreign companies – the grocery chain Carrefour, Coca-Cola and Heineken – and five Brazilian companies have registered. Your donations total a little over $ 1 million – a tiny fraction of the $ 600 million that Mr. Salles plans to raise.

And no reserves were formally allocated to a sponsor, even though at least one of the companies said they had provided all of the requested documents more than a month ago.

The idea itself isn’t bad, said Cláudio Maretti, former director of the Chico Mendes Institute for Conservation of Biodiversity, a government agency that manages Brazil’s national parks and helps manage the program. Many of the reserves on the list have been degraded through illegal deforestation, wildcat mining, and land grabbing.

However, the program has been carried out without the planning or transparency to make it effective, and it appears to be a low-budget attempt to “wash green” the government’s reputation so that it “can say it has done something.” Has”.

“The hallmark of this government is anti-conservation, but at the same time it’s disorganization,” said Maretti.

Interviews and documents obtained from the New York Times in response to freedom of information requests suggest that the Environment Department’s efforts to convince companies to adopt parks have been chaotic, characterized by misunderstandings with potential sponsors and segregation from the people who live in the New York Times areas at stake.

The largest private company contribution to date came from Carrefour, a French multinational retail company. Stéphane Engelhard, vice president of the Brazilian subsidiary, said in an interview that the company is proud to donate more than $ 700,000 to the program.

Carrefour, Engelhard said, has chosen to contribute to the Lago do Cuniã reserve in the state of Rondônia because it is inhabited by a traditional community who make their living from the forest.

“Our idea is to demonstrate that you can have a sustainable forest without destroying it, with people who live there,” said Engelhard.

But he was surprised to learn that the community had not been consulted about the plan.

Gilberto Raposo, a member of the Association of Residents of the Lago do Cuniã Reserve, said he heard about the broadcast from the news media.

“If it really happens, if this helps reserves, people on the river, that’s really nice,” he said, noting that they have many needs. “But if something happens and we don’t know about it, it isn’t.”

An organization representing traditional communities that live off the forest, the National Council of Extractivist Populations, sent a formal complaint to the government, arguing that it was illegal for the program to include reserves where traditional communities live without adding them consult. The prosecutors are currently investigating.

“We can discuss any policy for the benefit of the reserves,” said Dione Torquato, secretary general of the organization. “But we want to be part of this process. Let it be fair, not imposed. “

Two weeks ago the ministry received a face-friendly revival from the federal government. The state-owned Caixa Econômica Bank offered to provide $ 28 million for the program.

A government document reports that the ministry held meetings with 128 companies and two private individuals about the program from February to April. However, representatives from several of the listed companies said they had no record of being formally approached.

A representative from Google stated that he had only received an invitation to the kick-off event. Bunge, an American agricultural company, said it never received a proposal. Lars Grael, a former Olympic seaman who is an executive member of a government volunteer initiative, said he had never heard of the program and was surprised government officials reported it at a meeting with him.

Brazil has other programs that allow companies to donate to Amazon reserves and other biomass. Since its inception in 2002, the Amazon Program Protected Area has raised tens of millions of dollars from governments and corporations for protected areas in the Amazon.

Under the Adopt-a-Park program, sponsoring companies pay a minimum of $ 9.5 per hectare of reserve space per year. The largest park costs nearly $ 35 million a year to sponsor, while the smallest costs $ 23,000 a year.

Once the sponsorship deals are in place, companies donate goods and services – including vehicles or a fire brigade – to the Chico Mendes Institute office in each reserve.

Critics say another problem is that civil servants have been banned from working on the program. Most of the senior officials who lead the initiative are new to the ministry. Some are police officers with little environmental experience.

The program has received little support from environmentalists who believe that its goal of conservation runs counter to Mr Bolsonaro and Mr Salles’ track record.

Last week, the Brazilian Supreme Court approved searches and seizures of addresses associated with Mr Salles and unsealed records of his financial transactions as part of a federal police investigation into the export of illegal timber from the Amazon to the United States.

Several of his top helpers, including the head of the most important Brazilian environmental protection agency, had to resign from their duties.

As minister, Mr Salles continued to dismantle an already understaffed and underfunded environmental protection system. He made environmental fines difficult to collect, fired agents who successfully investigated environmental crimes and fought with the governments of Norway and Germany, who jointly spent $ 1.3 billion a year on Amazon conservation programs through 2019.

Last July, Mr Salles first announced his intention to share responsibility for protecting the Amazon with non-governmental actors. As protests against fires in the Amazon rainforest increased, he called on actor Leonardo DiCaprio, one of the government’s most prominent critics, to sponsor a reserve.

“Are you going to put your money where your mouth is?” Mr Salles wrote on Twitter in September.

Apart from the fact that the Brazilian government proposed the program to introduce the park ahead of the climate summit convened by the Biden government last month, it appears to have done little to improve its environmental policies.

At the summit, Mr Bolsonaro promised to allocate more money to environmental protection agencies. But the next day the government did the opposite and signed a budget that further restricted the agencies’ funding.

And federal legislators are considering a bill to make it easier for companies to get environmental permits for new farming, mining and infrastructure businesses.

“Will receiving donations as you suggest compensate for all of this?” asked Natalie Unterstell, an expert at Política por Inteiro, a think tank that has been following the program. “No. It is a palliative measure.”