How to save the Amazon rainforest

How to save the Amazon rainforest
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Brazil’s Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, a close ally of President Jair Bolsonaro, is demanding that the United States pay Brazil billions of dollars in return for reducing the rate of deforestation in the Amazon by 30 to 40 percent.  

Deforestation in the Amazon Basin is increasing. Just this past year, it has increased by 15 percent, according to the World Resources Institute, a statistic that includes Brazil most prominently, but also Peru, Colombia and Bolivia. 

Brazil’s demand represents an astronomically high price for tropical forest conservation and is opposed by including indigenous peoples.


Brazil’s demand has an unfortunate precedent in the region. In 2007, Rafael Correa’s administration in Ecuador asked the international community for $3.6 billion in exchange for “avoiding emissions by keeping petroleum underground” in the Yasuni National Park, a biodiverse hotspot. When his administration discovered that it could not raise anywhere near that amount, it proceeded to drill and blamed others for its failure. Brazil appears to be following a similar model of environmental protection.

But 15 U.S. Senate Democrats, including the chairs of the Senate Appropriations and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have urged President BidenJoe BidenBiden's quiet diplomacy under pressure as Israel-Hamas fighting intensifies Overnight Defense: Administration approves 5M arms sale to Israel | Biden backs ceasefire in call with Netanyahu | Military sexual assault reform push reaches turning point CDC mask update sparks confusion, opposition MORE to engage first in confidence-building measures before agreeing to any sweeping environmental agreements with Brazil. This should include dialogue with the many civil society groups that could assist Brazil to fulfill its climate commitments under the Paris Agreement, as well as several pieces of U.S. legislation. 

In 1989, Joe Biden — then a senator from Delaware — and his Republican colleague, the late Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, responded to the 1980s debt crisis in Latin America by enacting the Global Environment Protection Act (GEPA), allowing the United States Government to participate in so-called “Debt for Nature” swaps.  

A key feature of debt for nature swaps are their multiple requirements that the governments involved work with affected interests, especially civil society, and that they establish endowments to provide permanent protection to tropical rainforests.  Under GEPA, the United States Agency for International Development spent $95 million to establish endowments worth $146 million to conserve tropical forests in Costa Rica, Honduras, Indonesia, Jamaica, Madagascar Mexico, Panama and the Philippines.  Clearly, the model has proven attractive and effective in diverse regions of the world.  

As a senator, Biden also worked on another key piece of environmental legislation: the Tropical Forest Conservation Act of 1998 (TFCA).  Sens. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanSenators shed masks after CDC lifts mandate Bipartisanship has become a partisan weapon Carper urges Biden to nominate ambassadors amid influx at border MORE (R-Ohio) and Chris CoonsChris Andrew CoonsThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Israel-Hamas carnage worsens; Dems face SALT dilemma Schumer in bind over fight to overhaul elections New York, New Jersey, California face long odds in scrapping SALT  MORE (D-Del.) have reintroduced a five-year reauthorization of the TFCA at $20 million per year.  Funding for TFCA should be doubled to assist in protecting mega ecosystems such as the Amazon Basin.  And a grant program for the Amazon Basin should be launched like the one that raised over $500 million to protect the Congo Basin Forest ecosystem.


Debt for Nature swaps and an approach akin to the Congo Basin Forest Partnership broaden the aperture compared to what Brazil demands of the United States and other donors.  These agreements require buy-in from civil society and local populations.  They help to leverage precious foreign assistance funds, and they have safeguards to prevent funds from being diverted by corrupt officials.  

Debt for Nature swaps should be attractive to Bolsonaro for several reasons. Most obviously, Brazil needs major debt relief.  Its public sector debt reached 89 percent of its GDP in December 2020.  The expansion of income support to needy families during the pandemic helped to keep millions out of poverty, but it also heaped loads onto Brazil’s soaring debt.

Second, institutions that provide debt relief, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, are starting to recognize the significance of forests and other land uses in climate change mitigation.  The Biden administration should seek to tether debt relief to better land use protection. 

Third, a key priority for Bolsonaro, as well as for the 30 million to 35 million people who call the Amazon their home, is the economic development of the region.  Its citizens generally lag behind in terms of socioeconomic development and form a major part of Bolsonaro’s political base — to say nothing of the agribusiness interests in the region.

Establishing a functional environmental partnership between the United States and Brazil would ensure that development in the Amazon is based on consultations with multiple actors and consistent with sustainability principles.  Further, the obvious danger of pulling back is that Bolsonaro may instead rely on Brazil’s top trade partner — China — which would encourage neither sustainable development nor human rights protection in the Amazon. 

The U.S. has effective diplomatic tools in its arsenal to encourage Brazil to curb Amazon deforestation. In preparation for the upcoming Summit on Climate, Biden should take pride in his own legislative history when developing a workable strategy for approaching perhaps the most important attendee: Jair Bolsonaro.

Jeffry Burnam is a lecturer at American University and a former deputy assistant secretary of State for Environment.

Jorge Tortos is a policy advisor to the government of Costa Rica. The views expressed here are his own and not those of the Costa Rican government.

Ryan C. Berg is a research fellow in Latin America Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).