Lula’s Rainforest Diplomacy Debut
Brazil’s Amazon summit featured both cooperation and contradiction among the world’s forest-rich countries.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: Brazil tries to rally new support for rainforests, a presidential candidate is killed in Ecuador, and Kenya offers to send police officers to help Haiti battle gangs.
This week, Brazil hosted a summit on conserving the Amazon and other rainforests around the world. The event, which included rainforest countries from across the global south, showcased how President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s approach to environmental policy has evolved since he last led the country—and become part of Brazil’s foreign policy.
From 2003 to 2010, Lula embraced a carrot-and-stick approach for managing deforestation in the Amazon: Brazil provided financial incentives for legal land use and imposed penalties on would-be deforesters. A landmark moment for Brazil’s clout on rainforest protection came in 2009, when Brasília announced a dramatic 45 percent drop in annual deforestation as a result of Lula’s initiatives.
Still, Natalie Unterstell, the president of the Talanoa Institute, a Brazilian climate policy think tank, told Foreign Policy that although Brazil took strong actions at the national level during Lula’s previous time in office, it has not coordinated closely with neighboring Amazon countries on forest protection since then. It also opted not to join a global bloc of rainforest countries pushing for greater financial contributions from rich countries in U.N. climate talks.
Under the Jair Bolsonaro administration, Brazil weakened enforcement for environmental crimes; Amazon destruction shot up as a result. After winning reelection in 2022, Lula pledged to revert that slide—so far, with success: Satellite monitoring shows that between Lula’s Jan. 1 inauguration and the end of July, deforestation fell 42.5 percent in comparison with the same period in 2022.
In this light, this week’s summit represented not only a renewed domestic prioritization of forest protection but also its elevation as a broader foreign-policy priority for Lula. According to Unterstell, the fact that Lula is now coordinating both with neighboring countries and with global forest-rich nations reflects a positive shift in Brazil’s climate policy.
The first day of the two-day summit focused on the eight countries home to the Amazon: Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela. The group has a wide range of track records on Amazon deforestation—a particularly bad offender is Bolivia, where primary tropical forest loss jumped 32 percent between 2021 and 2022. Still, all signed on to a commitment to prevent the forest from passing a “point of no return.” Some scientists have warned of an Amazonian tipping point of around 20 percent to 25 percent of forest loss, at which point they believe the forest could transform into a woody grassland.
The group also committed to law enforcement cooperation for fighting organized crime in the Amazon, affirmed the importance of Indigenous people being at the forefront of forest policy decisions, and announced plans for cooperation among Amazonian universities to promote research that could lead to technological advancement and sustainably produced goods that create income for Amazon communities.
On the summit’s second day, forest-rich countries from elsewhere in the world—Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Republic of Congo—joined South American countries in a joint declaration that voiced their commitment to forest protection and called for more funding from rich countries for climate efforts.
The declarations from both days of the summit criticized “unilateral” environmental protection measures that they said amounted to disguised trade restrictions, a reference to laws either being passed or debated in European and other wealthy countries that would restrict imports of products linked to deforestation. Brazil joins countries such as Indonesia and India by arguing that such measures are too strict on poor countries given their differing levels of development.
But while the event revealed new geographic dimensions of Brazil’s forest protection efforts, it also highlighted its contradictions.
At the summit, a multinational coalition of Indigenous groups as well as Colombian President Gustavo Petro called for an end to new oil exploration in the Amazon. Petro’s verbal appeal applied most immediately to Brazil, whose state oil company has sought a license to drill at the mouth of the Amazon River basin. Elsewhere, public opposition has put pressure on governments to halt drilling projects. In Ecuador, for example, the prospect of drilling in an Amazonian national park faced so much Indigenous pushback that the country will hold a referendum on it on Aug. 20. But in Brazil, activist pressure has not prompted Lula to change his pro-drilling stance.
The Amazon countries’ declaration was noncommittal on the issue: It merely said that countries would start a dialogue about “the sustainability of sectors like mining and hydrocarbons,” frustrating Colombia’s hopes for more ambitious action. For now, Petro’s goal of reducing the prominence of oil in Colombia’s economy remains unique among South American countries, many of which are instead planning on ramping up production.
Despite their differences over oil exploration, Brazil and Colombia shared a key goal going into the summit: to get all eight Amazon countries to sign on to a commitment to eliminate all deforestation by 2030. (All but Bolivia and Venezuela had already committed to this goal.) Yet the summit failed to convince either country to budge.
In all, the major achievements of the summit “ended up being more about processes”—such as new efforts to monitor crime in the forest and cooperate on scientific research—“than concrete targets,” Diego Casaes, a campaigner for the activist group Avaaz, told Foreign Policy.
But, said Unterstell, the fact that the summit introduced new scrutiny on the environmental records of countries such as Bolivia and Venezuela represents potential for progress. Often, those countries are in the news for their political and economic crises rather than for their environmental policies; engagement by neighboring countries could make a difference for forest protection.
“The most positive thing that we saw from this summit is the recognition from all of these countries that they can’t keep destroying the forest like it’s never going to run out,” Unterstell said.
Brazil is expected to host the 2025 U.N. climate conference in Belém, the same city as this week’s summit. Until then, if the throngs of Indigenous and environmental activists this week are any indication, the pressure to protect the Amazon is only likely to increase.
Saturday, Aug. 12: Colombia faces England in the Women’s World Cup quarterfinals.
Sunday, Aug. 13: Argentina holds mandatory primary elections.
Sunday, Aug. 20: Guatemala holds a presidential runoff election, and Ecuador holds snap general elections.
What We’re Following
Campaign trail killing. The gang violence that has engulfed Ecuador in recent months appeared to reach its presidential race on Wednesday, when anti-corruption candidate Fernando Villavicencio was shot dead outside of a rally in Quito. The shocking incident marked the first time a presidential candidate has been assassinated in the country’s history.
Incumbent President Guillermo Lasso declared a two-month state of emergency in response to the killing. Villavicencio’s fellow candidates condemned the murder; some even said they are suspending their campaigns.
“There is no precedent for this political violence in Ecuador’s modern history,” political risk analyst Sebastián Hurtado told the Financial Times. “This is a turning point, and one that shows how interconnected political interests are with criminal and economic ones.”
Villavicencio was an investigative journalist before being elected to Ecuador’s Congress in 2021. On the campaign trail, he was a vocal critic of government corruption as well as gang violence, often deliberately naming the gangs and their leaders who were suspected of destabilizing the country when other candidates shied away from doing so.
Days before he was killed, he said he had been receiving threats from a local group linked to Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel for publicly criticizing its activity. Lasso pledged that authorities would identify the killer, and the United States said FBI investigators would assist Ecuador in doing so.
Family matters. After one year in office, Colombian President Gustavo Petro’s approval ratings have fallen to 33 percent—compared with 56 percent when he took office—amid an ongoing government investigation into his son Nicolás Petro for his involvement in potential illicit financing of his father’s campaign.
Colombia’s attorney general has accused Nicolás, a regional lawmaker on Colombia’s northern coast, of money laundering, though his office did not announce the full details of the case. Newspaper El Espectador reported that Nicolás is cooperating with the investigation. President Petro said he was unaware of any wrongdoing and will allow the probe to proceed without interference. This earned him praise from anti-corruption advocates, as did his naming of three candidates known for their independent anti-corruption stances to be the country’s next attorney general.
Still, new developments related to his son’s case may further weaken Petro, whose legislative agenda on health care and labor reforms had already stalled due to disapproval from the political opposition.
Standing up, being counted. The results of Brazil’s 2022 census—its first in over a decade—are in, and the number of people identifying as Indigenous has nearly doubled since the last count in 2010. The 2022 census found 1.69 million Indigenous Brazilians, around 0.83 percent of the country’s total population.
Announcing the data, Brazil’s planning minister said that census workers used helicopters to reach Indigenous communities that they did not survey the last time around. Additionally, social scientists cite an uptick in Indigenous activism and thus Brazilians who choose to identify as Indigenous rather than “brown” or “mixed-race,” options some chose in the past.
Brazil’s Gen Z Indigenous activists have also become visible on social media in recent years. One such Indigenous Instagrammer, Txai Suruí, was a vocal participant in Indigenous activism at Brazil’s Amazon summit this week.
Question of the Week
As of 2022, what percentage of Brazilian territory is currently protected or in the process of gaining official protection as Indigenous reserves?
That’s according to data compiled by Brazil’s Socio-Environmental Institute.
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In Focus: Will Kenya Intervene in Haiti?
Kenya is preparing to send an assessment team to Haiti within the next two weeks to determine the operational requirements for leading a potential multinational police intervention to help the country address its gang problem.
Gang violence in Haiti has worsened dramatically since the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Gangs are now estimated to control some 80 percent of the country’s capital city, where more than 600 people were killed in the month of April alone.
Haiti’s security crisis is intertwined with its political one. Moïse’s killing yielded a moment of ambiguity over who should lead Haiti, and it was the endorsement of the United States and other outside actors that have been heavily involved in Haitian affairs that led to Ariel Henry taking power as interim prime minister.
When Henry requested a foreign military mission to stabilize the country last October, some Haitian civil society groups criticized him, saying he lacked the legitimacy to make such a request. Henry has resisted opposition calls to enter into a power-sharing agreement. An intervention, critics say, could cement his power.
Previous foreign military interventions and peacekeeping missions have failed to establish long-term stability in Haiti. The most recent one, by the United Nations from 2004 to 2017, restored some order in the country but was tainted by accusations of soldiers’ sexual assaults against Haitians and the introduction of cholera to the country.
Washington has said it wants to support Haiti in its time of need but has been reluctant to lead a military force. “For months and months the U.S. has tried to cajole Canada and Brazil into taking on a military intervention in Haiti, and both [have] been saying, ‘Thank you, no’ over and over,” Brookings Institution analyst Vanda Felbab-Brown tweeted last week. “Among other reasons, they appropriately assess what a military challenge an intervention will be.”
So far, foreign powers have focused on bolstering the Haitian National Police through training, equipment, and intelligence sharing. Washington has consulted with other countries that might be up to the task—including Kenya. On July 29, Kenya said it would consider leading a multinational force in Haiti, and days later, Washington said it would introduce a U.N. Security Council resolution backing Kenya’s initiative, which Jamaica and the Bahamas both said they would support. Kenyan officials framed the idea as one of solidarity, saying that Kenya “stands with persons of African descent,” but human rights groups were quick to flag Kenyan security forces’ own record of alleged human rights violations, including shootings of anti-government protesters in recent months.
Many suspect Kenya of having ulterior motives for intervening. Kenya’s and Jamaica’s leaders’ “interest in treading their boots on Haitian soil has nothing to do with a desire to help Haiti,” but rather with money they stand to gain through payments for their services, Haitian writer Lyonel Trouillot argued in the Ayibo Post.
While some Haitians are opposed to a foreign security mission and would prefer other forms of support from the international community—such as aid or diplomatic pressure—as far back as January, insecurity was bad enough that a survey by a Haitian business group found that most Haitians were in favor of an international force being deployed to support the Haitian police.
Writing in Foreign Policy last month, Pierre Esperánce of the National Human Rights Defense Network in Haiti argued that the United States—which “for at least a century has played an outsize role in Haitian politics”—should do more and “make it a diplomatic priority to support negotiations for a clean and legitimate interim government.” Henry so far has undermined negotiations to form a consensus government with the opposition with at least tacit support by U.S. officials, Esperánce wrote.
Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn
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