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Biden Hoping For Brazil's Bolsonaro To Agree To Stop Destroying The Amazon Rainforest

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

President Joe Biden hosts a two-day virtual summit on climate change starting tomorrow. The White House has invited dozens of world leaders to join online, including Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. NPR's Philip Reeves says Biden is pressuring a resistant Bolsonaro to stop destroying the Amazon rainforest.

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PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO: (Speaking in Portuguese).

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Perhaps you remember this.

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BOLSONARO: (Speaking in Portuguese).

REEVES: That's Bolsonaro addressing the U.N. General Assembly just over 18 months ago. He was facing huge international pressure to stop surging deforestation in the Amazon.

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BOLSONARO: (Speaking in Portuguese).

REEVES: The rainforest doesn't belong to humanity, says Bolsonaro, it's Brazil's. Some foreign countries act like interfering colonialists, he complained. These days, Bolsonaro is striking a more moderate note. He sent a letter to President Biden ahead of tomorrow's summit. It says he's eager to cooperate and willing to recommit Brazil to a deforestation target. Does he mean it? Bolsonaro is under intense pressure from Brazilian business and political forces to change tack. They believe the spike in deforestation in the Amazon on his watch, coupled with his disastrous pandemic response, is badly damaging Brazil's international standing.

RUBENS BARBOSA: The credibility of the country and the soft power that Brazil had in the past is vanishing.

REEVES: Rubens Barbosa is a former Brazilian ambassador to Washington.

BARBOSA: We have lost the leadership position that we had.

REEVES: Brazilian government officials reportedly say Bolsonaro really is committed to a more positive role in preserving the rainforest. They've been in talks with the U.S. about a possible deal. That worries activists working to protect the forest. They've posted an online message to Biden.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTIVIST: We know the White House is making a secret climate deal with Bolsonaro. We Brazilians must warn you. Do not trust Bolsonaro. Do not let this man negotiate the future of the Amazon.

REEVES: Environmental groups point to Bolsonaro's record. Last year, the Brazilian Amazon lost an area 14 times the size of New York City to deforestation. That's the most in 12 years. This is partly because Bolsonaro has weakened government environmental agencies combating illegal mining and logging.

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CACIQUE RAONI: (Speaking in Kayapo).

REEVES: Brazil's most prominent Indigenous leader, Cacique Raoni, who's about 90, has also made a pre-summit video for Biden. Raoni talks about the Brazilian president encouraging the theft of Indigenous land. Don't listen to Bolsonaro, he says. Celebrities, academics and activists inside and outside of Brazil echo that message. Many say if there is any deal-making over the rainforest, civil society and other stakeholders in Brazil must take part. Yet, after four years of Donald Trump, President Biden's summit is seen by many as an important step forward.

Marcello Brito is from the Brazilian Coalition on Climate, Forests and Agriculture.

MARCELLO BRITO: I think the environmentalist is back to the business again, is back to the table, so it's a new starting point.

REEVES: The Biden summit's highlighting the need to stop deforestation, says Adriana Ramos, coordinator of Brazil's Socio-Environmental Institute.

ADRIANA RAMOS: Whenever you have the president of one of the most powerful countries in the world saying this is real, this is a problem and everybody must face this, it's something that makes a huge difference.

REEVES: For the Amazon rainforest, that can only be a good thing.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE KINKS SONG, "THIS TIME TOMORROW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.