This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Investigations Network.
RIO DE JANEIRO — As the Biden administration rallies the international community to curb global warming in a climate change summit this week, Brazil is pledging to play a critical role, going as far as promising to end illegal deforestation by 2030.
There’s a catch: Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, wants the international community to pledge billions of dollars to pay for the conservation initiatives.
And donors are reluctant to provide the money, since Brazil under the Bolsonaro administration has been busy doing the opposite of conservation, gutting the country’s environmental protection system, undermining Indigenous rights and championing industries driving the destruction of the rainforest.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s watch, deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, by far the largest in the world, has risen to the highest level in over a decade. The destruction, which has been driven by loggers clearing land for cattle grazing and for illegal mining operations, sparked global outrage in 2019 as huge wildfires raged for weeks.
European Union, Norway and others in warning that its worsening reputation hampers the country’s economic potential.
that Norway and Germany froze in 2019 after Mr. Bolsonaro’s government criticized some of the projects and dismantled safeguards to ensure the money was used effectively.
“The shamelessness of the government to ask for resources abroad is striking,” Ms. Araújo said. “Why won’t he use the money that’s there?”
Environmental and Indigenous organizations have expressed deep skepticism about Mr. Bolsonaro’s professed willingness to fight deforestation and they have warned international donors to refrain from giving the Brazilian government money they fear could be used to undermine environmental protection.
In recent weeks, environmentalists have raised the alarm, and celebrities — including the Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso and the American actor Leonardo DiCaprio — signed a letter that conveyed “profound concern” about the talks.
There is no sign that the Biden administration is considering offering to fund deforestation efforts on a significant scale, which would require support from Congress.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said last week that the United States does not expect to announce a bilateral agreement with Brazil at this week’s climate summit.
“We do want to see a clear commitment to ending illegal deforestation, tangible steps to increase effective enforcement of illegal deforestation, and a political signal that illegal deforestation and encroachment will not be tolerated,” she told reporters last week.
an analysis by Climate Observatory.
After the country’s vice president, Hamilton Mourão, announced the government’s first target for deforestation reduction earlier this month, experts pointed out that reaching the goal would leave Brazil by the end of 2022 with a level of deforestation 16 percent higher than the one Mr. Bolsonaro inherited in 2019.
The Bolsonaro administration is backing a bill that would give land grabbers amnesty, a move that would open up a swath of the Amazon at least the size of France to largely unregulated development. Another initiative it is pressing in Congress would make it easier for companies to get environmental licenses and would pave the way for legal mining operations in Indigenous territories.
And there is deep distrust toward Mr. Salles among environmentalists and public servants in the field. A senior federal police official in the Amazon recently accused the minister of obstructing a law enforcement operation against illegal loggers.
Private sector leaders are among the most concerned over the government’s record on the environment. Though China buys almost a third of Brazil’s exports, Americans are crucial investors in companies whose supply chains are vulnerable to deforestation.
In an open letter, the heads of dozens of major Brazilian companies, including the meatpacker JBS and the Itaú bank, urged the government to set more ambitious carbon emission reduction targets.
“Any work that reduces illegal deforestation benefits the private sector,” said Marcello Brito, the president of the Brazilian Agribusiness Association, which was among the signatories. “What I fear is a boycott by the market.”
That’s a prospect Mr. Chapman, the American ambassador, has underscored.
“If things don’t go well, it’s not about what happens with the American government, it’s about what happens with the world,” he said. “Many companies in the United States now, their shareholders are demanding an answer.”
Tropical forests around the world were destroyed at an increasing rate in 2020 compared with the year before, despite the global economic downturn caused by the pandemic, which reduced demand for some commodities that have spurred deforestation in the past.
Worldwide, loss of primary old-growth tropical forest, which plays a critical role in keeping carbon out of the atmosphere and in maintaining biodiversity, increased by 12 percent in 2020 from 2019, according to the World Resources Institute, a research group based in Washington that reports annually on the subject.
Overall, more than 10 million acres of primary tropical forest was lost in 2020, an area roughly the size of Switzerland. The institute’s analysis said loss of that much forest added more than two and a half billion metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, or about twice as much as is spewed into the air by cars in the United States every year.
pro-development policies of the country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, led to continued widespread clear-cutting. Surging forest losses were also reported in Cameroon in West Africa. And in Colombia, losses soared again last year after a promising drop in 2019.
a severe fire season, with 16 times more forest loss in 2020 than the year before.
anecdotal reports from Brazil and other countries suggested that deforestation was rising because of the pandemic, as the health crisis hampered governments’ efforts to enforce bans on clear-cutting, and as workers who lost their jobs because of the downturn migrated out of cities to rural areas to farm. But Mr. Taylor said the analysis showed “no obvious systemic shift” in forest loss as a result of the pandemic.
If anything, the crisis and the resulting global economic downturn should have led to less overall forest loss, as demand, and prices, for palm oil and other commodities fell. While falling demand may have helped improve the situation in Indonesia and a few other countries, Ms. Seymour said that globally it was “astonishing that in a year that the global economy contracted somewhere between 3 and 4 percent, primary forest loss increased by 12 percent.”
Global Land Analysis and Discovery laboratory at the University of Maryland, who have devised methods for analyzing satellite imagery to determine forest cover. The World Resources Institute refers to their findings as “forest cover loss” rather than “deforestation” because the analysis includes trees lost from plantations and does not distinguish between trees lost to human activities and those lost to natural causes.
Many of us will have felt the grip of claustrophobic isolation over the past year, but the lawyer Steven Donziger has experienced an extreme, very personal confinement as a pandemic arrived and then raged around him in New York City.
On Sunday, Donziger reached his 600th day of an unprecedented house arrest that has resulted from a sprawling, Kafkaesque legal battle with the oil giant Chevron. Donziger spearheaded a lengthy crusade against the company on behalf of tens of thousands of Indigenous people in the Amazon rainforest whose homes and health were devastated by oil pollution, only to himself become, as he describes it, the victim of a “planned targeting by a corporation to destroy my life”.
Since August 2019, Donziger has been restricted to his elegant Manhattan apartment, a clunky court-mandated monitoring bracelet he calls “the black claw” continuously strapped to his left ankle. He cannot even venture into the hallway, or to pick up his mail. Exempted excursions for medical appointments or major school events for his 14-year-old son require permission days in advance. An indoor bike sits by the front door in lieu of alternative exercise options.
“There’s no comparison to quarantine because I can’t even go outside for a walk. If my kid is sick I can’t go to the drug store to get a prescription,” Donziger said. “I never truly understood freedom until I was put in this situation.”
The nights are hardest for Donziger, when he has to struggle to get his jeans off over the boxy tag and lie in bed next to his wife “with the government still there on my ankle”. Each morning he wakes up in angst. A flag reading “SOS Free Steven” sometimes flutters defiantly from the window, but efforts to end the unusually long detention have yet to be granted.
“It’s been brutally difficult for him,” said Paul Paz y Miño, associate director of Amazon Watch, a conservation group allied to Donziger. “It’s taken a huge toll on him and his family. Chevron wants the narrative to be that he’s a criminal. The implications of that for the entire environmental movement against oil companies is terrifying.”
There are moments of relief, such as sticking his head outside to taste a sunny day or talking to his growing legion of outraged supporters, which now spans Alec Baldwin, Pink Floyd singer Roger Waters and dozens of Nobel laureates. “There’s never a day off, I can never properly relax,” Donziger said. “But you either grow or die in a situation like this. And I’ve been growing.”
The dispute with Chevron centres upon a landmark 2011 decision by the Ecuador courts to order the company pay $9.5bn in damages to people blighted by decades of polluted air and water. Chevron has never paid up, claiming “shocking levels of misconduct” and fraud by Donziger and the Ecuadorian judiciary.
But the subsequent web of events that has led to Donziger being detained and stripped of his law license is befuddling even to legal scholars. “Frankly, I scratch my head when I look at this case,” said Larry Catá Backer, a professor of international law at Penn State University. “It is this strange multi-front battle with one extraordinary explosive development after another. It has had this magical quality to enrage everyone involved in it.”
Donziger was first touched by the case that would consume his life as a young lawyer acting as a public defender in Washington. In 1993, he joined a legal team investigating reports of pollution in the Lago Agrio region of northern Ecuador, nestled next to the country’s border with Colombia.
The oil company Texaco had carved out drilling outposts in this tract of the Amazon since the 1960s, leaving what Donziger calls “grotesque” Olympic swimming pool-sized waste pits of oil. Pollution flowed freely into rivers and streams used by the Indigenous population for drinking water. Cancers of the stomach, liver and throat reportedly became more common in the region, as did childhood leukemia. “People there are living in a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions,” Donziger said.
A Spanish speaker, Donziger became ever more enmeshed in the case, traveling to Ecuador hundreds of times to assemble a case in behalf of local people. Despite lengthy attempts by Chevron, which bought Texaco, to block the case, the action ultimately went to trial and resulted in a historic judgement against the oil company.
Donziger’s elation was short-lived, however, with Chevron claiming that his team ghostwrote what should have been an independent assessment and offered a $500,000 bribe to sway the judgment. Donziger denied any wrongdoing and the Ecuador supreme court later affirmed the original ruling, but Chevron has refused to pay the $9.5bn in damages.
A US federal judge then concurred with the fraud allegations, negating the possibility of wrenching the money from Chevron in its home country, finding that Donziger conducted a “pattern of racketeering activity” under statutes more commonly used to target mob bosses.
Donziger was made liable for millions of dollars in Chevron’s legal costs and the company was granted seizure of his laptop and cellphone. When he appealed this, claiming the devices contained sensitive client information, the judge, Lewis Kaplan, hit him with criminal contempt charges, upheld on appeal, that led to his house arrest.
In one of the stranger episodes in this saga, Chevron relocated Alberto Guerra, an Ecuadorian judge, and his family to the US, paid for his health insurance and a car while meeting with him more than 50 times before he provided testimony that Donziger discussed the bribe with him at a Quito restaurant. Guerra has since admitted that his testimony was exaggerated in parts, untrue in others.
This deception, the unprecedented length of detention for a misdemeanor charge, legal disbarment and personal financial wipeout has fueled a sense of persecution in Donziger. Kaplan’s conduct, Donziger said, has been an “abomination, unethical and abusive. I never thought this could happen in the US.” Other lawyers have voiced more measured concerns over Kaplan. Chevron has “captured” the judge, Donziger said, and now the oil company seems omnipresent in his fate.
His contempt charge will be heard by Judge Loretta Preska, who was on the advisory board of the New York chapter of the Federalist Society, who took the unusual step of appointing a law firm that has previously done work for Chevron, Seward & Kissel, to prosecute Donziger after the department of justice declined to take the case. “Why am I being tried by a Chevron-connected judge and prosecuted by a Chevron-connected lawyer? It’s just wrong,” Donziger said. “This is all part of a plan concocted by Chevron to dismantle my life. They want to do this to avoid paying up and to turn me into a weapon of intimidation against the whole legal profession.”
Christiana Ochoa, an expert in environmental law at Indiana University, said Kaplan and Preska’s connections do not themselves prove any sort of bias, and that Kaplan’s strongly worded judgment suggests “not great behavior” by Donziger. But she added that the severity of Donziger’s treatment is “odd” and that questions remain over the conflict of interest in his prosecution.
“Certainly it’s very important to corporations like Chevron to protect themselves from liability from ecological harms,” she said. “They’ve refused to apologize to the victims. They don’t want any chink in the armor.”
A Chevron spokesman said an international tribunal has confirmed the Ecuadorian decision was “fraudulent” and he denied the company has persecuted its long-time adversary. “Donziger has no one to blame but himself for his problems,” the spokesman said. “The court initiated the pending criminal case against him. Chevron is not involved in that case.”
In Donziger’s eyes, the only real corruption has occurred in the US system, not Ecuador’s, a symptom of what he views as a “colonial” mindset that has airily dismissed judgements made outside the US and obscured the ultimate protagonists of this saga, the people of Lago Agrio. Shortly before his house arrest, in the summer of 2019, Donziger toured some villages in Ecuador, discovering some people he’d previously met had died of cancer. The toxic pits remain, despite a piecemeal attempt by the government at a cleanup.
“The human suffering is immense,” he said. “It was hard to see. Ultimately, all this isn’t about me. It’s about what has happened to these people.”