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Bolsonaro Won’t Save the Amazon—But Corporations Could

The private sector has long been the bad guy in environmental stories. But with Brazil's president overseeing rapid deforestation, big companies could get a second act as eco-champions.

Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

As the Amazon continues to burn, Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro is attending his first United Nations General Assembly this week—not just any General Assembly, but the first time UN leaders will evaluate their progress on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals all 193 member states committed to in 2015. Number 13 on that list is “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.” Number 15 is to “protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems.”

Bolsonaro kicked off the UN General Debate Tuesday with a speech that contrasted sharply with those goals. He read a letter he said was written by indigenous farmers that called for development of the Amazon. He accused the foreign press of false coverage of the fires, which he insisted are not devastating the rainforest. He announced that Brazil will not increase the amount of land demarcated for indigenous groups, and blamed “radical extreme environmentalism” for harming indigenous interests. “The indigenous people do not want to be poor large landholders sitting on rich lands,” Bolsonaro said.

Four years ago, pledging her support for the the Sustainable Development Goals, former president Dilma Rousseff committed to fighting deforestation in the Amazon, 60 percent of which lies within Brazilian borders. But since he took office in January, Bolsonaro has cut the budget of the agency in charge of protecting the rainforest, and the number of fines issued by the agency for environmental crimes has also gone down, emboldening those inclined to clear land for farming, mining, or other activities. Bolsonaro has publicly bristled at the idea of the Amazon as an international issue, dismissing one offer of firefighting aid in August as being insufficiently respectful of Brazilian sovereignty. The meetings this week inevitably raise the question: How much progress can the international community really make if leaders in a key state like Brazil are no longer interested in participating?

The Sustainable Development Goals may never have been the most realistic of targets, criticized by some in the international development community for their broad, sweeping aspirations (“no poverty” and “zero hunger”) and tight deadline of 2030. But the silver lining to these “missed opportunities,” as Deirdre White, CEO of development-focused company Pyxera Global calls them, is how other sources of power have started to step in when governments are uncooperative.

Like the Paris Climate Agreement, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals were formed as an agreement among nations. Corporations, however, have become key players in either advancing or hampering progress toward them. “We are seeing more and more the private sector embracing the SDG’s, committing to the SDG’s, talking, training their policies around the SDG’s,” Naiara Costa, a senior officer in the UN’s Division for Sustainable Development Goals, told me. This seems to be an emerging theme in climate action in particular. In the United States, some companies have publicly committed to upholding their part in the Paris Agreement even with President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw.

In Brazil while state governments are wading into the climate debate, and have pledged to uphold the Paris Agreement whatever Bolsonaro ultimately decides at the national level, businesses, particularly agribusinesses, have been slower to take a stand. But that may be changing.

“They are a major part of the coalition that elected Bolsonaro, and they are now withdrawing support gradually,” Eduardo Viola, a professor of international relations at the University of Brasilia, told me. “Some have made public statements saying that it’s crucial for Brazil to protect the environment and to protect the Amazon, but not directly attacking the Bolsonaro administration.” More explicit statements may follow if the trend continues.

Despite Bolsonaro’s pro-business platform, international outrage over the rainforest fires have left Brazilian agribusinesses in a tough spot. U.S.-based VF Corporation, which owns brands like Vans and Timberland, and Sweden’s H&M Group have said they will no longer buy Brazilian leather, after cattle ranchers were accused of contributing to the deforestation. While such actions alone probably won’t prompt the president to change his rhetoric about the Amazon, Viola speculates, they do highlight one of the ways non-government actors can work around uncooperative state leaders.

The biggest danger with countries like the United States and Brazil turning their backs on international climate and development goals, White said, is that it could encourage other countries to follow suit. Companies like Wal-Mart have larger economies than many countries—latent power that is rarely mobilized toward non-commercial goals. Such companies’ interests don’t always align with conservation. But corporations do have the power to set trends. And in an era when a single viral social media post can cause a public relations fiasco, many companies don’t want to be caught on the wrong side of history.

That, in turn, opens up a space for watchdog groups and consumer pressure. This past April, the nonprofit Amazon Watch released a report called “Complicity in Destruction: How Northern Consumers and Financiers Enable Bolsonaro’s Assault on the Brazilian Amazon,” naming specific companies with ties to illegal deforestation. Immediately after it was released, a small acai importing company released a statement saying they were ending their relationship with a supplier the report had identified, Moira Birss, one of the report’s co-authors, told me. The company, ACAI GmbH, defended their products as “clean” in a statement but said they no longer had ties to Argus Comercio e Exportação de Alimentos, a Brazilian company that the Amazon Watch report said had been fined thousands of dollars for illegal deforestation.

This kind of corporate influence from abroad, of course, could be accused of interfering in Brazilian affairs, much as Bolsonaro accused French president Emanuel Macron of “colonialism” when the Group of 7 offered a $22 million aid package to help stop the fires. And in an ideal world, such international scrutiny, whether from the United Nations or from corporations and the court of public opinion, would be applied equally, Viola pointed out: to countries like the United States, too, for insufficient action on carbon emissions. That may not be something large corporations, many of them headquartered in these other countries, and benefiting either directly or indirectly from their environmental policies, are best placed to do. But that very same drawback makes such companies susceptible to activists in their own communities.

“When we see the fires in a far-off place, we might feel devastated, but we can’t vote in Brazil or go protest at Bolsonaro’s house,” Birss said. “But we actually can have an impact because some of the key actors here are headquartered in our own countries and, in some cases, in our own cities and towns. We can use this information, this knowledge to directly pressure those actors.” Birss suggested writing letters or making phone calls to large companies like BlackRock, which Amazon Watch has accused of being one of the world’s largest investors in deforestation.

Even back in 2015 as the Sustainable Development Goals were adopted, those involved knew government commitments could only accomplish so much. “They also acknowledged that implementing the ambition in the 2030 agenda and the sustainable development goals would demand the partnership, the active engagement, and participation of all the other sectors of the society,” Costa said.  

With key states like Brazil now pulling back from the 2030 agenda, those “other sectors of the society” may have an even larger role to play than originally predicted. Corporations in particular can transcend national boundaries, and are at least somewhat responsive to consumer pressure. They could yet provide a way around intransigent governments—an interesting turn of events for groups more accustomed to being environmental villains than champions.