Brazil’s latest sales pitch? Come exploit the Amazon rainforest

Brazil’s Environment Minister Ricardo Salles has been called a ‘termite eating the ministry from the inside’ by his predecessor.

Firefighter Brazil Amazon rainforest wildfire
After fires devastated Brazil's Amazon rainforest, US President-elect Joe Biden said the government of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should face consequences if he continues to fail to protect it [File: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters]

Brazil’s environment minister has a vision for the Amazon — as a money-making venture open to business.

In meetings with international fund managers, Ricardo Salles pitches the rainforest as a novel opportunity ripe for investment. Where conservationists see a fragile region in urgent need of protection, Salles sells an image of cosmetics and pharmaceutical companies exploiting the jungle’s myriad exotic herbs, nuts and fruits.

“We have to attract private capital to the Amazon,” Salles, 45, said in an interview last month in his office in Brasilia, a large map of Brazil’s environmentally protected areas on one wall and a view of the capital’s treetops behind him. “This is my approach in all of the meetings that I have in Europe and the U.S.”

Ricardo Salles is pitching the Amazon rainforest as an international investment opportunity. Photographer: Andre Borges/Bloomberg (Bloomberg)

That’s a tall proposition for many given the Amazon is under threat. In June, 29 global money managers holding $3.7 trillion in assets told Brazil that President Jair Bolsonaro’s government needs to prove it’s got the forest’s destruction under control if it wants to see any money. Joe Biden’s defeat of Donald Trump, a Bolsonaro ally, means that Salles will soon face a U.S. administration pledging to “lead the world in addressing the climate emergency.”

Salles is undeterred. Though his plans have triggered unease at home and abroad, they typify the unorthodox attitude of one of the world’s most controversial environmental officials.

Brazil is home to more than half of the Amazon rainforest, a landscape containing one-in-ten of Earth’s known species which acts as a sink for some 90-140 billion tons of carbon, according to conservation group the World Wildlife Fund. That alone makes Salles a global player.

But with deforestation occurring at a record rate, he is also first in line for international condemnation of the government’s response to the destruction.

Bolsonaro has blasted foreign meddling in the Amazon and declared the jungle a sovereign entity of Brazil. But the global outcry caused by images of devastated jungle forced the administration into changing its tune on international donations to its Amazon Fund.

Now Salles says the doors are open for outside investment that is “sustainable,” though he hasn’t set any green standards for companies. “I don’t want charity,” he said. “I want you to come to invest in the Amazon, to have laboratories, research and production lines and effectively do business.”

An area of rainforest larger than Jamaica was destroyed in the first seven months of this year, more than was lost in all of 2019, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Agency. The damage isn’t confined to Brazil — Bolivia, Peru and Colombia are also affected — but Brazil is the worst culprit by some way. And the destruction is getting worse under Bolsonaro.

The primary cause is clear-cutting, often by fire, to make pasture areas for cattle and agriculture. The fires mean that Brazil’s carbon-dioxide emissions are trending up, even as the pandemic-induced slowdown has led to a worldwide drop in CO2 output. Bolsonaro blames environmental nonprofits for setting the fires to draw attention to their cause. Salles argues that poverty is the biggest driver of the destruction, and says wealth creation is the answer.

Deforestation for cattle and agricultural lands is the leading cause of the Amazon’s destruction. Photographer: Leonardo Carrato/Bloomberg (Bloomberg)

Born in Sao Paulo to a family of lawyers and educated in Portugal, Salles looks the part of a member of the Brazilian elite, in designer clothes and boutique round glasses. He speaks methodically as he rebuts attacks on his office as ill-informed.

There’s a lot to rebut.

During an April cabinet meeting he was caught on a leaked tape saying the government should take advantage of the distraction provided by the pandemic to water down environmental laws. That same month, he signed a measure that would allow agricultural and ranching activities on land designated as “permanently preserved,” only for the prosecutor’s office to block it. In September, he stripped away protections for mangroves and coastal vegetation. Again, the prosecutor’s office, and then the Supreme Court, thwarted his effort.

“Salles is a termite eating the ministry from the inside,” said former Environmental Minister Carlos Minc.

As a member of leftist former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s government, Minc is hardly impartial. But he’s also far from alone in his assessment. In June, all nine living former environment ministers sent an open letter to the federal prosecutor’s office demanding an investigation into Salles’s actions.

Salles was named as environment minister by President Bolsonaro and previously served as a secretary to Sao Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin. Photographer: Andre Borges/Bloomberg (Bloomberg)

“When the government began, Bolsonaro thought of getting rid of the ministry of the environment,” said Minc. “Maybe that would have been better.”

Salles, who trained as a lawyer, was embroiled in controversy soon after starting his political career as environment secretary in Sao Paulo state government. In 2018, the courts found him guilty of administrative impropriety for changing the maps of Sao Paulo’s riverside forests to benefit mining companies. Salles is appealing the conviction.

His decision to order the removal of a statue of a resistance leader against Brazil’s military dictatorship caught the attention of Bolsonaro, a former army captain, and in 2019 the president tapped Salles for the federal cabinet.

Before Covid-19, Salles was a frequent traveler to make his Amazon pitch. Now, the events are digital. Typically, he gathers groups of 20 to 30 investors in meetings arranged by organizations such as the Brazil-U.S. Business Council.

In every meeting, Salles is peppered with questions about how he plans to save the Amazon. He advocates turning it into a mosaic of plots of land, with some for companies and others conserved under his flagship “Adopt1Park” program, where for 10 euros ($12) per hectare anyone can “sponsor” a chunk of rainforest.

That’s more private-sector involvement than many environmentalists would like.

Carlos Nobre, an internationally acclaimed climate scientist known for his work on the region, says he doesn’t disagree with the idea of attracting funds to develop and protect the Amazon, but that the state must have a role. “The forest will only remain sustainable with a public-private partnership,” he said.

Companies themselves are wary. Brazil’s Suzano SA, the world’s biggest wood-pulp producer, told the government that its lax protections were contributing to rainforest destruction and forfeiting billions of dollars in carbon credits.

Some formidable international opponents are also lining up. French President Emmanuel Macron and Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio are among those to have voiced concern about Brazil’s attitude to the Amazon.

Far from threatened, Salles seems to relish the controversy: When DiCaprio called out Brazil on Twitter, Salles responded by trolling him.

Perhaps most challenging of all, Salles must now sell his pitch to Biden. The president-elect has proposed a carrot-and-stick approach, offering $20 billion to stop the burning while suggesting that economic sanctions could result from the forest’s continued decimation. Bolsonaro rejected the proposal; Salles laughed it off.

“Is the $20 billion per year?” he asked.

Source: Bloomberg