An aerial view of Amazon rainforest. (AP)

An aerial view of the Amazon rainforest. (AP)


AS/COA Insider: Brian Winter on Latin America’s Role at the Earth Day Climate Summit

The AS/COA vice president shares insights on U.S.-Brazil negotiations to protect the Amazon and how green development can boost Latin America’s post-Covid economic recovery.

Ahead of the April 22 and 23 Leaders Summit on Climate hosted by President Joe Biden, AS/COA Vice President of Policy and Americas Quarterly Editor-in-Chief Brian Winter explains why Brazil and Mexico will be the main players among the Latin American countries at the table, as well as getting into the delicate negotiations to protect the Amazon. “What we’ve seen from Washington has been some professional diplomacy—a recognition that any conversation about the Amazon has to take into account Brazil’s sovereignty over the area and avoid talk of things like international intervention,” Winter says.

Moreover, he discusses how green and sustainable initiatives will be crucial for Latin America’s post-Covid economic recovery.

AS/COA Online: Out of 40 countries invited to the Summit, seven Latin American and Caribbean countries will be participating. What are their biggest issues?

Brian Winter

Brian Winter: There’s no doubt that Latin America plays an important role in any debate about climate change and any action going forward. But it’s safe to say that the countries that are most under the spotlight this week are Brazil and Mexico, in more or less that order.

Brazil’s the one that the world has focused on, but Mexico also merits attention, as it’s actually Latin America’s greater emitter of greenhouse gases, and there have been some concerns over the last couple of years, particularly about President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s emphasis on fossil fuels as he seeks to build a refinery and do some other things that, from the perspective of the Biden administration, which is so focused on climate change, appear to be heading in the wrong direction.

So, as much as I think from a Latin American perspective, Brazil and President Jair Bolsonaro will suck almost all of the air out of the room, there’s going to be lots of attention on Mexico to see how seriously it will take the climate change issue and what concrete actions it will likely bring to the table.

AS/COA Online: Amid raging Amazon wildfires, Bolsonaro has been resistant to criticism over the issue of deforestation. As we go into the conference, how are U.S.-Brazil relations evolving around Amazon protection and deforestation? What are the developments?

Winter: Brazil and the United States have been talking and that’s at least something to point to.

The Bolsonaro administration really believed that former U.S. President Donald Trump was going to be reelected. And, of course, during the Trump years, they didn’t face significant pressure from the United States on the climate change issue. At the governmental level, the pressure tended to come from Europe, particularly France. But, with the election, Joe Biden took them by surprise. There is now a government in Washington that is not only focused on climate change but is also not ideologically aligned with Bolsonaro in the way that Trump was.

Many of us expected that, upon Biden’s election, the relationship with Brazil would get more tense, primarily because of this increase in deforestation in the Amazon that we’ve seen since Bolsonaro took office, in the order of about 40 percent, with deforestation now at a 12-year high.

I have to say that I’ve been surprised because the relationship has stayed more constructive and less confrontational than I expected. That’s partly because of a conscious attempt by the Biden administration to keep things constructive and give Bolsonaro the space that he would need to do the right thing on deforestation without being cornered.

But it’s also somewhat because of a change in tone from the Bolsonaro government itself. For the first two years, the government insisted that what was happening in the Amazon was not really a big deal, that deforestation was a communications problem in which the world either misunderstands or willfully distorts what’s happening in the Amazon. Over the last couple of months, that has changed somewhat. You have the Environment Minister Ricardo Salles no longer denying the essence of the problem and you saw an effort from both parts to reach some sort of deal prior to the April 22 summit.

But it’s clear there’s not going to be a deal prior to this. It’s clear that Brazil has set out some targets, but they’re not really new. What hopes there were to some sort of accommodation prior to this Summit seem to have all but vanished.

AS/COA Online: This Summit is this week, but what happens next? How do you control deforestation in the Amazon and are there signs that Brazil is moving in that direction?

Winter: My sense is that global public opinion is going to be disappointed with what Brazil brings to the table. They’re going to see it as a combination of old goals Bolsonaro put in a letter to Biden in which he committed to a reduction in illegal deforestation by 2030, which was really just a recycling of a goal that Brazil had already set back in 2015. There’s really nothing new and the Biden administration said as much.

So, there will be some disappointment and a tendency for Brazil to become even more isolated on the world stage than it already is. But it’s not necessarily going to get contentious right away in terms of the Brazil-U.S. relationship. What we’ve seen from Washington has been some professional diplomacy—a recognition that any conversation about the Amazon has to take into account Brazil’s sovereignty over the area and avoid talk of things like international intervention, which French President Emmanuel Macron mentioned at the height of the crisis back in 2019 and which I think, personally, was incredibly counterproductive.

The Biden government, particularly his climate envoy John Kerry, learned from that confrontation and realized that if you back Brazil too much into a corner, then you’re not going to get productive action. On top of that, there are longstanding issues involving the Brazilian military, which takes sovereignty over the Amazon extremely seriously.

“My sense is that global public opinion is going to be disappointed with what Brazil brings to the table.”

But that said, I don’t think you’re going to see Brazil get let off the hook either. Over the last couple days, Washington made the stakes clear. Brazil badly wants to be admitted into the OECD—one of Bolsonaro’s top foreign policy priorities—and the Biden administration, while not saying it 100 percent explicitly, has made clear that if Brazil doesn’t make concrete, short-term, realistic commitments, that that crucial U.S. support for OECD membership is going to be in danger.

There are also military, economic, and trade cooperation deals that could potentially be put on ice. This is pretty serious stuff at a time when Brazil looks around the world and doesn’t have a lot of allies—really any allies in Western Europe. And it looks around the region, sees governments like Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, and elsewhere where relationships are quite cool, and so to see that relationship with the United States, which has been strong for them these last couple of years during a time of deepening isolation, it could really take a toll on Brazil.

I don’t think you’ll see sanctions like some people have spoken about, but you will see lost opportunities, investments, and trade arrangements that might have been made in an alternate reality.

AS/COA Online: What should the Biden administration bear in mind in terms of its Latin American policy, given that the region is particularly susceptible to climate change and now faces new challenges, given the devastating economic effects of the pandemic?

Winter: I think the Biden administration understands that this is a region that is in profound crisis. Of course, we all recognize it’s a diverse region and some countries are worse off than others, but this is the region that has been hardest hit, not only by Covid in terms of deaths, but in terms of economic damage.

It’s safe to say that during times of trouble, there’s a temptation to put climate change issues on the backburner. At a personal level, I get it, I understand. When you have hunger and malnutrition and unemployment all on the rise, there’s a temptation to put aside these issues. It's also a temptation in a context where a lot of people, both on the left and right in Latin America, see the climate change issue as one where old, entrenched, rich world powers are trying to infringe upon their sovereignty. I clearly don’t see it that way, but I recognize the fact that many people do.

At the same time, governments in the region need to understand, and I think many of them do understand, that the Biden administration in particular and Europe as well—they’re not going to drop it. Climate change has consistently been one of the top four priorities for the Biden administration and it’s safe to say that it will be a main axis of the relationship with Latin America going forward. I think that there’s room for understanding and action, and for ensuring that the 2020s don’t see the same backsliding on some of these climate change commitments that we saw in the 2010s.

“It would be very smart for Latin American governments to prioritize green jobs. It’s a pathway toward what their competitive advantage can and should be.”

AS/COA Online: Is there a link between economic recovery and green energy policies for the region?

Winter: There’s a huge opportunity if Latin America can position itself and its brand, if you will, as being a source for green development.

Let’s take the case of Brazil. This stance that the Bolsonaro government carved out at least in the first two years of its government as being soft on more sustainable growth was, in my mind, the opposite of what they should’ve done. Brazil has all the conditions to be a model of green development and being a premium brand for consumers all over the world who are trying to keep the Amazon standing. This can be applicable to everything from açai to cocoa to other products that come out of the Amazon, as well as all the cosmetics and medicinal goods that we know the standing forest is able to provide. In a world that’s very crowded in terms of different countries and different markets, the Amazon should be treated as a resource.

That’s true also of countries like Mexico, Chile, Argentina, where they don’t have the Amazon but they have a huge potential for renewable energy. It would be very smart for Latin American governments to prioritize green jobs. It’s a pathway towards what their competitive advantage can and should be as we move forward into a post-Covid world.

AS/COA Online: The next Americas Quarterly issue, out in May, will be about the Amazon. Why should readers keep an eye out for this issue?

Winter: We’re going to be looking at a lot of these topics that I just mentioned in the next issue of Americas Quarterly, exploring how sustainable and how economically viable these green growth initiatives are. I recognize that a lot of these initiatives in the Amazon are tenuous as they stand today. It’s hard to do business in the Amazon, especially in the Brazilian Amazon, where a lot of the logistics happen by river, and electricity and internet access are very touch and go. So we’re not going to be really looking at sustainable development as cheerleaders; we’re going to be looking at it with a critical eye, asking, how viable are some of these businesses? Who are the players? Which are the companies? Which are the case studies that really show this in action?

We will try to look at the bottlenecks and we hope that readers will come away from that with a feeling for growth model, how viable it is in the Amazon reach, which of course includes more than just Brazil. The Amazonian basin is home to 35 million people in different countries and these people need jobs. We believe that by creating jobs that are green and sustainable, you’re also providing a tool and a constituency that will help keep the Amazon forest standing. So, it’s really a virtuous circle that we will be exploring in the issue.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.