Brazil’s enthusiastic return to this year’s COP – the UN’s annual climate change conference – is welcome but we should interrogate the motivations of powerful players in the government’s broad-based coalition, including agribusiness. There is a danger that these players encourage the financialisation of climate change, which will work against the justice and sociobiodiversity that President Lula is mandated to uphold.
The promise to be a leader in the climate crisis
Last year, Brazil’s attendance at the COP27 Climate Conference, in Egypt, was marked by the absence of the then President Jair Bolsonaro, who oversaw significant increases in deforestation in the Amazon. Instead, President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Siva, who took office in January 2023, attended the conference, promising to make the country a leader in dealing with the climate crisis.
This year, for COP28, Brazil has sent its largest ever delegation, as Lula wants to place Brazil again at the forefront of the conservation debate, including incentives for countries to reduce their CO2 emissions to zero and a new financing model to preserve forests. The reinvigoration of the climate and environmental agenda in Brazil is encouraging but at the same time we must also ask what gains it will deliver and for whom in Brazil.
The agribusiness lobby
It is crucial that the climate and environmental agenda and funding are not appropriated by the usual suspects, which would undermine climate and environmental justice as well as food justice. This includes the powerful Brazilian agribusiness lobby, who are a strong presence in Brazil’s delegation, keen to demonstrate they are part of the solution and not the problem. This is concerning, as half a century of agricultural industrialization amply demonstrates. Once again, the agribusiness lobby is pushing forward, eager to control an agenda they do not have the legitimacy or credibility to lead on.
We draw attention to deforestation, reforestation and the bioeconomy, warning about the dangers of greenwashing and nature’s financialisation. We also highlight agroecology as a movement for climate, environmental and food justice and its role in scrutinising government action.
Halting deforestation – where?
Brazil has much to contribute to deliberations and to gain from recent trends in the decline of deforestation in the Amazon but it is crucial that it does not accelerate elsewhere, in territories that have less legal protections.
Recent data shows that deforestation is rising in the Cerrado (a biome covering 25 percent of Brazil), particularly in the agricultural frontier known as Matopiba, which spans the states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia. This is very concerning as the Cerrado is ‘the world’s most biodiverse savanna’, a hotspot with five per cent of the world’s species and 30 per cent of Brazil’s biodiversity. The Cerrado is also home to more than 80 officially recognised indigenous groups, Quilombolas and traditional communities, and hundreds of rural communities struggling for territorial rights.
Earlier this year, an IDS Bulletin on the Cerrado documented how this biome has become a ‘sacrifice zone’ to feed industrial agriculture, with grave consequences for people and the planet. The normalisation of the Cerrado as a green desert of monocrops and degraded pastures is the legacy of a long-running modernisation process that started in the 1970s. For 50 years, subsidising industrial agriculture has been justified to feed Brazil and the word. It is now being justified to save the planet.
Promoting reforestation and regeneration – of what kind?
Soil degradation and depletion of water basins in the Cerrado have forced industrial farming up north, to the Matopiba frontier. Climate funding is now being demanded to regenerate and reforest exhausted landscapes that are no longer productive, presumably benefiting those who degraded them in the first place. The type of regeneration and reforestation also needs to be fit for purpose.
Proposed technologies including integrated crop-livestock-forest systems and so-called “green” solutions centred on monocultures of crops and trees are at odds with the regeneration of natural ecosystems in socially inclusive ways.
Not only do such technologies amount to greenwashing but they are also unfit for small farmers, peasants and indigenous and traditional peoples who have been historically disadvantaged. Reforestation needs to be appropriate to the sociobiodiversity of the Cerrado. It should not mean replacing a harmful model with another.
Bioeconomy – nature’s financialisation?
Bioeconomy has become a new buzzword in Brazil. It refers to productive processes that substitute non-renewables with biological resources to generate energy, agricultural commodities, food, industrial goods, etc. In agriculture, it comprises biotechnology, the use of biological inputs, the production of fibres and biomass for industrial use, carbon credits and payments for environmental and ecosystem services to farmers. It is a field that Brazil’s agribusiness is enthusiastically embracing, attracted by the prospect of profitable financial opportunities and capitalising on the green agenda, while clearing its record as environmental foe.
Recently, the Brazilian Senate approved the proposal for a new law regulating the Brazilian Greenhouse Gas Emissions Trading System. Following an agreement with the agribusiness lobby (bancada ruralista), the new law, currently under scrutiny in Congress proposes to exclude agribusiness, (the largest source of emissions in Brazil) as a source of emissions and removes the production of inputs for agricultural production from the emissions calculation.
There are fears that bioeconomy has a predatory rentier logic that will encourage biopiracy (stealing biological wealth without consent and without equitable distribution of benefits), weaken already fragile territorial rights, particularly for indigenous and traditional communities, exacerbate territorial inequities and further damage sociobiodiversity.
Agroecology as movement for climate, environmental and food justice
But there are reasons for cautious optimism. Last week, Rio de Janeiro hosted the 12th Brazilian Agroecology Conference (CBA). It was one of the largest to date and groundbreaking on many levels, not least for the unprecedented participation of indigenous peoples, with 48 different groups from across Brazil represented. The 12th CBA brought together social movements, farmers, practitioners, activists and scholars from across diverse struggles for justice, including struggles for equitable access to territory, for rights to decent food and shelter, and for voice and representation.
The climate agenda looks very different when seen from this grassroots perspective. It is about putting marginalised and vulnerable people at the forefront of decision-making related to basic rights such as territorial protection, eating adequately and living in a safe and healthy environment. It is about restoring ecosystems in ways that are suitable for people who live in them. It is about access to ‘real food’ (‘comida de verdade’), i.e. food that is nutritionally balanced, free of chemicals, diverse, farmed sustainably, traded fairly and rooted in people’s territories. Agroecology has become a powerful community of practice bridging like no other the struggles for climate, environmental and food justice. Its pressure on Lula’s government, that they helped to elect, will be unrelenting.
So far, the government has been listening. A large delegation of senior officials at the CBA opening announced new policy spaces and funding mechanisms to support agroecological production by peasant and family farmers. Yet, there is a long way to go and a huge gap to bridge. Agroecological production remains the exception in Brazil and peasant and family farming receive a fraction of the government’s agricultural subsidies and credit, despite representing being the overwhelming majority. Family farmers are promised millions, while the bioeconomy is expected to mobilise billions.
So, the agroecology movement needs to stay firm, united and focused on scrutinising Brazil’s positions at the COP28 to avoid the climate agenda becoming a vehicle for exacerbating environmental, climate and food injustices and further weakening already fragile agrifood territories.