Brazil’s Bid to Outsource Amazon Conservation Finds Few Takers
This article was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Investigations Network.
RIO DE JANEIRO — Facing strong international condemnation over the destruction of the Amazon, President Jair Bolsonaro’s government came up with a strategy: It offered companies the chance to “adopt” a patch of rainforest.
But the plan — which invites companies to contribute money to help preserve the forest — has been marred by disorganization and met with skepticism by critics, who see it as an effort to “green wash” the Bolsonaro administration’s poor record on the environment.
It also hasn’t found many takers.
The program was announced in February, as the Biden administration made clear that it expected Brazil to reverse some of the forest loss and dismantling of environmental protections that marked Mr. Bolsonaro’s first two years in office.
As proposed, the Adopt-a-Park program would accomplish two of the Bolsonaro administration’s goals: redeem Brazil’s tarnished environmental image, which industry leaders have feared could shut them out of international markets, and outsource the costs of conservation at a time of tightening budgets.
“Many of these companies, investment funds that signed letters demonstrating their concern about the Amazon,” said Ricardo Salles, the minister of the environment, “now have in Adopt a Park a concrete, very simple and efficient possibility of transforming their statements into action.”
The government offered 132 federal reserves in the Amazon for sponsorship. So far, only three foreign companies — the grocery chain Carrefour, Coca-Cola and Heineken — and five Brazilian corporations have enrolled. Their donations total just over $1 million — a tiny fraction of the $600 million that Mr. Salles aspires to raise.
And no reserves have been formally allocated to a sponsor, even though at least one of the companies said it delivered all the requested paperwork more than a month ago.
The idea itself is not a bad one, said Cláudio Maretti, a former head of the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation, a government agency that manages Brazil’s national parks and that helps administer the program. Many of the reserves on the list have been degraded by illegal deforestation, wildcat mining and land grabbing.
But the program has been carried out, he said, without the planning or transparency that could make it effective, and appears to be a low-budget attempt at “green washing” the government’s reputation so it can “say it did something.”
“The mark of this government is anti-conservation, but at the same time it’s disorganization,” Mr. Maretti said.
Interviews and documents obtained by The New York Times obtained through freedom of information requests suggest that the ministry of the environment’s efforts to entice companies to adopt parks were chaotic, marked by miscommunication with would-be sponsors and a disconnection from the people who live in the areas at stake.
The largest contribution yet by a private company came from Carrefour, a French retail multinational. Stéphane Engelhard, a vice president of the Brazilian branch, said in an interview that the company was proud to donate more than $700,000 to the program.
Carrefour, Mr. Engelhard said, chose to contribute to the Lago do Cuniã reserve, in the state of Rondônia, because it is inhabited by a traditional community that makes its living from the forest.
“Our idea is to demonstrate that you can have a sustainable forest without destroying it, with people living there,” Mr. Engelhard said.
But he was surprised to learn that the community had not been consulted about the plan.
Gilberto Raposo, a member of the association of residents at the Lago do Cuniã reserve, said he learned about the program from the news media.
“If it really happens, if this helps reserves, riverside people, that’s really nice,” he said, noting that they have many needs. “But if something happens and we don’t know about it, it’s not.”
An organization representing traditional communities who live off the forest, the National Council of Extractivist Populations, sent a formal complaint to the government, arguing that it was illegal for the program to include reserves inhabited by traditional communities without consulting them. Prosecutors are now investigating.
“We can discuss any policy to benefit reserves,” said Dione Torquato, the organization’s secretary general. “But we want to be part of this process. Let it be fair, not imposed.”
Two weeks ago, the ministry got a face-saving boost from within the federal government. The state-owned Caixa Econômica bank offered to kick in $28 million for the program.
One government document reports that the ministry held meetings about the program with 128 companies and two private citizens from February to April. Yet representatives of several of the firms listed said they had no record of having been formally approached.
A representative of Google said it merely received an invitation to the launch event. Bunge, an American agribusiness company, said it never received a proposal. Lars Grael, a former Olympic sailor who is a managing member of a governmental volunteering initiative, said he had never heard of the program, and was surprised that government officials reported meeting with him about it.
Brazil has other programs that allow companies to donate to reserves in the Amazon and other biomes. Since its founding in 2002, the Protected Areas of the Amazon program has raised tens of millions of dollars from governments and companies for protected areas in the Amazon.
Through the Adopt-a-Park program, sponsoring companies pay at least $9.5 per hectare of the reserve’s area per year. To sponsor the biggest park costs almost $35 million annually, while the smallest go for $23,000 a year.
Once sponsorship deals are finalized, companies donate goods and services — which could include vehicles or a fire brigade — to the Chico Mendes Institute office in each reserve.
Critics say another problem is that career public servants were excluded from working on the program. Most of the senior officials running the initiative are new to the ministry. Some are police officers with little environmental experience.
The program has gained little traction with environmentalists, who think its goal of preservation is at odds with Mr. Bolsonaro and Mr. Salles’s track record.
Last week, Brazil’s Supreme Court authorized search-and-seizure raids at addresses connected to Mr. Salles and unsealed records of his financial transactions as part of a federal police investigation into exports of illegal timber from the Amazon to the United States.
Several of his top aides, including the head of Brazil’s main environmental protection agency, were forced to step down from their duties.
As minister, Mr. Salles has further dismantled an environmental protection system that was already understaffed and underfunded. He made it more difficult to collect environmental fines, fired agents who successfully investigated environmental crimes and fought with the governments of Norway and Germany, which until 2019 jointly spent $1.3 billion a year on Amazon protection programs.
Mr. Salles first signaled his intent last July to share responsibility for protecting the Amazon with nongovernment actors. As protests over fires in the Amazon rainforest intensified, he challenged the actor Leonardo DiCaprio, one of the government’s most prominent critics, to sponsor a reserve.
“Are you going to put your money where your mouth is?” Mr. Salles wrote on Twitter in September.
Beyond proposing the park-adoption program before the climate change summit convened by the Biden administration last month, Brazil’s government seems to have done little to improve its environmental policies.
At the summit, Mr. Bolsonaro vowed to allocate more money to environmental protection agencies. But the very next day the government did the opposite, signing into law a budget that further slashed funding for the agencies.
And federal lawmakers are considering a bill that would make it easier for companies to get environmental permits for new farming, mining and infrastructure ventures.
“Is receiving donations as they are proposing going to compensate for all that?” asked Natalie Unterstell, a climate policy expert who has been tracking the program. “No. It’s a palliative measure.”