However, as climate justice activists denounce, biofuels can easily become false solutions if governments are not careful to implement them in a socially just manner. From forced evictions during the 2016 Rio Olympics, to the constant violence between indigenous peoples and ranchers, Brazil does not have a promising record when it comes to land rights. Not to mention that in calculating the numbers of total emissions or square kilometers of deforestation, Brazil’s planners tend to miss the point: land is not just a commodity. When land is rezoned, sold and converted from Amazon rainforest to cattle pasture to a sugar cane field for biofuels, something is lost. When forest fires finally burn out, they’ve not only released carbon into the atmosphere, destroyed biodiversity, and diseased the lungs of local people – they’ve extinguished the deep historical ties between the land and its previous inhabitants. That loss cannot be quantified.
The point is not to sit back, without urgency, because that will do nothing to stop ongoing deforestation or deter the changing climate that is already affecting the most vulnerable populations first – in Brazil, they are indigenous peoples, small farmers and fishers. The point is that focusing on mitigation technologies, like biofuels, to meet the NDC is urgency without justice and should not be a placeholder for long-term climate justice measures like securing indigenous lands and implementing low carbon agriculture. Currently, Brazil proposes the Low Carbon Emission Agriculture (ABC) Program as its “main strategy for sustainable agriculture development,” which will include “restoring an additional 15 million hectares of degraded pastures by 2030 and enhancing 5 million hectares of integrated crop-livestock-forest systems (ICLFS) by 2030.” Yet last year, only about 2% of Brazil’s agricultural development budget was destined to the ABC Program. Both culture (meat eating and traditional cattle ranching) and money (Brazil’s economic recession) are limiting factors to implementing the ABC program, but so is political will.
The COP22 Brazil Pavilion, sponsored by APEX (the Brazilian Trade and Investment Promotion Agency), boasts a flashy campaign video “Be Brasil,” designed to attract foreign investments for low carbon agriculture, reforestation and renewable energy. One frame announces that Brazil is “ready to feed the world,” as a huge tractor dumps a load of soy beans – this is concerning at a time when parts of the country are undergoing severe water shortage. The video ends by announcing that Brazil is “competitive, creative, modern, sustainable, and open for investments.” The disturbingly neoliberal undertones evoking that Brazil is for sale, reflect the country’s recent strategy for austerity and export-based economic recovery under the leadership of interim president Michel Temer. Indeed, as developing country negotiators at the COP are vehemently defending, financial investments are needed from developed countries for developing countries to achieve their NDCs. But Brazil’s poor climate report card – emissions have increased even during a recession – suggests that heading in this direction of market-based climate action requires better governance, if real emissions cuts are to be achieved.
Better governance means having the political foresight and restraint to keep fossil fuels in the ground. This is no easy feat given that the shiny profits of fossil fuels are often tied with huge corruption scandals – like the case of Petrobrás Oil that led to President Dilma Roussef’s impeachment and kickstarted the country’s political mayhem. Last Saturday, November 12th, in a side event entitled “The Real Brazil Exposed,” Brazilian climate justice activists from the drought-ridden state of Ceará convened a panel to denounce the Brazilian government’s incoherence in passing a billion dollar subsidy for the coal industry, while denying basic access to water for the people of Ceará. According to climate geologist Alexandre Costa, the largest coal power plant in the state, whose dirty energy is sent beyond Ceará to the national grid to feed power-hungry industrial regions of Brazil, consumes the scarce water of 5% of the state’s population for its cooling processes. So, by subsidizing highly polluting and water-consuming coal plants in Ceará, the government is investing in intensified droughts and dirty energy that the people of Ceará don’t even need.
As Brazil launches the Biofuture Platform, activists will continue fighting for climate action that is both urgent and just, by keeping the spotlight on sustainable land management and rights, as well as raising the voices of local realities to make sure the talk abroad is coherent with the walk at home.