On March 18, the Biden government confirmed that it would finalize a plan to ship 2.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Mexico, just as the US government is seeking help from its southern neighbor to help manage a record rate of migration through Central America . This could be the first example of the United States using coronavirus vaccine diplomacy to advance a policy goal other than public health. But it shouldn’t be the last. US President Joe Biden should also help the Brazilian states open a dialogue on deforestation in the Amazon.
In a meeting on March 5, the governors of the nine Brazilian states of the Amazon asked the US ambassador to Brazil for direct access to vaccines manufactured by major pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson. The Amazon region has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic that has continued to afflict Brazil. The country had the highest daily case count of over 100,000 infections last week, and the death toll exceeded 300,000, second only to the United States. As Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s government continues to stall when it comes to fighting the numbers caused by the pandemic and securing vaccines, Brazilian state governors are increasingly looking to take matters into their own hands.
The Biden administration should answer the regional governors’ request. As Flávio Dino, the governor of Maranhão and chairman of the Governors’ Forum of the Legal Amazon, made clear in his meeting with the US ambassador, this is not cash but commercial access. In the absence of federal support, governors want to purchase vaccines directly from pharmaceutical companies and distribute them through their own public health systems. However, companies are reluctant to deal with actors other than central government. In a sense, the governors hope that Washington can help where Brasília has failed so far.
It makes sense for the Biden government to help the Amazon region, the hardest hit region in a country with one of the highest case numbers in the world. It is also noteworthy that these regional leaders have the ability to help the new US administration achieve one of its most important and discouraging climate priorities: slowing deforestation in the Amazon.
Brazil has a federal system with highly decentralized decision-making and is home to some of the most active and progressive civil society organizations in the world, including a strong network of environmental NGOs. The Consortium of States in the Amazon now seeking help from the US government with COVID-19 vaccines is part of a growing movement, including business and civil society, for transnational conservation cooperation. In other words, the Biden government can and should try to cultivate goodwill and partnerships beyond Brasília.
The prestigious appointment of John Kerry as the Biden government’s global envoy on cabinet-level climate suggests that the US government takes environmental diplomacy seriously. And – barring low-hanging fruits like the resumption of the Paris Climate Agreement by executive order – perhaps the most challenging and consistent goal of US climate diplomacy is to halt deforestation and improve global land use practices. These are some of the most effective and time-sensitive steps in protecting the climate, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other agencies. Biden has sent several signals that he wants to prioritize climate policy as part of US foreign policy.
But when it comes to partnering with Brazil, the United States may face a political challenge. Bolsonaro, who leads a nation with one of the most extensive and systemically relevant rainforests and has presided over a significant acceleration in deforestation, remains a serious obstacle. When on the campaign trail, when Biden suggested offering $ 20 billion in return for preserving the Amazon – and pointing out other economic ramifications – Bolsonaro tweeted, “OUR SOVEIGNITY IS NON-NEGOTIABLE.”
In May 2020, the Brazilian Supreme Court mandated the release of a video of a cabinet meeting of the president, led by Bolsonaro, in which his influential Environment Minister Ricardo Salles said the government should take advantage of the pandemic to “pass a boiada” – allowing all cattle to pass – and accelerate the deregulation of the environment. Since then, key institutions like Ibama, the government’s deforestation agency, have been eroded. With the help of Bolsonaro’s allies in the Brazilian Congress, Salles has worked to expand the export of forest timber from the Amazon.
Still, Bolsonaro is under considerable pressure to change course. With the upcoming elections in 2022 and an estimated 4 percent decline in the Brazilian economy last year, it hardly makes sense to alienate a top trading partner and major source of FDI. Bolsonaro’s carefree style and apparent insensitivity to environmental concerns have already cost Brazil significant public and government support in Europe for a major trade deal with the European Union.
Judging by recent history, US politicians shouldn’t hold their breath and wait for Bolsonaro to change course. A better way to achieve rapid change is to forge new direct relationships with state and regional governments. These governments are able to conserve much of the rainforest and, with the help of the United States and other partners, are better off than the agricultural slash and burn model, which aims to boost raw material exports to China.
The Forum of Governors is already working with leading NGOs and coalitions such as Concentration for the Amazon, which connects Brazilian businesses and social enterprises to coordinate forest conservation. The governors are well placed to interact directly with the rest of the world and address the climate emergency.
With the help of the U.S. government, Brazilian governors could play a vital role in facilitating the immunization of the country’s most vulnerable groups in the coming months – a key task for managing the pandemic. This would provide a practical model and positive dynamic for sub-national actors in Brazil to engage globally.
With the United Nations Climate Change Conference in November, governors could become key allies of the international community in the field of deforestation. While Biden has largely shut down the discussion of the $ 20 billion climate-related aid after Bolsonaro dismissed him during the campaign, the new U.S. administration should consider reviving the option – funding for forest protection and sustainable development goes to the state governments rather than the current national government.
The news of the proposed vaccination aid to Mexico shows that Biden is ready to use vaccine diplomacy to advance other political priorities. He should consider taking this opportunity to help protect the global environment.