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Biden and Bolsonaro Will Meet to Discuss Rainforest, Democracy

Support for the rainforest and for democracy in Latin America are poised to be key topics on the agenda as Biden and Bolsonaro meet on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil's president.
By Simone Iglesias and Josh Wingrove
June 09, 2022 | 07:57 am

Bloomberg — President Jair Bolsonaro will seek US support to finance programs to protect Brazil’s Amazon rainforest during a meeting with his counterpart Joe Biden on Thursday, searching for a rare point of agreement between two leaders who seldom see eye to eye.

Support for the rainforest and for democracy in Latin America are poised to be key topics on the agenda as Biden and Bolsonaro meet on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. The Brazilian leader is a combative, right-wing populist who aligned himself with former President Donald Trump; Biden, meanwhile, is looking to secure commitments from a summit that has been hobbled by middling attendance.

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The leaders haven’t met or spoken on the phone since Biden took office. While running for president in September 2020, Biden pledged in a televised debate to lead a coalition of major economies in marshaling a $20 billion pledge for Brazil to stop deforestation of Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest. Bolsonaro at the time called his remarks a sign of contempt, but his environment ministers have since been asking for the money.

Both US and Brazilian officials said climate, the rainforest and democratic institutions will come up in the meeting, which Bolsonaro teed up by expressing his doubt about Biden’s election victory.

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“We’re prepared to put a lot on the table when it comes to helping countries like Brazil protect the Amazon from further deforestation,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One on Wednesday, as Biden flew to the summit. “Climate will be an important topic of conversation and we believe that it can be an area of progress in the US-Brazil relationship, particularly around concrete tangible action to protect the Amazon.”

The countries have explored alternatives to direct private funds through US-backed programs as a way to somehow address the otherwise-unfulfilled $20 billion pledge, Brazilian officials said, speaking on condition anonymity ahead of the meeting. Sullivan did not elaborate on what the US would offer.

Amazon deforestation is an ongoing problem in Brazil, but it accelerated under Bolsonaro, reaching in 2021 its highest level in 15 years, according to data from the country’s National Institute for Space Research.

Since taking office in 2019, Bolsonaro has clashed with the international community over his controversial environmental policies, has scaled back the enforcement of environmental laws, pushed to open indigenous lands to commercial mining exploitation and questioned the government’s own deforestation data. As pressure from foreign investors and governments mounted on his administration, he switched strategies and has started calling on the private sector to help protect the Amazon.

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Bolsonaro has never made any secret of his admiration for Trump and was among the latest world leaders to congratulate Biden after his inauguration. The meeting is a chance to improve their relationship and show Brazil continues to have good institutional relations with the US, the Brazilian officials said.

Support for Democracy

Bolsonaro will also be pleased to sign a declaration supporting democracy in Latin America, one that Brazilian officials said is not expected to contain any mention of Brazil’s own electoral process -- a hot subject domestically since the president started alleging the nation’s electronic voting system is subject to fraud.

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Brazil’s support for democracy in the region became even more important for Biden after Mexico’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador decided to skip the Los Angeles summit unless all leaders of the region were welcome. The US refused to invite Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua to the summit, saying it doesn’t consider their governments democratic, a topic of full convergence with Brazil’s position.

Biden and Bolsonaro will discuss “open free, fair, transparent democratic elections” in their meeting, Sullivan said. “There are no topics off-limit in any bilateral the President does including with President Bolsonaro.”

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Bolsonaro had initially considered skipping the summit to focus on his re-election campaign and because he was frustrated with Biden’s decision to make migration a major topic of discussion, according to two of the officials. He eventually changed his mind after being personally invited by former US Senator Christopher Dodd, a special envoy from the White House, who traveled to Brasilia to meet the leader.

US and Brazilian officials have since been working on a bilateral agenda that includes commercial cooperation as well as financing of clean energy and mining projects, and in particular one of Bolsonaro’s pet projects: the exploration of niobium, which combined with other metals can produce stronger and lighter alloys.

In addition, Bolsonaro may request Biden the elimination of restrictions on Brazilian steel shipments imposed by Trump in 2019, according to a top government official familiar with the matter.