March 30, 2021
On March 18, the Biden administration confirmed that it was finalizing a plan to send 2.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Mexico, just as the U.S. government petitions its southern neighbor for assistance with managing a record rate of migration through Central America. This might be the first example of the United States using coronavirus vaccine diplomacy to advance a policy objective other than public health. But it shouldn’t be the last. U.S. President Joe Biden should similarly help Brazilian states in order to open a dialogue on Amazon deforestation.
In a meeting on March 5, the governors of the nine Brazilian states of the Amazon region petitioned the U.S. ambassador to Brazil to help get direct access to vaccines produced by major pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson. The Amazon region has been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic, which continues to ravage Brazil. The country recorded its highest daily case count of over 100,000 infections last week, and the death toll has surpassed 300,000, second only to that of the United States. As Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s government continues to falter in addressing the human toll of the pandemic and in securing vaccines, governors of Brazilian states are increasingly seeking to take matters into their own hands.
The Biden administration should answer the request from the regional governors. As Flávio Dino, the governor of Maranhão and the leader of the Forum of Governors of the Legal Amazon, made clear in his meeting with the U.S. ambassador, the issue isn’t cash but rather commercial access. In the absence of federal support, the governors want to acquire vaccines directly from pharmaceutical companies and distribute them via their own public health systems. Companies, however, are reluctant to deal with actors other than the central state. In a sense, the governors hope that Washington can help where Brasília has so far failed.
It’s sensible for the Biden administration to seek to help the Amazon region, the hardest-hit area of a country with one of the highest caseloads globally. It’s also of note that these regional leaders have the ability to help the new U.S. administration deliver on one of its most important and daunting climate priorities: slowing deforestation in the Amazon.
Brazil has a federal system with highly decentralized decision-making and is home to some of the world’s most active and sophisticated civil society organizations, including a powerful network of environmental nongovernmental organizations. The consortium of states in the Amazon region, which is now petitioning the U.S. government for help with COVID-19 vaccines, is involved in a growing movement, including business and civil society, for transnational cooperation on conservation. In other words, the Biden administration can and should seek to cultivate goodwill and partnerships beyond Brasília.
The high-profile appointment of John Kerry as the Biden administration’s cabinet-level global envoy for climate speaks to the fact that the U.S. government is taking environmental diplomacy seriously. And—beyond low-hanging fruit, like rejoining the Paris climate accord via executive order—perhaps the most challenging and consequential goal of U.S. climate diplomacy is stopping deforestation and improving global land-use practices. According to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other authorities, these are some of the most effective and time-sensitive steps for safeguarding the climate. Biden has sent several signals that he intends to prioritize climate policy as part of U.S. foreign policy.
But when it comes to partnering with Brazil, the United States may be in for a political challenge. Bolsonaro—who leads a nation with some of the most extensive and systemically important rainforest, and who has presided over a significant acceleration of deforestation—remains a serious obstacle. When Biden, on the campaign trail, suggested offering $20 billion in exchange for Amazon preservation—and hinted at economic consequences otherwise—Bolsonaro responded by tweeting, “OUR SOVEREIGNTY IS NON-NEGOTIABLE.”
In May 2020, the Brazilian Supreme Court mandated the release of a video of a presidential cabinet meeting, led by Bolsonaro, in which his influential Environment Minister Ricardo Salles said that the government should take advantage of the pandemic to “passar a boiada”—allow all the cattle to pass—and accelerate environmental deregulation. Since then, key institutions such as Ibama, the government’s deforestation regulator, have been hollowed out. With the help of Bolsonaro allies in the Brazilian Congress, Salles has been working to expand the export of Amazonian forest wood.
Still, Bolsonaro is facing significant pressure to change course. With the 2022 elections approaching and the Brazilian economy contracting by an estimated 4 percent over the last year, it’s hardly sensible to alienate a top trading partner and key source of foreign direct investment. Bolsonaro’s cavalier style and blatant insensitivity to environmental concerns already cost Brazil significant public and governmental support in Europe for a major trade deal with the European Union.
Judging from recent history, U.S. policymakers shouldn’t hold their breath, waiting for Bolsonaro to change course. A better way to pursue rapid change is to develop new direct ties to state and regional governments. These governments are in a position to preserve vast tracts of rainforest and, with help from the United States and other partners, pursue a better path than the slash-and-burn agriculture model aimed at boosting commodity exports to China.
The Forum of Governors is already working with leading NGOs and coalitions such as the Concentration for the Amazon, which connects Brazilian business and social enterprise to coordinate forest preservation. The governors are well placed to engage directly with the rest of the world to address the climate emergency.
With help from the U.S. government, Brazilian governors could play a decisive role in enabling the immunization of the nation’s highest-risk groups in the coming months—a major task for management of the pandemic. This would offer a practical model and positive momentum for subnational players in Brazil to start engaging globally.
With the U.N.’s Climate Change Conference coming in November, the governors could emerge as key allies of the international community on deforestation. While Biden largely dropped talk of the $20 billion in climate-related assistance after Bolsonaro rebuffed him during the campaign, the new U.S. administration should consider reviving the possibility—with funding for forest preservation and sustainable development going to state governments rather than the current national government.
News of planned vaccine assistance to Mexico demonstrates that Biden is willing to apply vaccine diplomacy to advance other policy priorities. He should consider taking this opportunity to help preserve the global environment.