Norway’s PM confronted Brazil’s President Temer about Amazon deforestation

Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg raised concerns about increased destruction of the Amazon during her meeting with Brazilian President Michel Temer Friday, and was given assurances that his government has tightened control measures to combat deforestation. Temer left a joint press conference without taking questions. 

President Michel Temer and Prime Minister Erna Solberg in Oslo.
Photo: Palácio do Planalto

Norway has been the largest forest donor to Brazil. But estimates indicate that Norway’s annual payments will drop from NOK 1 billion (USD 118m) just a few years ago to around NOK 300 million due to increased deforestation. (See DT 3/17)

In a letter last week from Norway’s Climate Minister Vidar Helgesen to his Brazilian counterpart José Sarney Filho, Norway warned that if the trend continues, Norwegian grants will stop altogether. Sent ahead of Temer’s visit to Oslo, the sharp letter emphasises the importance of the bilateral agreement with Brazil in Norway’s climate policy. The matter was at the top of the agenda of the meeting with the president.

At a joint press conference in Oslo, Temer highlighted Brazil’s efforts to combat deforestation, but left the press meeting without taking questions. After following the president out of the room Solberg told journalists that President Temer had told her that the former government had cut resources for institutions that work in forest protection. Temer told the Norwegian PM that his government has increased funding for such control measures.  

Solberg said her impression is that the President and the Minister for Environment are now initiating control efforts to reduce deforestation.

“I’ll take the government’s word for it, that they have tightened the grip and established a moratorium. But there are movements in the Congress for laws we are concerned about,” she said.

Norway has promised Brazil annual payments for reduced deforestation as a way of reducing CO2 emissions based on agreed annual targets. The level of payment is governed by a formula related to Brazil’s level of forest loss compared to past achievements.

“If they do not meet [the targets] there will be fewer or no disbursements” said Solberg. “We do have an agreement until 2020. I do not see any reason to renegotiate that agreement,” Solberg said in response to a question from Development Today.

Norway has over the last decade paid more than USD 1 billion to the Amazon Fund which was set up to finance projects aimed at saving Brazil’s Amazon rainforests. These intact forests store vast amounts of CO2 and Norway, an oil nation, has linked its payments to decreased deforestation as a way of combating climate change.

Helgesen’s letter expresses deep concern about new proposals from Brazil’s Congress which the Norwegian minister believes will weaken the protection of the Amazon. He says he respects Brazil’s right to decide its own future, but insists that there is a “false” dichotomy in the Brazilian debate between expanding agriculture production and protecting forest. He notes that experience from Brazil during the last decade shows that expanding agriculture production and protection of forests can go hand in hand.

The Norwegian minister also reminds the Brazilian environment minister that “law enforcement has been – and remains – the cornerstone of the battle against deforestation”.

Development Today asked Solberg whether president Temer was comfortable with Norway having strong views on Brazilian domestic policy. She denied that Norway had “strong views” on Brazilian domestic affairs, but added: “We are concerned about the result of agreements where Norwegian taxpayers’” money is involved.

In a statement, environmental organisations and researchers are warning that recent proposals from the Brazilian Congress would reduce the level of protection for 600,000 hectares of conservation areas in the Amazon. Some say that if implemented the Amazon forest could be split in two.

Professor Enrico Bernard at the Federal University of Pernambuco notes that President Temer recently vetoed the proposals, only to send them back to Congress for a final decision.

Bernard describes the maneouvre as a “smart, cynical political” move.

“The proposals will very likely be approved. Like Pontius Pilate, he seeks to avoid personal responsibility for the act per se”, Bernard writes in an email. “I am quite sure that Sarney used Norway´s letter to persuade Temer and his team [to veto the proposals],” he states.  

The Norwegian researcher and author Torkjell Leira who has followed the Norwegian forest initiative for almost a decade says many Brazilian politicians are proud of the Amazon efforts and are concerned about their image abroad. “I think the Norwegian letter can have a positive effect,” he says. 

Still, it is quite unusual that Norway interferes so aggressively in the domestic policy of another country; and Brazil is a powerful nation.

Elling N. Tjønneland a senior research at Chr. Michelsen Institute in Bergen has worked on issues related to aid and conditionality for several decades. “It has been difficult to take on the donor role” for Norway, when working with reginal powers like Brazil and Indonesia in the climate forest initiative, notes Tjønneland.

The Norwegian aid mechanism for Brazil is moreover designed such that payments automatically dry up if deforestation increases further. It requires no political decision. Tjønneland says Norway has very little leverage.

“It all rests on political will in Brazil,” he says.

Øyvind Eggen who works with the liberal think tank Civta in Oslo says that research shows that using punishments and rewards rarely has impacts on aid results. He doubts that a Norwegian intervention in Brazil will make any difference.