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To Stop Amazon Deforestation, Brazilian Groups Take Bolsonaro to Court

A lone burnt tree stands on a deforested area in the surroundings of Porto Velho, Rondonia State, in the Amazon basin in west-central Brazil, on Aug. 24, 2019. CARL DE SOUZA / AFP / Getty Images

By Ajit Niranjan

Civil society groups and public prosecutors in Brazil are taking President Jair Bolsonaro's government to court for failing to protect the Amazon rainforest, adding pressure to an administration already under fire for mismanaging the coronavirus pandemic.

Lawsuits filed last week challenge the government on two fronts: reducing inspections of exported timber — while demoting the environment agency expert whose team advised against it — and freezing climate funds to preserve forests that other countries also rely on to offset their carbon emissions.

They are among a series of legal challenges that have been launched in Brazil after a tumultuous year-and-a-half of Bolsonaro rule. His administration has overseen a rise in deforestation, attacked the rights of people indigenous to the Amazon and relaxed rules to prevent illegal logging, ranching and mining.

Bolsonaro is a climate change denier who considers the environment to be a kind of enemy, said Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of Brazil-based think tank Climate Observatory, which provided the legal analysis behind the lawsuits. "It's very hard to believe Bolsonaro will change his behavior or mindset. What we really need to do is neutralize the attacks on the environment."

In recent weeks, the Brazilian government has been rebuked by foreign governments, investors and businesses for enabling deforestation — and by courts and protestors at home for political interference and its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Brazil's supreme court ordered the government on Monday to resume publishing coronavirus statistics after it purged the health ministry website of COVID-19 case numbers and death tolls. The virus has killed more than 37,000 people in Brazil, which has the second-most coronavirus cases in the world behind only the U.S. "The manipulation of statistics is a maneuver of totalitarian regimes," said supreme court judge Gilmar Mendes. "The trick will not exempt responsibility for the eventual genocide."

Deforestation, meanwhile, had already last year hit its highest level since 2008. On Tuesday the country's space research agency INPE revised its estimates, saying it they were higher than previously thought. Using satellite data, the scientists calculated that year-on-year deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon rose by 34 percent between August 2018 and July 2019, felling an area of forest about as big as Jamaica.

Georg Witschel, Germany's ambassador to Brazil, told Brazilian news outlet G1 on Thursday that deforestation makes it "increasingly difficult" to ratify the free trade agreement between the EU and South American trade bloc Mercosur.

Coronavirus and Deforestation

Brazil's environmental and health crises are closely linked. The coronavirus pandemic had given fresh impetus to land grabbers razing swathes of forests as lockdowns have kept law enforcement officers at home.

Now, the fires that typically follow the felling of trees could further strain health systems.

Blazing wildfires, like the ones that devastated the Amazon last year, spout pollutants that lower air quality and work their way into people's lungs, exacerbating the same breathing diseases that leave people more vulnerable to the coronavirus. A joint peak in forest fires and COVID-19 cases could overwhelm hospitals without "incisive intervention by the State to curb illegal acts," according to a report published in May by INPE.

That could collapse health systems in several Amazonian states that are already operating at the limit, the authors wrote. "If the turning point of the epidemiological curve of COVID-19 does not occur immediately, in May 2020, there will certainly be an overlap of fires with the pandemic."

This could spell disaster for indigenous peoples and uncontacted tribes, said Sarah Shenker, a campaigner with Survival International. "In Brazil, there are more than 100 uncontacted tribes and they could be wiped out if invaders are not removed from their territory."

Even before the current coronavirus crisis, scientists warned that forest loss makes pandemics more likely by increasing the chance that diseases jump from animals to humans. A study published in the journal PNAS in October found that deforestation of the Amazon significantly increases transmission of malaria, a different type of disease.

Preserving the Climate

The Amazon rainforest — 60 percent of which lies in Brazil — is one of the world's great carbon sinks. Preserving its trees and plants is crucial to meeting international targets that limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Lawsuits that take years to complete are not going to produce results fast enough, said Ricardo Galvao, a former director of INPE who was fired by Bolsonaro in August.

To curb deforestation in the Amazon, said Galvao, the best tools are "positive actions that show [that] exploring the forest, rather than destroying it, gives economic returns." For instance, international organizations like the UN could certify products from sustainably managed forests and countries could lower import taxes on such "green-stamped" goods.

Brazil has a legal commitment to reduce deforestation in the Amazon to a rate equivalent to about 3,900 square kilometers per year from 2020 onwards. In 2012, measures to protect the Amazon had brought deforestation down to 4,600 square kilometers, close to the target, but by 2019, it had rebounded to 9,800 square kilometers.

The Brazilian government, which in May brought in the military to protect the forest, has disputed its image as an environmental pariah. "We are the country that most preserves the environment in the world," said Bolsonaro on World Environment Day last week. "Unjustly, [we are] the most attacked."

Data from Brazil's Institute of Socioeconomic Studies show government spending on forest inspection dropped from R$17.4 million (US$3.5 million, €3.1 million) to R$5.3 million from the first five months of 2019 to the same period in 2020, while funding for activities under Brazil's national climate change plan were cut from R$436 million last year to R$247 million this year.

Ibama, the Brazilian environment agency, did not respond to a request for comment.

Big tracts of the rainforest have no recorded owner, making it easier to illegally grab land, and a lack of law enforcement can even mean that farmers who comply with regulations struggle to compete with those who don't.

Working with sustainable farmers and fixing land ownership structures could help Brazil slow deforestation during the coronavirus pandemic and recession, said Monica De Los Rios, Brazil coordinator at the nonprofit Earth Innovation Institute. "This is the most critical moment in the history of the Amazon."

Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.

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By Elliot Douglas

In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.