The U.S. government should attempt to partner with Brazil, which has historically been lukewarm — and at times opposed — to U.S. security cooperation and foreign policy objectives, to stop the illicit activities that are destroying the Amazon rainforest.
As global warming continues generating conditions for political instability and conflict, the United States must urgently consider irregular warfare approaches to stymie illicit activities contributing to the climate crisis. We are at a climate inflection point and all policy options should be on the table.
In fact, the Department of Defense (DOD) has the requisite authorities to train, equip, and enable Brazilian law enforcement and Environmental Special Forces to find and arrest these illicit actors. U.S. special operations forces (SOF) are uniquely designed for such a novel mission.
According to U.S. President Joe Biden and Sec. of Defense Lloyd Austin, climate change poses an “existential threat” to the American way of life. The Biden administration’s National Security Strategy states that, without immediate collective action, climate change will become the greatest global threat. And according to the State Department, the “existential climate crisis can only be mitigated through aggressive, ambitious global action.” Additionally, in an era of increased competition with China, enabling the most vulnerable countries and relevant populations to address the effects of climate change is a strategic, as well as moral, imperative that furthers U.S. legitimacy, influence, and interests.
More than 85 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions driving the planet’s warming come from beyond U.S. borders. Now, the world cannot meet its climate goal to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 degree Celsius unless it protects the Amazon rainforest, says U.S. climate envoy John Kerry.
Brazil, a major non-NATO U.S. ally, is on the precipice of decimating a critically important global asset: the Amazon. Brasilia is also considering allowing China significant influence within its borders, supplanting U.S. influence, through increased trade and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Sino-Brazilian trade deals and investments have also contributed to illegal deforestation through incentivizing agricultural frontiersmen to clear space for farms or livestock and infrastructure projects in the Amazon under China’s BRI.
Before sending U.S. military forces to the Amazon to address climate change, it is important to acknowledge that the DOD’s own carbon footprint exceeds that of nearly 140 countries. That said, the military services, like the Army, do have comprehensive plans to achieve “net-zero emissions by 2050” through transitioning to carbon-free electricity and clean global supply chains. While DOD should be held accountable to reach this important milestone, there are also significant opportunities to work with allies and partners to address their own climate change challenges, which collectively impact global security.
Brazil’s Amazon rainforest is known as the “lungs of the Earth,” with its 2.8 million square miles of jungle in the Amazon basin representing more than half of the planet’s remaining tropical rainforest. These essential ecosystems play a central role in filtering CO2 from the atmosphere and moderating the global climate.
However, the Amazon contains approximately 123 billion tons of carbon above and below ground. Deforestation has both eliminated CO2-absorbing trees while releasing this stored carbon back into the air, accelerating global warming.
The Amazon is at a tipping point, but there is hope in the fight against illegal deforestation, which accounts for 94% of the area deforested. Brazil’s newly elected President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva pledged during his campaign to achieve net-zero deforestation in Brazil. Since then, he announced that the fight against climate change will have the highest priority in his government — particularly the fight against deforestation.
Lula said at a recent climate conference, “There is no climate security for the world without a protected Amazon.” He said Brazil will “do whatever it takes to have zero deforestation and degradation of our biomes.”
But President Lula’s government needs additional capabilities to detect and stop the transnational criminal networks carrying out illicit acts, such as logging, mining, and burning of protected and pristine rainforest.
Unlike his predecessor, the Lula administration has indicated its willingness to engage with the United States on the climate crisis. Since Lula’s inauguration, the Biden administration has participated in a series of senior level engagements discussing the effects of climate change and regional security cooperation.
Although there are some significant foreign policy disagreements between the two governments, the Biden administration should still take advantage of this opening and engage the Lula administration on the military and intelligence support necessary to halt illegal deforestation activities.
If the Biden administration is looking to balance its ways and means with the aim of slowing climate change, then its sights should be set on increasing security assistance to Brazil.
Immediately, with the concurrence of the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense can provide to Brazil training and military equipment for security forces (10 U.S. Code § 333); and intelligence, airborne reconnaissance, personnel transport and command, control and communications support to law enforcement to counter transnational organized criminals (10 U.S. Code § 284).
While SOF are certainly not a panacea to all transnational challenges facing the lightly-guarded Amazonian region, they have proven highly adept at finding, fixing, and capturing bad actors — whether unilaterally or by, with, and through partner forces, as demonstrated in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
Less publicly, these same counterterrorism and intelligence tools were effectively used against other transnational criminals. In neighboring Colombia, 7th Special Forces Group has a long history of training and supporting Colombian security forces in countering narco-guerillas. The U.S. Embassy in Bogota even houses an Embassy Intelligence Fusion Center of intelligence analysts that produces products on transnational organized crime organizations and their threat to Colombian interests while liaising with Colombian military and law enforcement agencies. Although these efforts were marshaled primarily to support the Colombian government from failing to stem the flow of illegal narcotics to the United States, the climate crisis represents a threat of no less significance. At minimum, commensurate resources should be committed to this collective challenge in Brazil.
It will take nimble statecraft, but the Biden administration should work through the State Department to gain President Lula’s approval to establish a security cooperation plan. Such a plan should leverage U.S. SOF and intelligence enablers, such as synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite detection capabilities, to support Brazilian security forces to locate and stop illicit deforestation activities.
U.S. SOF traditionally operate in low-visibility and have a history of supporting groups with mixed human rights records; therefore, any military support to Brazil should also require sufficient monitoring and congressional reporting on compliance with the laws of armed conflict, use of force agreements, and respect for human rights.
However, even human rights groups that do not traditionally condone “hard power” approaches believe the Lula administration should take more forceful measures to protect the Amazon, since doing so also protects indigenous peoples’ human rights.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), indigenous peoples and local communities in the Amazon have been risking their lives and livelihoods as they try to hold on to their land and protect the environment from criminal networks involved in illegal activities.
HRW’s position is that the Lula administration should mobilize all levels of the government to fight the criminal networks responsible for the environmental destruction and deadly violence.
Adverse impacts to local economies must also be addressed, to prevent job loss and economic hardship to Brazilians, including those who depend on illegal deforestation for their livelihoods. Therefore, the Biden administration should work with international organizations, such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, to build on the work of the U.S. Agency for International Development. A multi-pronged approach can foster sustainable economic activities and help Brazil develop a workable strategy for compensating residents in the Amazon, who stand to lose their means of subsistence if deforestation is rolled back.
Ultimately, any sustainable solution to illegal deforestation in Brazil must be buttressed by conditions that incentivize other economic opportunities. The U.S. military, including SOF, do have an important – and immediate – role to play, but addressing the root causes of the climate crisis will require a more holistic approach in the long term. As a first step, the U.S. military should partner with Brazilian forces to counter illegal deforestation activities in the Amazon that are contributing to a rapidly deteriorating climate.
Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense, members of Congress, or the U.S. Government.