(Bloomberg) -- Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro heads to New York on Monday in an attempt to defuse the international outcry over the fires raging through the Amazon, while simultaneously asserting the country’s right to develop the rainforest as it sees fit.
Until recently, few countries enjoyed such widespread affection as Brazil did, with its tradition of multilateral and “soft power” diplomacy, its unrivaled footballing prowess and vast natural beauty. ButBolsonaro will address the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday amid global indignation over his government’s handling of the deforestation in the Amazon.
Brazil’s government believes the international criticism is unfair, but its actions show that it’s worried, including about the potential economic consequences. Fund managers with more than $16 trillion in assets have demanded action on deforestation, while European lawmakers are lining up to attack the trade deal between the European Union and the South American trade bloc that Brazil leads, Mercosur. Austria’s parliament rejected the agreement on Wednesday.
In response, the Bolsonaro administration launched a public relations campaign asserting Brazil’s sovereignty over the Amazon and commitment to protecting and sustainably developing the rainforest. Now the president is taking that message to the UN.
Read more: Bolsonaro’s Words Are the Sparks as Brazil’s Farmers Burn Amazonia
“The United Nations General Assembly could be a great opportunity for Brazil to present and clarify its foreign policy,” said Sergio Amaral, Brazil’s ambassador to Washington D.C. until earlier this year. It’s also a chance to demonstrate its “commitment to sensitive issues for the international community, like the environment.”
The question remains of how Bolsonaro can both calm fears over deforestation while asserting Brazil’s right to develop the Amazon. There’s also the added tension of his likely interaction with French President Emmanuel Macron -- whose wife the Brazilian leader insulted.
“I am preparing a fairly objective speech,” the president said on his weekly Facebook live broadcast on Thursday night. “No one is going to fight with anyone, you can rest assured.”
In the same breath, however, he said that he’d receive a beating in the press, no matter what he said, and that some countries were more interested in buying up the Amazon than saving it.
For the government the international outcry is vastly disproportionate to the amount of environmental damage.
“This has been orchestrated by Brazilian groups that are systematically against the government,” Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo said in an interview on Sept 3. “They want to use any tools at their disposal to attack the government even if this harms the country.”
Environment Minister Ricardo Salles argues that the Bolsonaro administration’s development policies highlight how much previous Brazilian governments failed the 20 million people who live in the Amazon region.
“This is the first government that engages in a serious discussion about how to develop the Amazon,” he said. “The worst human development indicators in Brazil are in the Amazon.”
Araujo, as well as Institutional Security Minister General Augusto Heleno and Eduardo Bolsonaro, the president’s son and nominee to be Brazil’s next ambassador to Washington D.C., are helping the president to draft his speech.
While he may seek to minimize reports of environmental destruction, an emollient address is unlikely, particularly given that Bolsonaro retains the support of the U.S. government in his approach to the Amazon. Given the president’s outspoken nature -- and love of social media -- even a softer tone would probably not last long.
“Brazil used to communicate this idea of great sociability,” Andreza dos Santos Souza, the director of the Brazilian Studies Program at Oxford University, said. “These intolerant speeches are changing this perception.”
The outrage over the Amazon fires clearly has the potential to harm Brazil. Ahead of the G-7 Macron threatened to scrap the EU-Mercosur trade deal over what he described as Bolsonaro’s “lies” over his commitment to climate change.
The U.S. clothing company VF Corporation, which owns Timberland, Kipling Bags and The North Face, has suspended Brazilian leather purchases, and Norway’s two biggest investors have warned global companies against contributing to environmental damage. Brazilian embassies have also been targeted by protesters.
Fitch Solutions Macro Research, formerly BMI Research, issued two reports warning of “increased scrutiny” and “economic risks” after the fires. “We believe that international concern over deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon basin will create headwinds to export demand and investment inflows,” Fitch wrote.
Read more: Amazon Fires Another Warning for Brazil Stocks, JPMorgan Says
For Amaral, Brazil has rapidly lost its hard-won reputation as a leader on environmental issues. Aside from the blow back from certain countries or corporations, individual consumers may start to reject Brazilian products. “This change is terrible for the country, terrible for the image of the country and for the perception of consumers,” he said.
Brazil has fallen four places this year in the global ranking of the Country Brand Index, a measure developed by the Sao Paulo-based global branding consultancy FutureBrand, and now ranks 47th out of 75. The survey was completed in July, before the fires in the Amazon, but took into account the first six months of Bolsonaro’s government.
“The Amazon is a very sensitive topic, with huge repercussions, and it comes on top of a number of negative issues associated with Brazil in the past few years,” Daniel Alencar, partner-director of FutureBrand, said. But, he added, a country’s brand is constantly in flux. “No single event is going to destroy the image of Brazil.”
--With assistance from Samy Adghirni.
To contact the reporters on this story: Simone Iglesias in Brasília at firstname.lastname@example.org;Bruce Douglas in Brasilia Newsroom at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Juan Pablo Spinetto at firstname.lastname@example.org, Matthew Bristow
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