RIO DE JANEIRO, Nov 23 (Reuters) – The United States is seeking to crack down on the environmental criminals behind rising deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, using sanctions such as Magnitsky sanctions to tackle climate change more aggressively, US sources and officials told Reuters.
The plan represents a major shift in Washington’s strategy to fight global warming, adding direct sanctions to its toolkit of fiscal incentives, diplomatic nudges and complex, slow-moving multilateral agreements.
Brazil’s deforestation reached a 15-year high under outgoing President Jair Bolsonaro, who rolled back environmental protections and pushed for more mining and commercial agriculture in the Amazon, a crucial buffer against climate change.
Left-wing President-elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva takes office on January 1 and already pledged to end deforestation at Egypt’s COP27 climate summit last week. In conversations with US officials, Lula and his allies have emphasized his focus on tackling climate change.
Yet there are still question marks about how he views the plan, which is still in its infancy. Lula believes Washington helped Brazilian prosecutors jail him on bribery charges and that he has often resented the long arm of US law enforcement.
Magnitsky Sanctions are designed to punish those accused of corruption or facilitating human rights violations. They would freeze all US assets and prohibit all Americans and US companies from doing business with sanctioned individuals or entities.
The US Treasury Department, which is responsible for Magnitsky sanctions, declined to comment. Neither Bolsonaro’s office nor Brazil’s Justice Ministry responded to requests for comment. Lula’s transition team did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The US plan began to take shape in June, at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, when the United States and Brazil announced it a joint task force to combat illegal deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, said a US source working on the plan.
One of the objectives of the working group is “to discourage the use of the international financial system in connection with illegal activities involving forest products,” according to a statement from the US State Department at the time.
To be more precise, a separate US official with knowledge of the plan told Reuters, Washington wants to punish major deforesters and perpetrators of other environmental crimes, such as illegal gold mining.
US officials in Brazil and the United States have already begun identifying and investigating specific targets, the source said, with possible penalties ranging from visa blacklists to Global Magnitsky sanctions.
It’s unclear when or if the United States will be able to sanction specific targets, as the investigations could take some time.
Attacking environmental criminals with Global Magnitsky sanctions is uncommon but not unprecedented.
In 2019, the Treasury designated Try Pheap, a Cambodian tycoon and government party official, to set up a large-scale illegal logging consortium in collusion with officials.
The Treasury Department is working on the plan with the State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs and the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, the source said.
During a visit to Brazil in August, Brian Nelson, the Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said the Summit of the Americas meeting in June resulted in subsequent talks with Brazil about how “the challenge we all face around cope with climate change.”
“Certainly, environmental crimes are a key feature of that from our perspective,” Nelson said in a meeting with reporters, referring to “the deforestation of the Amazon.”
During his visit in August, Nelson also met with civil society organizations in Sao Paulo to discuss environmental crime “and its link to both organized crime and public corruption,” according to a statement released by the Treasury Department at the time.
Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter and Brad Haynes; Edited by Christian Plumb and Lisa Shumaker
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