SÃO PAULO – Catholic organizations are trying to pressure Brazil’s government to do more to protect the South American country’s environment, especially in its Amazon region.

The initiative was launched by the Bank für Kirche und Caritas (BKC), a German financial institution connected to the Church.

Since 2019, when President Jair Bolsonaro took office, there have been repeated environmental crises involving the Amazon and the Pantanal region, which is the world’s largest flooded grasslands. While wildfires and illegal loggers and ranchers destroyed thousands of square miles of native forests, Bolsonaro was accused of weakening the country’s environmental monitoring agencies, and supporting local ranchers who occupied and devastated portions of the Amazon.

“The government hasn’t been demonstrating that it’s concretely working to preserve the Amazon. So, our commission considers that in such a scenario it’s more and more important to exert international pressure on the current administration,” Italian-born Father Dario Bossi, a member of the Brazilian bishops’ Special Commission on Integral Ecology and Mining, told Crux.

“Such agents follow ethical policies of investment and cannot economically support a government which is not complying with environmental conservation,” Bossi added.

The special commission is one of 93 Catholic institutions gathered by the BKC to develop strategies to get the Bolsonaro government to halt deforestation in the Amazon. The organization has also gotten several financial institutions involved.

According to Tommy Piemonte, BKC’s head of Sustainable Investment Research, investors – Catholic or not – are also worried about the impact of the destruction of the Amazon on the indigenous population.

Bolsonaro’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led Brazil to the second highest number of deaths after the United States, has added to the misgivings non-Brazilians have about the situation in the country.

“The 2019 and 2020 wildfires crises harmed very much Bolsonaro’s international reputation. We’re also worried about the fact that he apparently ignores the COVID-19 risks. We know, for instance, that indigenous populations can be more vulnerable to the disease,” Piemonte told Crux.

“All those elements have combined to cause great concern among international investors,” he said.

The first concrete measure of the group was to send a public letter on March 29 to Bolsonaro and Vice President Hamilton Mourão, making several demands to protect the rainforest.

In the document, the authors mentioned the scale of the destruction in the Amazon – between August of 2019 and July of 2020, an area bigger than Jamaica was devastated – and said that such environmental damages contradict Pope Francis’s message of preservation of the creation, manifested in the 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’.

“The destruction of the Amazon rainforest and the violation of human rights not only pose a threat to Brazil’s reputation in the international community, but also to the Brazilian economy,” the document read, mentioning that consumers have been boycotting the country’s products and banks have been avoiding investment in Brazilian companies directly or indirectly involved in deforestation.

“If the government doesn’t oppose in a resolute way the destruction of the rainforest and the violation of the indigenous peoples’ rights, we, as Catholic investors, will also see more and more of our basis as actual and potential institutional investors in Brazilian companies and in government bonds removed,” the letter read.

Piemonte said that the plan is to combine economic and moral pressure.

“We’re not only financial investors, we’re also Catholic. Brazil is a country with a large Catholic population. So, our idea is clearly to motivate not only investors, but also the Brazilian Catholics,” he explained.

If the Bolsonaro administration fails to answer the letter, the group will try to intervene in the environmental crisis through the Brazilian Congress. “We’ll also keep talking to other investors and associations,” Piemonte added.

Bossi said that the CNBB’s Commission on Integral Ecology launched a mining divestment campaign last year, asking Catholics in the whole country to avoid financing companies that contribute to the destruction of the environment.

“Since then, different bills have been presented by politicians to loosen restrictions on mining, including mining in indigenous lands. Only the combination of domestic and international campaigns will be able to change this situation,” the priest said.

On April 6, a group of 200 civic organizations in Brazil, including several Church groups, sent a letter to President Joe Biden in which they asked the U.S. president not to make any climate deal with Bolsonaro behind closed doors.

Biden invited 40 world leaders – including Bolsonaro – to an April 22-23 Summit on Climate that will happen on April 22 and 23, which will take place virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We learned that [the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate] John Kerry talked to the Brazilian environment minister Ricardo Salles. A potential deal between the two countries may be concluded without any consultation of the indigenous peoples,” Bossi warned.

That’s why members of the CNBB’s Commission on Integral Ecology and other civic organizations are planning on-line demonstrations for April 15, he said.

“The forest peoples cannot be looked down upon again,” the priest added.