The trees of the rainforest rise up close to the shore, for kilometers. The small motorboat plows through the Rio Negro, then suddenly a small settlement appears. White sand, a few houses can be seen – and villagers have lined up to greet the distinguished guests from Germany. A little girl draws a sign under the eyes of Minister of Agriculture Cem Özdemir with a reddish natural paint, and later also Minister of Economics Robert Habeck. It is a symbol of welcome – and protection.

And that’s exactly what the visit of the two Green Ministers on Tuesday (local time) to a small village near Manaus is all about – protecting the rainforest. The villagers fervently sing the Brazilian national anthem, and soon it will be the turn of the guests.

“I’m Robert and this is Cem,” says the communicator Habeck in English. “We are from Germany, far away.” And says the ministers want to know how it works – living in the rainforest and protecting it at the same time. Özdemir says he first heard about the rainforest at school and never dreamed that he was here now.

Visit to the Kambeba

Habeck and Özdemir visit a community of the indigenous people of the Kambeba, located on the Rio Negro, almost 60 kilometers from the Amazon metropolis of Manaus. It’s humid, the guests start sweating quickly – and at the end of the short stay it starts to rain.

The Kambeba represent one of the indigenous groups who stopped identifying themselves as indigenous due to discrimination and violence – and rediscovered their identity with the rise of the indigenous movement and the Brazilian constitution in the 1980s.

For some time now, the village has committed itself to sustainable development. Solar systems, for example, provide electricity. While enough for the families, not for small businesses, there are small hotels and a restaurant. It is projects like this that Germany supports financially to protect the rainforest and intends to support even more in the future, as Habeck announces.

With Özdemir he continues a German travel diplomacy. In January, Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was in the Amazon rainforest together with Environment Minister Steffi Lemke (Greens), they visited a climate measuring tower. Chancellor Olaf Scholz also visited the new Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. In his first two terms of office from the beginning of 2003 to the end of 2010, he was not considered an environmental politician, but he promised to give priority to environmental and climate protection. His predecessor Jair Bolsonaro had promoted the exploitation of the Amazon region.

Habeck is emotional

Habeck already considered the plans of the Brazilian government under Lula to stop the deforestation of the rainforest by 2030 with emotional words during his trip to Brazil: “At least I can get tears in my eyes that a government is turning things around like that.”

However, the deforestation of the rainforest is progressing – in German diplomatic circles, with a view to the evaluation of satellite images in February, on which the provisional number of fires are counted, there was talk of a worrying situation, also because the fire season has not even started yet. Under Bolsonaro’s government, environmental and control authorities were systematically weakened. The deforested areas create new pastures and farmland for soybean cultivation and cattle breeding, for example.

The destruction of the rainforest is dramatic, said Roberto Maldonado, Latin America expert at WWF Germany. 18 percent of the forest has already been cleared. Experts feared that if 20 to 25 percent were destroyed, an irreversible tipping point could be reached. The amount of CO2 released would be so great that the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees could be forgotten.

“The rainforest is a gigantic air conditioner, rain machine and huge carbon sink,” says Maldonado. If it is not possible to save the forest, the south of the continent will turn into a kind of Sahel zone in Latin America. “Then the cattle breeders and soybean barons can forget their business model. Without rain, no agriculture is possible. And achieving the global climate protection goals is then an illusion anyway.”

Mercosur agreement under criticism

The planned free trade agreement between the EU and the South American confederation Mercosur actually accepts the destruction of the rainforest, says Maldonado. “It’s not enough to point out that the contract includes a chapter on social and environmental standards.” What is missing are sanctions for violations.

In his talks in Brazil, he saw a different perspective, says Habeck in the village on the Rio Negro. Namely that the Mercosur agreement and more trade are good for better protecting the rainforest.

In Brazil there is a powerful and export-oriented agricultural lobby. You also have to exert pressure with help from abroad, says Virgilio Viana, head of the Sustainable Amazon Foundation, during the minister’s visit to the Amazon. And Rio’s Mayor Eduardo Paes tells the German Press Agency at the opening of a research center on climate issues at Columbia University in Rio that he has no doubt that the Amazon region is an important matter. “And it’s good that people are holding Brazil accountable.”

Brazil has finally reached a certain state of normality in which it recognizes the Amazon as part of the national territory and as a Brazilian heritage that can be used in a variety of ways but must be protected.

Beware of more deforestation

One must now see how Lula’s goal of stopping illegal deforestation of the rainforest can be secured, said Habeck at the German-Brazilian Business Days in Belo Horizonte. In Brasilia, he adds that the agreement must not lead to increased trade leading to increased deforestation.

The Lula government itself has an interest in the agreement being effective. “Now let’s look again at what concrete measures are already included in the agreement, how they can be further interpreted and whether further measures are necessary.”