Opinion: Is Brazil’s Natural Environment Under Threat from the Newly Elected Government?

by Marina Dorileo Barros 09 Apr. 2019

The below article is an opinion piece written by Enhesa EHS Regulatory Analyst Marina Dorileo Barros

A popular Brazilian song, País Tropical, has the lyrics“moro num país tropical abençoado por Deus, e bonito por natureza” [I live in a tropical country blessed by God, and beautiful in nature]. Despite the light-hearted lyrics, this tropical and beautiful country is under a serious threat.

After a divisive presidential election in October 2018, the country elected right-wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro in the second round of voting. He officially became the 38th president of Brazil in January 2019.

One of the key issues during the Bolsonaro political campaign was environmental protection.

Brazil is recognized around the world for its natural beauty; it is home to the largest tropical forest in the world. However, Brazil now faces a period in which economic development policies based on the growth of agribusiness, exploitation of natural resources and conflict over indigenous lands, are likely to dominate.

Development,” “efficiency” and “reducing bureaucracy” are frequently used expressions in the speeches of Brazilian officials; the terms are especially used when referring to matters such as environmental licensing procedures and the demarcation of indigenous land. Officials’ intentions are to align environmental protections with agriculture through loosening up environmental inspections. The President accused the Brazilian Environmental and Natural Renewable Resources Institute (IBAMA) of being a “criminal industry of fines,” of which he was a “victim”.[1]

Given this rhetoric, which may very likely turn into legislative action, how can this economic development occur without compromising environmental protection and stopping deforestation?

One of the discussion points during the political campaign was regarding the possible withdrawal of Brazil from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. For now, President Bolsonaro has said that Brazil will remain part of the agreement. However, the Secretariat for Climate Change and Forests has been closed and the Minister of Environment stated that discussions related to the existence of global warming are secondary,[2] there is little hope for the revival of the secretariat.

One of the promises made by Bolsonaro during his political campaign, was to reduce and accelerate existing environmental licensing procedures. The concept of “self-environmental licensing” for activities of low potential impact has also been floated.

Despite this apparent move to focus less on the environmental protection and more on economic development, the legislative momentum has actually been in the opposite direction. There are currently several proposed laws before the National Congress, which would adopt stricter requirements related to dam safety, especially mine tailing dams. The state of Minas Gerais has adopted Law 23.291/2019, which applies to mining and industrial tailings dams or water reservoirs related to mining and industrial activities. Under this new Law, these structures must be subject to a 3-phase environmental licensing procedure (which is a stricter requirement than under the previous State legislation it replaced).

Many who work in environmental law and enforcement view this characterization of environmental laws as incorrect. Those with opposing views to the Minister of Environment state that the Brazilian environmental licensing procedure and Brazilian legislation as a whole are not the problem, but rather the lack of resources provided to environmental authorities. Rather than criticizing the administrative burden of the licensing procedure, they say that the focus of the discussion should be on supporting and improving the environmental agencies.

Another controversial policy and discussion point during the political campaign was the merger of the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture. This proposal generated strong reactions even from the landowners who export a large proportion of their produce; landowners felt that that this measure could have a catastrophic impact on those exports. Even the former Minister of Agriculture, Blairo Maggi, one of the largest agricultural producers in Brazil, opposed the merger. Maggi considered it a bad move for the agribusiness that “would cause losses to the country’s farm trade as European countries—key importers of Brazilian agricultural products—have pushed Brazil to protect the environment”.[3]

To date, Bolsonaro has not yet carried out this proposed merger of the two Ministries. However, some important competences that were under the Ministry of Environment have been transferred to the Ministry of Agriculture. One of these is the Brazilian Forestry Service (Serviço Florestal Brasileiro), which is responsible for the rural environmental registry (cadastro ambiental rural – CAR), the regulation of rural properties and the management of natural reserves and conservation areas. This has raised significant concerns that the interests of conservation areas will be second to those of agribusiness.

The competence for the identification and demarcation of indigenous areas also migrated from the Indian National Foundation (FUNAI) to the Ministry of Agriculture. Minister Tereza Cristina believes that it is necessary to implement a change in the legislation regarding the demarcation of indigenous lands in order to “facilitate mining and agricultural production on indigenous lands”.[4] She believes in the integration of indigenous communities with the interests of agribusiness. This is supported by declarations of the President who has stated that under his government the demarcation of indigenous land is not going to happen, as he believes that keeping indigenous people in reserves is as akin to keeping animals in zoos.[5]

A Personal Conclusion

I am from the state of Mato Grosso, where the agribusiness is extremely strong. Growing up in a place where one can see miles and miles of land covered with soy plantations is worrying, particularly because these plantations weren’t there 40 years ago. If one considers that Mato Grosso is part of the Pantanal region, the legal Amazon and of Cerrado, the situation seems worse. The impression that I have, when wandering about my birthplace, is that there is a new type of landscape seeking to conquer all others: the plantation. Even the Xingu National Park, which should be a sanctuary for the remaining indigenous population in Mato Grosso, is now under pressure from cities like Sinop, Sorriso and Lucas do Rio Verde, which have developed largely based on soy production. My honest impression about Mato Grosso is that one day, which unfortunately is coming sooner than later, the only landscape we will see will be soy-plantations,

[1] Bolsonaro was fined by the IBAMA for irregular fishing in Angra dos Reis (RJ). However, after he was elected the fine was annulled. (O Globo. Ibama anula multa ambiental aplicada a Bolsonaro por pesca irregular, 9 January 2019. Available at https://oglobo.globo.com/brasil/ibama-anula-multa-ambiental-aplicada-bolsonaro-por-pesca-irregular-23358764 Accessed 13 March 2019.)

[2] Folha de São Paulo. Discussão sobre aquecimento global é secundária, diz futuro ministro do Meio Ambiente, 9 December 2018. Available at https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/ambiente/2018/12/discussao-sobre-aquecimento-global-e-secundaria-diz-futuro-ministro-do-meio-ambiente.shtml Access 13 March 2019.

[3] Reuters. Brazil’s environment, agriculture ministers criticize planned merger, 31 October 2018. Available at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-brazil-politics-environment/brazils-environment-agriculture-ministers-criticize-planned-merger-idUSKCN1N52N8 Access 13 March 2019.

[4] Senado Notícias. Tereza Cristina defende integração de terras indígenas ao agronegócio, 27 February 2019. Available at: https://www12.senado.leg.br/noticias/materias/2019/02/27/tereza-cristina-defende-integracao-de-terras-indigenas-ao-agronegocio Access 13 March 2019.

[5] G1. Índios em reservas são como animais em zoológicos, diz Bolsonaro, 30 November 2018. Available at https://g1.globo.com/sp/vale-do-paraiba-regiao/noticia/2018/11/30/indios-em-reservas-sao-como-animais-em-zoologicos-diz-bolsonaro.ghtml Access 13 March 2019.