Eye on the Amazon

Amazon's Forests Still Endangered Despite Brazilian President's Vetoes of Environmental Protection Rollbacks

Imperatriz Leopoldinense samba parade in Rio Carnaval 2017. Photo credit: Todd Southgate

"It's as if you sent a message that environmental crime pays."

Brazil's President Michel Temer surprised many on Monday when he vetoed contentious legislation that would have opened up vast tracts of legally-protected Amazonian forests to land grabbing, deforestation, agribusiness, and mining. While the vetoes seemed a concession to demands from his Environmental Minister and a coalition of environmental and human rights organizations, they now appear to be mere greenwash of the government's anti-environment agenda and and an attempt distract the public from its alarming assault on the Amazon. That same day, the administration announced that it will introduce a new bill for a fast-tracked congressional vote that essentially resurrects the legislation the president just vetoed.

Mr. Temer's rejection of the legislative proposals temporarily halted plans by lawmakers representing Brazil's powerful cattle ranchers, land speculators, loggers, and mining companies to slash environmental protections for about 2,300 square miles (600,000 hectares) of forests from the western Amazonian state of Pará to the country's Atlantic Rainforest. The proposals would have downgraded the protected status of significant sections of Jamanxim National Forest and National Park, which are located adjacent to the so-called "Soy Highway," to the weaker status of "Environmental Protection Areas," allowing for agribusiness and extractive industry to expand across vast, currently-preserved ecosystems.

In his announcement that the president would veto these measures largely due to judicial uncertainties that could render them unconstitutional, Environment Minister Sarney Filho indicated that President Temer will introduce priority legislation before the Brazilian Congress that will strip the same forests of their protected status. Given that the Brazilian Congress is dominated by Brazil's powerful agribusiness lobby – known as the ruralistas – which has long campaigned to weaken environmental protections and expand cattle ranching, extensive logging, and industrial agriculture into the Amazon, the bill is essentially guaranteed passage.

In a letter denouncing the president for using the vetoes to obscure his intention to reduce forest protections through other means, a group of Brazilian and international NGOs warned that ruralista lawmakers would likely amend the new proposed legislation to slash the protections on an even greater area of forest than in Temer's version. "The veto only serves to transfer the responsibility from the president to the Congress – now dominated by parliamentarians with no commitment to environmental conservation – for upending protection for this significant portion of the Amazon rainforest," wrote the NGOs.

The vetoes came just hours before Mr. Temer's departure on an official visit to Norway, where he will attempt to maintain the Nordic country's commitment to financing Brazil's Amazon Fund, to which it has already granted $850 million. In the leadup to the visit, however, Norway's Environment Minister Vidal Helgeser sent a letter to the government, citing the recent 29% increase in Amazon deforestation as a "highly concerning tendency."

Helsager underscored that disbursements to the Amazon Fund are results-based: "If deforestation is reduced, there is money coming from Norway. If deforestation increases, there will be much less money, because it's about honoring results of nationally-based policies."

These brazen efforts to slash Amazonian conservation areas have been accompanied by legislation aimed at weakening Brazil's progressive legislation that recognises the territorial rights of indigenous peoples and other traditional communities, and gutting the environmental licensing process for new dams, transportation infrastructure, and other high-impact projects.

One high-priority bill on the ruralista agenda, known by environmentalists as the "land grabber's law," would recognize illegal deforestation and cleared cattle pasture as proof of productive land use in order to grant land titles of up to about 6 square miles (1,500 hectares) on public lands. Ruralista amendments to that bill would increase the size of land titles granted to land grabbers to about 10 square miles (2,500 hectares). Such perverse incentives in land tenure policy are a driving force behind the recent spike in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.

"It's as if you sent a message that environmental crime pays," Heron Martins, from the Brazilian research institute IMAZON told O Globo. "In this sense, the approval of this [law would be] extremely negative for all of the Amazon."

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court issued an injunction against the passage of the "land-grabbers law" on procedural grounds. The government has yet to announce if it will appeal the ruling.

While the threat of drastic environmental regressions have been temporarily delayed, there is every indication that the ruralistas will successfully strongarm their agenda through Congress and across the desk of President Temer, whose office is entirely beholden to them. Not only would such rollbacks negate Brazil's ability to meet its climate change commitments under the Paris Accords; President Temer's pandering to greedy ruralista demands will have far-reaching and disastrous implications for environmental sanity and global climate stability.

But just as Mr. Temer played lip service to those pressuring him to reverse course on Amazon destruction, a groundswell of determined and effective activism from Brazilian and international civil society can and will force his government to take notice and definitively put the brakes on today's severe threats.

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