Eye on the Amazon

Brazil's Political Meltdown Could Spell Disaster for the Amazon

President Dilma Rousseff celebrating the launch of the Belo Monte monster dam.

Swift-moving drama has defined Brazil's political landscape in recent weeks, with the beleaguered Dilma Rousseff government teetering on the abyss. Many consider attacks against her to amount to an affront to democracy and a reversal of the hard-fought gains of the 1988 Constitution, which ushered out a brutal military dictatorship. Yet, what lurks behind this spectacle could be far worse than a coup d'état: powerful political and economic forces are now moving to dismantle the country's human rights and environmental standards, with grave implications for the Amazon and its peoples.

Late last month, Amazon Watch joined partners from the Tapajós and Xingu rivers alongside allies from Greenpeace to stage a spirited protest outside of the shareholder meeting of General Electric in Jacksonville, Florida. Coming on the heels of the historic decision to advance the demarcation of a key Munduruku indigenous territory and the cancelation of the licensing of the notorious São Luiz do Tapajós mega-dam, Munduruku leaders Adolto Akay and Jairo Saw's address to GE's CEO Jeff Immelt bore additional weight: any company with a modicum of social and environmental responsibility would steer clear of Brazil's toxic Amazon dams.

Adding her scathing criticism of the international corporate profiteers that bear direct responsibility for the Belo Monte dam's impacts, Antônia Melo of the Xingu Alive Forever Movement (MXVPS) told GE shareholders that the company must cease supplying turbines and other equipment that enable her government's disastrous energy policies. This shareholder action bolstered a global campaign to pressure corporations and financiers to divest from Amazon dams in favor of clean energy alternatives that do not jeopardize the future of the rainforest.

Leaders from the Amazon's Tapajós and Xingu regions call on GE to divest from dams. International advocacy is an increasingly important tool to counter the assault on human rights and the environment in Brazil. Photo credit: Fran Ruchalski / Greenpeace

Such international advocacy is gaining additional weight in the face of the current nefarious assault on Brazil's constitutional safeguards. As the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff advances, the country's environmental and human rights organizations have been blindsided by a wave of regressive measures. The latest outrage proposes to abolish required environmental licensing for infrastructure projects. Known as Constitutional Amendment 65 (PEC 65) and sponsored by "Soy King" turned Senator Blairo Maggi, the amendment would grant rubber stamp approval for any project planner that has submitted an environmental impact study. Such approval would mean that mega-projects like São Luiz do Tapajós, recently suspended for its flagrant socio-environmental unviability, would automatically be authorized for construction, without the possibility for legal challenge.

Under the cover of political mayhem, lawmakers have discreetly moved this polemic proposal toward a plenary vote, threatening to erase all of Brazil's environmental legislation in one fell swoop. As Federal Prosecutor Sandra Cureau put it, "It flagrantly disrespects the Constitution, which [would now] have no environmental basis."

Add PEC 65 to a spate of other congressional threats such as proposed Constitutional Amendment 215 and Ordinance 303 (PEC 215 and Portaria 303) that would essentially freeze the demarcation of indigenous territories while opening up existing territories and other protected areas to major infrastructure development and resource extraction, and we have a perfect storm of conditions enabling rampant rights abuses and environmental devastation. The menaces are manifold and their proponents emboldened.

Brazil's current political scenario is profoundly alarming. With Dilma gone, the macabre Vice President Michel Temer and his powerful political party PMDB will justify their slashing of the Brazilian constitution by invoking the need to spur economic growth with new "business friendly" policies. Such free reign to write a new political and economic agenda imperils the social and environmental victories born from decades of frontline struggles. If unchecked, frontline defenders, among them Brazil's indigenous peoples, will bear the brunt of these shocking regressions.

Meanwhile, President Rousseff solidified her own decidedly anti-environmental credentials last week when she inaugurated Belo Monte's first operational turbine. Local protestors built a barricade of burning tires to impede workers' access to the dam's powerhouse in protest of her. Deriding her tired, erroneous discourse framing the dam as a "proud achievement" in "clean, sustainable energy", the MXVPS wrote: "Today you came to inaugurate Belo Monte, our worst nightmare...a project steeped in corruption." As Antônia Melo expressed when considering Dilma's bleak political fortunes, "She is reaping what she sowed."

Brazil's history of notoriously self-serving and corrupt political practices may be understood through the lens of today's overt political crisis, however what lies behind the scenes is far more troubling. Environmental organizations and the Federal Prosecutor's Office (MPF) are challenging these retrograde measures while Brazil's indigenous movement has descended on Brasilia this week for the annual "Free Land Encampment" (Acampamento Terra Livre) in defense of indigenous rights and lands. Their concerted efforts could stall mounting attacks, but given the political landscape, they are unlikely to stop them alone.

For this reason it is paramount that the international community resoundingly condemn the alarming and undemocratic movement currently underway in Brazil. Such abuses are a concern to us all as they imperil the future of some of the planet's most significant ecosystems and the rights of their environmental stewards. We simply cannot afford to lose these battles, as they will have profound implications on our collective wellbeing.

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