Amazon Forest Endangered Despite Brazilian President's Vetoes of Environmental Protection Reductions

President Temer caves to pressure from Brazil's agribusiness lobby, threatening vast forests

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In a surprise move this Monday, Brazil's President Michel Temer vetoed contentious amendments to two proposed laws that would have opened up vast tracts of legally-protected Amazonian forests to land grabbing, deforestation, and mining. With these vetoes, Mr. Temer responded to calls from a coalition of environmental and human rights organizations and his own Environmental Minister and dealt a blow to lawmakers representing agribusiness interests. However, the reprieve for environmental protection will likely be short-lived; the same day, the administration announced it will introduce a new bill for a fast-tracked congressional vote that essentially resurrects the amendments the president just vetoed.

Mr. Temer's rejection of proposed amendments to Provisional Measures (Medidas Provisorias - MP) 756 and 758 temporarily halted plans by lawmakers representing the interests of 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 MPs would have downgraded the protected status of 37% of Jamanxim National Forest and 12% of Jamanxim National Park, which are located adjacent to the so-called "Soy Highway." The redesignation of these forests as "Environmental Protection Areas," as proposed in the amendments, would pave the way for logging, industrial agriculture, ranching, and mining projects.

Announcing the president's intention to veto MP 756 largely due to technicalities that would render it unconstitutional, Environment Minister Sarney Filho then indicated that President Temer will introduce priority legislation to the Brazilian Congress that proposes to strip the same forests of their protected status. Given that 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 legislation to slash the protections on an even greater area of forest. "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."

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 Mr. Sarney Filho citing the recent 29% increase in Amazon deforestation as a "highly concerning tendency."

"It is clear that President Temer's vetoes were merely intended to greenwash the government's anti-environment agenda and distract the public from its alarming assault on the Amazon," said Christian Poirier, Program Director at Amazon Watch. "His pandering to greedy ruralista demands have far-reaching and disastrous implications for environmental sanity and global climate stability."

"The Jamanxim National Forest and other protected areas along the soy highway were created in 2006 in attempts led by the Ministry of the Environment to prioritize sustainable management and protection of Amazonian forests, maintaining them largely in the public domain," noted Brent Millikan, Amazon Program Director at International Rivers. "However, successive administrations (Lula, Dilma, Temer) increasingly aligned themselves with the ruralista lobby and practically nothing has been done to implement an alternative, forest-based model of development, that recognizes the rights of local communities. In the meantime, land speculators, ranchers, loggers and miners have allowed to illegally occupy public forests, leading to pressures from the ruralista lobby to reduce protected areas."

The efforts to reduce conservation areas have been accompanied by legislative attempts to weaken Brazil's progressive legislation concerning recognition of the territorial rights of indigenous peoples and other traditional communities, and environmental licensing of dams, transportation infrastructure and other high-impact projects.

One such effort of the ruralistas is MP 759 – known by environmentalists as the "land grabber's law" – that recognizes illegal deforestation and cattle pasture as proof of productive land use in order to grant land titles of up to 1,500 hectares on public lands. An amended version of MP 759, proposed by the ruralistas, would increase up to 2,500 hectares the size of land titles allowed to be granted to land grabbers. Such perverse incentives in land tenure policy are a driving force behind the recent 29% increase 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 MP [would be] extremely negative for all of the Amazon."

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court issued an injunction against the passage of MP 759 on procedural grounds. The government has yet to announce if it will appeal the ruling. The threat of ongoing backtracking on environmental protections pose a significant threat to Brazil's ability to meet its climate change commitments under the Paris Accords.

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