Brazil Wavers on Environment, and Earth's Largest Wetland Starts to Wither

Land prepared for planting soybeans in Pantanal. Photo credit: Lalo de Almeida for The New York Times

Brazil's booming soy industry and cattle ranches are threatening one of the richest wildlife havens on the planet, where packs of jaguars, caimans, marsh deer and macaws have roamed freely for eons.

The Pantanal region, the world's largest tropical wetlands, is starting to wither. Over the last 15 years, about 8,700 square miles of the area, which straddles Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia, have been altered, with fast-growing patches of yellow, arid land introduced into the lush biome, which covers roughly 70,000 square miles, or about the size of Syria.

This degradation of the Pantanal is seen by critics as one sign of Brazil's weakening resolve to protect its environment.

While the Brazilian government earlier this year hailed a modest achievement in its signature environmental fight – containing the deforestation of the Amazon – it has been embarrassed by other trend lines. The country's greenhouse gas emissions increased by 9 percent last year, compared with 2015, marking the highest output since 2008.

Fueled in large part by the conversion of forested land for farming and other commercial purposes, last year's emissions increase has called into question Brazil's ability to honor its international commitments to combat climate change, including those under the Paris agreement.

Additionally, mapping data compiled by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics released earlier this month showed the country lost 9.5 percent of its forest land between 2000 and 2014.

The expansion of agriculture into areas with few environmental regulations, or lax enforcement, has coincided with a politically turbulent period in Brazil during which a powerful coalition of federal lawmakers, representing farming interests, has had its way on a number of controversial land-use policies.

Most susceptible to their lobbying, environmentalists say, is President Michel Temer, who spent much of the past year trading favors with lawmakers in a successful bid to convince Congress to spare him from standing trial on corruption charges.

"In practice, Temer has removed Brazil from the Paris agreement, just like President Trump did, with the difference that he doesn't have the courage to assume that position publicly," said Marina Silva, who was Brazil's environment minister from 2003 to 2008. During that period, the country was celebrated abroad for its aggressive efforts to curb rampant Amazon deforestation.

"There's a firm effort to dismantle the government apparatus created over the past decades to support policies that were consistent with the reduction of greenhouse gases," Ms. Silva said.

Mr. Temer is unabashed about his support for the agriculture and cattle industries, calling them essential engines of economic growth.

"It is often said that I, or my government, protects farmers or cattle ranchers," he said during a recent speech at an industry event. "It's the contrary. It's farmers and cattle ranchers who protect the national economy and that is the clear reality. We can't be afraid to say that."

Brazil's 1988 Constitution, drafted as the country emerged from a period of military dictatorship, sought to establish a blueprint for the government to "defend and preserve the environment for present and future generations." It labeled the country's five main biomes, including the Pantanal, "part of the national patrimony" whose conservation would be ensured by future laws.

A law regulating the sustainable use of land in those areas, however, was passed for only one of the biomes, the Atlantic Forest. That meant that landowners in places like the Pantanal had few constraints when Brazil's commodities boom at the turn of the century suddenly made their parcels highly profitable.

Brazil's agricultural and livestock production has soared over the past decade, yielding a harvest of some 238 million tons in the 2016-17 harvest, about double the crop in 2005-06, according to government estimates. During that same period, farmland increased by 26 percent.

The Temer government has characterized the surge in agricultural exports, mainly to China, as an important ingredient of the country's slow recovery from a yearslong recession.

This export-led growth has generated tempting opportunities for landowners in Pantanal, a region whose swampy terrain and sweltering temperatures had previously made it unattractive for farming. That changed as new technology made it possible to turn wetlands into soybean fields.

Last year, there were 4.8 million acres of soy fields in Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, the two states that include the Pantanal – a 77 percent increase from a decade ago.

"Thank God we have China buying our products," said Roberto Folley Coelho, a farm owner who makes a living raising cattle, planting rice and soy, and hosting tourists.

Mr. Coelho scoffed at the notion that his soy crops could be causing environmental damage, arguing that imposing environmental regulations in the region would do more harm than good.

"I'm afraid that curtailing private initiative could lead to more poverty here," he said.

The threat of rigid environmental regulations remains remote in Pantanal. In 2011, a law was introduced in Congress seeking to create a framework for sustainable development in the region, but the legislation has stalled.

"What we need is to strike a balance," said Felipe Dias, the executive director of the SOS Pantanal Institute, which advocates wetlands conservation.

But farmers, he said, often don't focus on the long-term damage caused by their crops, which erode the soil, polluting and diverting rivers. This alters the rhythms of the wet and dry seasons in the Pantanal, permanently flooding large areas. "They don't think about tomorrow," he said. "As long as they're fine now, they don't care about what happens next."

At the national level, a similar focus on short-term economic gains has made sustainable development an afterthought, environmentalists argue.

In July, Mr. Temer supported a bill that came to be known as the "land grabbers" law, creating a mechanism for people who had been occupying public land in the Amazon to acquire titles. Environmentalists fought the measure, fearing it would displace Indigenous communities and enable deforestation.

The next month, the president issued an executive order paving the way for mining in a protected area of the Amazon. Following an outcry at home and abroad, as well as a court injunction, the government pulled the proposal.

Those initiatives came as Mr. Temer, a deeply unpopular leader, spent enormous political capital fending off the threat of trial on corruption and obstruction of justice charges by persuading lawmakers to block them.

"Lacking popular support, the Temer government sought the backing of groups with clout in Congress, among them the agricultural bloc," said Carlos Rittl, the executive secretary of Climate Observatory, an environmental group. "Temer leaned on that support to shield himself from investigations and sold out the environmental agenda."

Temer administration officials defended their record on the environment, arguing that criticism was overblown. Their main achievement this year was a 16 percent reduction in Amazon deforestation, following several years of steady rise.

"Deforestation was out of control," Environment Minister Sarney Filho told reporters recently. "We've addressed the situation."

Another initiative the Temer government cited as part of its commitment to the environment has been met with criticism.

In October, officials announced they would offer companies that have been fined for violating environmental regulations steep discounts to settle their debts. Proceeds, the government said, would go toward conservation projects. The ministry noted that only about 5 percent of environmental fines had been collected in recent years.

"The move is short on details and doesn't get to the heart of the problem: lax enforcement," said Christian Poirier, the program director at Amazon Watch. "This amounts to an amnesty that reinforces a climate of impunity in Brazil."

Mr. Sarney defended the measure as pragmatic in light of the fact that big companies can refuse to pay fines by fighting them in court for years on end. The long-term solution, he said, is to find a way to compensate owners who preserve their lands.

"Forest protection services need to be paid for," he said.

Adauto Rodrigues Oliveira, a soy farmer in Miranda, agrees. Environmentalists, he said, show little regard for the livelihood of farmers.

"They don't care, they just say you can't plant here," he said. "Environmentalists want to protect the land but they don't want to pay indemnity."

Asked about the long-term impact of his soy fields on the surrounding wildlife, he shrugged. People in the region are less poor than they were before agriculture in the area took off.

"Soy is a good business," he said. "It's been very good for Pantanal."

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