By Jan Rocha / Climate News Network

Two controversial bills would reduce two national parks in the Jamanxim area of the Amazon by nearly 1.5 million acres. (Werick França Silva / Wikimedia Commons)

Brazil faces an unpredictable political crisis as the country’s president fights demands for him to leave office. And as the price of his survival, he is making damaging concessions on Brazil’s environment.

President Michel Temer is facing calls to resign after the owners of Brazil’s biggest meat-packing industry, JBS, alleged he had been involved in bribery and the obstruction of justice.

To retain support in congress, he is now working with the powerful farmers’ lobby, the bancada ruralista, which wants to reduce conservation areas and weaken environmental licensing laws.

He hopes to cling to power by making concessions to the bancada. In exchange for support from the Parliamentary Agriculture Front (FPA), the bancada’s formal name, he tore up the government’s project for modernising the environmental licensing law, telling lobby members they could present whatever amendments to it they liked.

So a congressional committee is now about to approve a radically different version of the government’s original proposal for a new General Licensing Law.

Licensing Discarded

Dubbed “flex licensing”, it dispenses with the need for licences in some of the areas where they are most needed – large–scale cattle ranching, mining in protected areas, and even roadbuilding in the Amazon, one of the biggest causes of deforestation. Once past the committee stage, it will be voted into law in a plenary session.

This is a serious blow to the environment minister, José Sarney Filho, who spent a year negotiating a more reasonable version of the bill with environmentalists, farmers and industry.

Nevertheless, he has chosen to remain in the government, although his party, the Greens, together with several other small parties, has decided to abandon the ruling coalition in protest at President Temer’s alleged involvement in corrupt practices.

The minister says he has decided to stay in order to defend the “cause of sustainability and the green economy”, and his achievements. These include the suspension of the environmental licensing process which would have allowed the proposed São Luis dam on the Tapajos river, in the Amazon, to go ahead, and incentives for clean and renewable energy sources.

The political turmoil has left Sarney Filho powerless to stop the tide of anti-conservation legislation being tabled by the farmers’ lobby in their desire to open up to economic exploration previously protected land like indigenous areas and national parks.

In a 2017 report (available only in Portuguese) the Worldwide Fund for Nature, WWF, says there is an imminent risk of Brazil losing up to 80,000 square kms of parks and forests, an area the size of Portugal.

“Brazil is undergoing an unprecedented offensive against its protected areas”, WWF says, with up to 10% of the country’s total protected area under threat.

On 24 May, in the capital, Brasilia, the lower house representatives came to blows over the legitimacy of passing any laws while the scandal involving the president remains unresolved.

In the senate the farmers’ lobby quietly passed two controversial bills which will reduce the size of two national parks in the Jamanxim river area in the Amazon by almost 600,000 hectares, reckoned as the equivalent of 486,000 soccer fields.

This reduction had been proposed by the government to allow the building of a new railway, Ferrogrão – the Grain Railway– to carry the soya harvest from the huge farms of central Brazil to the Amazon river port of Santarem.

After studies by the government’s environment agency, the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio – Portuguese only) it was decided that an area of 862 ha would be adequate for the railway. But the ruralistas have increased that to a whopping 600,000 ha.

Growing Deforestation

They are using the bill to remove protected status from a much wider area so that it can be used for farming, mining and logging.

They also introduced a clause into the bill, reducing the size of São Joaquim, a national park in the Atlantic Forest, located in the southern state of Santa Catarina, by 20%, although it has nothing to do with the railway.

The environment minister’s warning that the bills will severely affect the government’s plan to combat deforestation by strengthening conservation areas in the Amazon, not reducing them, was simply ignored. Deforestation is already on the rise, reaching 7,989 sq kms in 2016, the environment ministry says.

The new legislation also completely contradicts Brazil’s Paris Agreement commitments to combat global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate scientists also point out that reducing the size of conservation areas will help to dismember the Amazon, transforming it into an archipelago of forest fragments, leaving plant and animal populations more susceptible to extinction.

Ironically it is the ruralistas, the big farmers, who will suffer from lower rainfall in the midwest region – Brazil’s grain basket – more than anyone.

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