In surprise move, Brazil’s president vetoes bills scaling back Amazon protections

The embattled president of Brazil has made himself an unlikely—if temporary—ally of environmentalists after blocking two measures that would have opened a total of 1.4 million acres of protected forest to logging, mining, and agricultural development. After Michel Temer announced his decision yesterday, he explained that the measures were “against public interest,” adding that they would create “fragile environmental protections in the sensitive region of the Brazilian Amazon.”

For some, the veto reflected the environmental sensitivity of the Temer administration in the face of harsh criticism of the measures, which the Amazon Research Institute (IPAM) estimated would prompt the loss of nearly 700,000 acres of forest and the release of 140 million tons of carbon dioxide by 2030.

“Depending how you look at it, the government is doing alright with the environment,” said Paulo Henrique Marostegan e Carneiro, who manages conservation projects for the ICMBio, a group overseeing the management of national park and forests. “It’s just that the final proposal was quite different from the original put forward by the Ministry of the Environment—the version Congress approved created a lot of conflict within the government.”

But others think that Temer has simply kicked the bucket down the road and, as Marostegen admits, a new proposal could be on the table in another week. While environmental organizations asked for the president to block the measures, they are not quieted by the veto. A statement issued by a number of organizations, including the Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA), the World Wildlife Fund of Brazil, and Greenpeace Brazil, emphasized that forests are not yet protected from political advances.

The problem is that, along with the veto, a new bill will be sent to Congress, under an expedited process, proposing the transformation of those same 480 thousand hectares of the Jamanxim National Forest. This means that the veto only serves to transfer the responsibility from the president to the Congress—now dominated by parliamentarians with no commitment to environmental conservation.

As Political Tensions Flare, Amazon Avoids Deregulation

Last month, Brazil’s Congress fast-tracked the two measures, MP 756 and MP 758. They were championed by the so-called “rural caucus,” an influential faction of the Brazilian congress representing ranching and agribusiness interests. In 2017, the sector is expected to reach a gross production value of $166 billion, a fact that has made them a powerful negotiator in the midst of a national political and economic crisis that has engulfed high-level businessmen, Brazilian institutions, and prominent political figures.

Currently, Temer is center stage among them. Last month, he was secretly recorded by the former chairman of meatpacking powerhouse JBS as he discussed alleged bribes paid to Eduardo Cunha, the fallen leader of the House of Representatives who led impeachment efforts against Dilma Rousseff. Subsequently, police filmed one of his top aides accepting a suitcase containing $100,000 in bribes from a JBS official. He has spent recent weeks trying to take distance from the scandal but his approval ratings continue to plummet.

But many of his critics also expect him to tighten alliances with powerful factions within Congress. Their fear is that in this process, national development will be promoted at all costs, with the environment used as a tool of negotiation.

Environment Becomes Tool Of Negotiation

The two measures passed by Congress aimed to lower environmental protection levels for the Jamanxim National Park and the Jamanxim National Forest, the latter being reduced by 37% over its original size. Both conservation areas are located in the southwestern part of the Amazon state of Pará. In addition, the measures would have cut the smaller São Joaquim National Park to 80% of its original size. While dismantling the national parks and forests, the legislation proposed the creation of so-called Environmental Protection Areas, which are much less regulated in terms of development.

A change to the degree of protection of the territory will open [it] for speculation, land grabbing, disordered occupation and the consequences of this.

“A change to the degree of protection of the territory will open [it] for speculation, land grabbing, disordered occupation and the consequences of this,” said Soraya Fernandes Martins, a park director working for ICMBio. “That will mean deforestation, above all else.”

The area of western Pará has long acted as a buffer between large-scale agricultural development and important Amazon River basins. But in recent years, it has been among the hardest hit by deforestation, with an estimated 68% of the country’s illegal logging taking place within these protected areas. For conservationists, this was a primary justification for opposing the bills, which they saw as legitimizing ongoing occupations and illegal logging.

ICMBio estimates that nearly 68% of those currently occupying Jamanxim National Park entered shortly before or just after it received its protected status. If these occupants are rewarded with a formal right to the land, they warn, it would encourage further invasions along the Amazon frontier.

Efforts by the Congress to relax hard-won environmental laws come at time when violence in the Brazilian countryside is particularly high. The first five months of 2017 were the deadliest in the last decade, with 36 people killed in Brazil so far this year in rural land disputes. Earlier this month, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights estimated that one land defender dies in Brazil each week, with the risk being especially concentrated among indigenous peoples.

The latest in a series of bloody events occurred in eastern Pará on May 24, when 10 people were killed in a confrontation between landless Brazilians and police at the Santa Lucía estate. It is violence that some fear will continue as the government looks to privately led development in rural Brazil as a road out of a crippling crisis.

“The reduction of conservation areas in the name of national projects—dams, streams, and privatization of land—shows how the executive and legislative branches are working together to implement their preferred model of development,” said André Segura Tomasi, an Amazon specialist with the International Institute of Education of Brazil. “The concept of developing a country cannot be linked to projects that reproduce power structures or the permanence of a specific government party.”

For now, the government has sent a revision of the bills back to Congress, while a new vote could take place as soon as next week.

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