Signs of a rightward turn by Brazil’s new government have alarmed conservationists and climate change activists who fear a rollback of environmental laws that could accelerate deforestation in the Amazon basin.
With Brazil’s economy in its worst slump since the 1930s, new leader Michel Temer took power this month promising a more business-friendly agenda to spur growth. Temer named a conservative-leaning cabinet whose members include figures with close ties to powerful landowners and agribusiness companies.
Temer has taken control in South America’s largest nation — and the world’s biggest rain forest — at a time when Brazilian lawmakers are considering a major overhaul of environmental laws. This includes a controversial constitutional amendment known as PEC 65 that would reduce licensing requirements for development projects and limit judicial oversight of their impact.
The amendment has been stalled, but last month it won a key vote in a Senate commission, where it was sponsored by Sen. Blairo Maggi, a farming tycoon nicknamed the “King of Soy.” Temer has made Maggi the country’s agriculture minister, a powerful post in the world’s second-largest food exporter, giving him significant leverage to promote the amendment.
Temer’s centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party has responded to the economic crisis with a package of proposals that would ease licensing requirements for projects in protected areas, weaken mining regulations and allow “productive activities” in Brazil’s indigenous reserves. Now that Temer is president, conservationists worry he will push those measures through the National Congress. “Those who have taken power are backing
an explicitly regressive, anti-environmental agenda,” said Christian Poirier of U.S.-based Amazon Watch.
New foreign minister José Serra said last week that Brazil would assume its “special responsibility” for the Amazon and be “proactive and pioneering” in climate negotiations. But the new government has said little about its plans, and Temer comes to power at a time when Brazil’s regulatory controls and environmental laws are increasingly blamed for stifling investment and growth.
After a decade in which deforestation slowed significantly, it began rising again under President Dilma Rousseff, according to satellite data from the independent Brazilian monitoring group Imazon. Last year, 1,228 square miles of forest were cut down, according to the group — an area larger than Rhode Island.
Rousseff was suspended from office May 12 and faces an impeachment trial in Brazil’s Senate, leaving Temer — her vice president and former coalition partner — to form a new government.
Environmentalists and advocates of indigenous rights also worry that Temer will push forward with controversial hydroelectric projects in the Amazon basin, including the $10 billion Sao Luiz do Tapajo mega-dam. Plans for the project were put on hold last month by Brazil’s environmental agency, partly over concerns that it would destroy the ancestral forests of indigenous groups.
Temer, whose public-approval ratings are low, has assembled a broad political coalition by offering key cabinet posts to right-leaning lawmakers who were often marginalized during the 13 years that Rousseff’s Workers’ Party was in power. Among those who have gained leverage are “ruralistas” from Brazil’s vast interior with ties to powerful farming and ranching interests.
Halting the loss of tree cover in Brazil is viewed by climate activists as essential to slowing global warming, because tropical forests absorb and store large amounts of carbon. Since 1970, about 20 percent of the Amazon basin has been deforested — an area larger than France — but the rate of destruction fell sharply starting in 2005, under Rousseff’s predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Lula’s administration toughened enforcement of environmental laws and put millions of acres off-limits to development.
“Few people thought that Brazil could actually stop the wholesale destruction of the Amazon. Its success — partial but real — is one of the few hopeful achievements in the fight for a safe climate,” said climate change activist and author Bill McKibben, a professor of environmental studies at Middlebury College in Vermont.
“It makes the prospect of a return to business as usual in the rain forest especially sad,” he said.
As Brazil’s economy began to falter in recent years, deforestation picked up again, especially as farmers attempted to make up for falling revenue by clearing more land. Soy production in Brazil has quadrupled in the past 20 years, and this year’s harvest is projected to approach 100 million tons, a record.
Tighter government budgets have also meant less money to keep illegal loggers, gold miners and others out of protected areas and indigenous reserves.
Rousseff was not viewed with any special sympathy by environmental activists and Amazon conservation groups. In 2014, she named agribusiness executive Kátia Abreu, dubbed the “Chainsaw Queen” by her critics, as agriculture minister.
But with her presidency on the ropes in recent weeks, Rousseff attempted to win back the support of environmentalists by issuing executive orders to protect more than 5 million acres of the Amazon and create three new indigenous reserves. Officials in the new government say Rousseff’s 11th-hour decrees will be subject to review.
Temer’s new minister of mines and energy, another powerful cabinet post, is 32-year-old Fernando Coelho Filho, a member of the National Congress who said his priority will be to attract new foreign investment by overhauling mining laws. Critics say the proposed changes fail to protect communities affected by mining. Last year, 19 people were killed when a dam collapsed at a large reservoir for mining waste, an accident that became a symbol of lax Brazilian oversight.
But officials in Temer’s new government say environmental controls remain too rigid. Maggi, the new agriculture minister, said the point of proposed amendment PEC 65 is to give companies a guarantee that once a project is approved by regulators, it won’t be halted by lawsuits or judicial interference.
Brazil’s problem, he said in an interview, is that “if some nongovernment group or prosecutor or person is opposed to a project, even for ideological reasons, they use their power to delay construction.”
Maggi was given a “Golden Chainsaw” award in 2005 by Greenpeace while governor of the Amazon state of Mato Grosso. He said it forced him to be more agile in fighting deforestation, which fell dramatically in the state during subsequent years. But his support for the new regulations has eroded the grudging respect he won from some environmentalists.
A group of prosecutors has launched a social-media campaign against his constitutional amendment. “The risk is enormous,” said Sandra Curea, one of the attorneys.
Maggi said he also supports allowing indigenous Brazilians to farm commercially on their reserves, as opposed to the subsistence farming they are currently permitted to practice. This is another sensitive proposal, because the country’s indigenous reserve system also has been used to make large tracts of Amazon forest off-limits to commercial exploitation and development. Maggi rejected the idea that farmers are anti-environmental.
“The biggest friend of the environment has to be the producer, because he depends on the environment to receive the rain,” he said.
José Carlos Carvalho, who served as environment minister in 2002 under the business-friendly administration of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, said the new anti-regulatory push in Brazilian politics amounted to “the biggest regression in environmental management in Brazil since re-democratization,” referring to the end of military rule in 1985.
He said the Temer government wouldn’t be the first to view environmental protections as a luxury the country can’t afford. “This has been the reality in Brazilian politics since forever,” he said.