Stripping back of environmental protections could greenwash illegal commodities in the Brazilian Amazon

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2017

The Brazilian government is stripping back protections for the Amazon rainforest, paving the way for beef and soy producers to greenwash commodities produced illegally at the expense of forest and indigenous lands.

Environmental enforcement agencies are being downsized and proposals have been tabled to reduce the size of protected areas by more than 30,000 square miles. Campaigners have described the plans as the biggest rollback of forest protections in two decades.

“It’s a serious crisis,” a former Brazilian cabinet minister told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on condition of anonymity. “We are backsliding on land use and new demarcation of indigenous peoples’ land.”

Analysis by WWF Brazil suggests that the plans would lead to the loss of ten per cent of the country’s Conservation Units, an area the size of Portugal. “These are national parks, biological reserves and national forests that should be under the strictest care due to their global importance, but which suffer at this moment an unprecedented attack promoted with the support of governmental sectors, the National Congress, and interests opposed to the environment,” WWF Brazil said in a statement.

Similar boundary changes have been used to greenwash illegal deforestation for beef. In 2010, following an IBAMA raid of illegal cattle ranching in the state of Rondonia, the federal government changed the definition of the state’s most deforested area from a National Forest to a Protected Area, creating the conditions for illegal cattle ranching to continue.

Last year the status of 305,000 hectares of Jamanxim National Forest was downgraded, effectively legalising the actions of cattle ranchers who had illegally occupied land within the forest. Environmental NGO Imazon has warned that such amnesties encourage further illegal acts.

Key environmental departments also now face dramatic reductions in funding. The Environment Ministry has had its budget slashed by more than 40 per cent this year. Funding for the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), responsible for protecting the rights of Brazil’s 900,000 indigenous people, has fallen by more than 40 per cent.

On 2nd June, Amazonas will lose the managers of ten Conservation Units, as the State Environment Secretariat (SEMA) sheds 13 jobs. The units cover seven million hectares of Amazon rainforest. There will be no new hirings to cover the vacancies, although SEMA stressed that staff will be reshuffled from other departments to maintain the units.

The effect of past cuts and boundary changes contributed to the reversal of the progress that was made in tackling deforestation between 2004 and 2012. In that period, the annual deforestation rate in Brazil’s Amazon fell from nearly 11,000 square miles to just 1,700 square miles, a decline of 84 per cent.

Since 2012, deforestation has once again risen, increasing by 29 per cent in the Brazilian Amazon in 2016, according to the Minister for the Environment. Deforestation rates in Conservation Units – the areas now specifically targeted for a reduction in protection – increased by 80 per cent between 2012 and 2015.

The official demarcation and recognition of indigenous lands has been identified as one of the key contributing factors to Brazil’s success in reducing deforestation. However the Minister of Justice said in an interview in March, soon after taking office, that further demarcations would not be prioritised. “Let’s stop this discussion about land,” he told Folha de São Paulo. “Does land fill anyone’s belly?”

Other new proposed measures include opening sales of farmland to foreigners, and amending property registration rules, which critics argue would lead to an increase in instances of land grabbing.

As a whole, the proposals are described by campaign group the Social and Environmental Institute as the biggest shift in Brazil’s environmental policy-making since the country adopted its current constitution in 1988.

Image on homepage shows deforestation in the Jamanxim National Forest, courtesy of Imazon