Q&A Juan Doblas: “We could reach a point of no return for the Amazon, but for now everything is up in the air”

Thursday, December 6th, 2018

For eight years, Juan Doblas has been on the frontlines of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Through his work as senior geoprocessing analyst at the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), a conservation NGO with presence in several Amazonian states, he has been closely involved with the Xingu programme.

The programme aims at contributing to the environmental sustainability of 28 million hectares of protected areas in the Xingu River Basin, as well as the protection of the environmental rights of 26 indigenous peoples living within them. The Xingu, one of Brazil’s most important water systems, has suffered from heavy forest loss in 2018, including the illegal deforestation of nearly 6,000 hectares within protected areas in September and October alone, mostly associated with land grabbing and illegal cattle ranching sustained by livestock laundering practices.

In an interview for IDM’s ‘Brazil in Focus’, Doblas explained how the upcoming Bolsonaro presidency is likely to empower regressive actors in the country who are already seeking to rollback protections for forests and indigenous peoples. “Groups interested in occupying indigenous land, in attacking small farmers who are in conflict with them, in the appropriation of natural water courses see in Bolsonaro an actor aligned with what they want. So even without an explicit authorisation, they find their actions legitimised”, Doblas told IDM.

IDM: Is the new presidency likely to lead to a further erosion of legal protections for the Amazon and indigenous peoples?

JD: The current strategy of the future government is based on misinformation sowing confusion about new proposals. Many of them are designed to test the response of different stakeholders and their chances of being adopted. Clearly, the platform supporting the president-elect is interested in the weakening of environmental protections, especially in the Amazon. There is much effort in making environmental licences and land-use more ‘flexible’ for agricultural purposes – for example, cattle and soy. Obviously, Bolsonaro will face several obstacles, the federal Constitution being one of them since it establishes the right of every citizen to a ‘balanced’ environment. There are several provisions and articles that prohibit the excessive weakening of environmental protection. Nonetheless it is clear that there will be some weakening as we can already see clear signs of it.

IDM: You mentioned a ‘platform’ supporting Bolsonaro. What impact will this new administration have on the ability of the agribusiness sector to influence environmental and indigenous legislation?

JD: The Brazilian president has ample powers and drives the direction of politics in every aspect, even though the judiciary and legislative branches can balance things out. Presidential power in Brazil being very high, it influences what happens in the field. I’ll explain: groups interested in occupying indigenous land, in attacking small farmers who are in conflict with them, in the appropriation of natural water courses see in Bolsonaro an actor aligned with what they want. So even without an explicit authorisation, they find their actions legitimised. It is the same thing happening with homophobic groups. There is a current understanding that, because we now have Bolsonaro, there can be violence against black people, homosexuals, indigenous people.

There is no explicit authorisation, but that is deemed unnecessary because the candidate’s discourse and that of the people around him is homophobic, anti-indigenous, against indigenous autonomy, against indigenous land, against conservation areas, against environmental licensing. The main problem we think we will have with this new government is the increase in pressure at every front. If you read the reports we produce, we basically deal with increased pressure by the agricultural sector on protected areas and indigenous land in the Xingu. This pressure is translated into several things: new enterprises very close to indigenous lands, timber theft, land invasion. Unfortunately, we expect an increase in this type of pressure.

IDM: What measures or institutions could halt this increase in pressure or the possible deterioration of existing protections?

JD: We cannot forget that Bolsonaro’s election was not by a landslide. Even though he received a significant number of votes, not all of Brazilian society supports him. In fact, Brazilian society has a certain level of awareness about environmental and indigenous issues. We expect that the main support for our actions towards conservation and forest protection for indigenous people will come from society itself. Civil society and many other organisations will not stop working; organisations like Greenpeace, CIMI [Indigenous Missionary Council], IPAM [Amazon Environmental Research Institute], CTI [Indigenous Workers’ Centre]. In terms of the institutional framework at state level, we have the public prosecutors’ offices, both at federal and state levels, as well as the labour office.

These are all independent institutions that have been playing a pivotal role in the guarantee of broad environmental rights. For example, the fourth chamber of the attorney general’s office has been very important, while the sixth chamber has been fundamental in protecting indigenous rights to land. We expect a government offensive against these territorial rights from one side, but on the other side a protection of these rights, and of the Constitution itself, from the judicial branch. There will obviously be a clash and increased tension between them, but in Brazil that is to be expected.

At the international level, we have other relevant organisations. For example, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is visiting Brazil for the first time in 25 years to gather baseline data of the current situation, although this is not related to the elections. They will certainly keep an eye on the country in terms of increased pressure over human rights, especially in regard to the indigenous issue. Brazil is obviously not alone in the world and is very much a part of the international community, which has valuable control tools. I think they will play a role.

IDM: Some large agribusiness companies have voiced opposition to the idea of scrapping the Ministry of Environment and the excessive weakening of environmental enforcement institutions like Ibama, Funai, ICMBio. What do you make of that?

JD: It has been interesting to see that, and not only from companies that work in the grain trading business like Bunge, Dreyfus and others, but also big chains like Walmart, which also have made commitments to zero deforestation. It would be terrible for Brazil and the agribusiness sector to scrap the Ministry of Environment. The idea has been criticised even by Blairo Maggi [Agriculture Minister and world’s largest soy farmer], who said this would be an enormous mistake. We believe the agribusiness sector itself is worried about Bolsonaro’s declarations.

IDM: We have been witnessing an increase in deforestation rates in several regions of Brazil, including in the Xingu River Basin. With the new administration, will there be further increases in deforestation rates?

JD: We hope not, but it is very likely. According to a recent simulation performed by INPE [National Institute for Space Research], in which they modelled deforestation rates in the Amazon under Bolsonaro, they revealed levels of deforestation similar to pre-Marina Silva’s mandate [Environment Minister from 2003 to 2008]. Deforestation in Brazil can be divided into several periods. There was a record level between 2000 and 2004, but a reduction from 2004 to 2012/2013, from which point there has been a steady increase that continues today and coincides with Dilma Rousseff’s mandate and changes in environmental and forestry policies. These changes [a new Forest Code that gave amnesty to several illegal deforesters] was interpreted by actors in the field as a ‘green light’ for increased deforestation from 2012. INPE’s simulation takes us back to deforestation rates pre-2000 levels, which were substantial.

And the biggest problem is that we are not in 2000, we are at a turning point for the Amazon. About 20 percent of the Amazon has been deforested. Studies indicate that if deforestation reaches about 26 percent, we would reach a point of no return. This means no regeneration of the ecosystem services it currently provides, with dire consequences for the whole society, but especially the agribusiness sector. The westward precipitation patterns originating from the Amazon that fall over the Argentinian Pampas allowing high soy yields, as well as other grains, will probably be disrupted by high levels of deforestation.

Part of the agribusiness sector knows that and defends environmental protection, but others are simply interested in short-term gains without a medium- to long-term vision that takes account of climatic and environmental changes. They do not care. We still do not know which of these competing interests will have the biggest influence on Bolsonaro’s administration. We have several indications though. The recently appointed Agriculture Minister [congresswoman Tereza Cristina, leader of the Agricultural Parliamentary Front] may not be directly connected to the ‘hard core’ agribusiness sector but is also not aligned with the environmental agenda. We will have to wait and see. Everything is up in the air at the moment.