Rollback of environmental protections stokes violence in the Brazilian Amazon

Monday, July 24th, 2017

IBAMA, the Brazilian environmental enforcement agency, carries out an operation on the banks of the Jamanxim River. Photo: IBAMA

The rollback of environmental protections in Brazil continued through July, with campaigners warning that the changes encourage land grabs, illegal deforestation, and violence against activists and enforcement officials.

On 13 July, President Michael Temer gave his backing to a bill to downgrade the legal protections governing 350,000 hectares of Jamanxim National Forest, which currently preserves 1.3 million hectares of Amazon rainforest in the northern state of Pará.  Jamanxim National Forest was created in 2006 alongside seven other conservation units as part of the Sustainable BR-163 Plan, an initiative to protect the rainforest bordering the newly paved BR-163 highway.

If passed by congress, the new bill will downgrade the status of 27 percent of the unit, reclassifying it as an ‘APA’ (Area of Environmental Protection). In APAs, land can legally be sold, cleared of forest, and used for agriculture, cattle rearing or mining.

Legislators from Brazil’s powerful agricultural caucus, a key part of Temer’s base, lobbied for the downgrade. In its current form, the bill is a compromise measure, after Temer last month vetoed a proposal to reclassify 486,000 hectares of the conservation unit as an APA.

Similar boundary changes in Jamanxim National Forest have previously been used to greenwash illegal deforestation for beef. Last year, the status of 305,000 hectares of the forest was downgraded, effectively legalising the actions of cattle ranchers who had illegally occupied land and cleared trees within the forest.

On 11 July, Temer signed into law MP 759, another piece of legislation seen as enabling land thieves to legalise their land holdings. The law alters Brazil’s Terra Legal program, introduced by former President Lula in 2009 to help peasant families regularise their ownership of small land plots.

The new legislation increases the maximum size of individual land holdings that can be regularised from 1,500 to 2,500 hectares. “Areas that large are only claimed by big ranchers,” Josinaldo Aleixo, a sociologist with the International Institute of Education in Brazil, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The bill also weakens environmental protections by removing a regulation which stripped claimants of their title to the land if they cleared it of forest; under MP 759, all that is necessary to legally deforest is that claimants register their land with the Rural Environmental Inventory (CAR). Finally, the legislation brings forward the cut-off date after which land could not be legally registered, from December 2004 to December 2011, again providing an effective amnesty for land grabbers who seized public land between those dates.

“Those who invaded public land after the approval of law 11,952 did it knowing it was illegal to do this, and thus carried out the crime of invasion of public land, set out in article 20 of law 4,947/1966,” Brenda Brito, a lawyer with NGO Imazon, told Mongabay. “In extending the date to 2011, the MP is, in practice, providing an amnesty for this crime.”

The reclassification of 350,000 hectares of rainforest will allow private ownership, agriculture and forest clearing. Photo: Sue Branford for MongaBay

Campaigners warn that an overarching effect of the measures is to give farmers, loggers, miners and land grabbers a sense of impunity, emboldening them to seize land and to attack government inspectors, indigenous groups and land activists. Jair Schmitt, the general coordinator of environmental monitoring at IBAMA, has described Jamanxim as “one of the most violent conservation units in Amazonia,” with “professional assassins involved in illegal felling and the theft of public land.” This in a country which Global Witness ranks as the deadliest in the world to be a land or environmental activist, with 49 campaigners murdered in 2016.

On 7 July, a transporter carrying eight vehicles for IBAMA was set on fire while parked in Cachoeira da Serra, just 10km from the southern boundary of Jamanxim National Forest. “They set it on fire while the driver was in it. He nearly got burned alive, he opened the door, it was burning,” Luciano Evaristo, IBAMA’s director for environmental protection, told the Guardian.

Four days earlier, a land activist named Rosenilton de Almeida had been gunned down by two men on a motorcycle while leaving an evangelical church in Rio Maria, also in the state of Pará.

“We are seeing a very big increase in violence in rural areas, and the biggest cause is the posture, the behaviour and the policies being adopted in Brasília,” Marcio Astrini, policy coordinator for Greenpeace Brazil, told the Guardian.

Such legislative changes are occuring in a context of deep funding cuts for key environmental departments, as previously reported in IDM:

  • Both the Environment Ministry and the National Indian Foundation (FUNDAI) have experienced funding cuts of more than 40 percent this year;
  • In June, the state of Amazonas lost the managers of ten conservation units, covering seven million hectares of Amazon rainforest, as the State Environment Secretariat shed 13 jobs.

The impact of these changes is clearly marked on the forest itself. The rate of deforestation in the Amazon increased by 29 percent in 2016, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. Norway has subsequently announced plans to cut its funding of Amazonian conservation projects due to Brazil’s failure to prevent a rise in illegal deforestation.