Mongabay Series: Amazon Infrastructure

Brazil’s Senate could soon be voting against the country’s environmental safeguards

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A new law in Brazil would grant the government’s executive branch the power to indicate, by decree, which constructions are considered strategic “for the sustainable development” of the country, by offering them a so-called special environmental license.

Brazil’s Senate could soon be voting against the country’s environmental safeguards
  • The communities likely to be affected by future construction infrastructure projects —including vulnerable indigenous groups— would not need to be consulted nor would they required to give consent anymore before approval is to be given.
  • It would be applied to large-scale infrastructure projects such as hydroelectric dams, waterways, roads and ports, as well as transmission and communication line systems.
  • If the Senate approves the new proposal tomorrow afternoon, as is expected, the law will then go on to the House of Representatives for a final vote.
A spillway at Brazil’s Jirau Dam. More than 400 hydroelectric dams are currently proposed, under construction, or have already been built across Amazonia. Photo credit: Philip Fearnside.
A spillway at Brazil’s Jirau Dam. More than 400 hydroelectric dams are currently proposed, under construction, or have already been built across Amazonia. Photo credit: Philip Fearnside.

Tomorrow, Brazil’s Senate could be voting on a new measure which would speed up the process required to obtain environmental licenses for infrastructure projects. Dubbed as PLS 654/2015, the bill is moving “urgently” through the Senate, according to the Senate general secretary board. 

The project would grant the government’s executive branch the power to indicate, by decree, which constructions are considered strategic “for the sustainable development” of the country, by offering them a so-called special environmental license.

The changes would basically get rid of some of the stages currently in place in the environmental licensing process and also they could do away with public consultation by environmental agencies. The communities likely to be affected by future construction infrastructure projects including vulnerable indigenous groups would not need to be consulted nor would they required to give consent anymore before approval is to be given.

The ‘special committee of national development’, responsible for Agenda Brasil the series of measures that aim to bring the country out of the economic crisis has already approved the environmental licensing proposal. Typically, the projects approved by special committees proceed to the House of Representatives. However, the author of the proposal, senator Romero Jucá from Roraima state, has filed an appeal for the whole Senate to vote on it.

According to the text of the bill, the special environmental license, also referred to as fast track, would apply to large-scale infrastructure projects such as hydroelectric dams, waterways, roads and ports, as well as transmission and communication line systems.

After the Mariana disaster in the state of Minas Gerais last November when a Samarco mining company debris dam burst; now known to have been the worst of its kind in the last century a last-minute amendment to PLS 654/15 eliminated an item that would have included natural resource exploitation to the list of projects that could be fast-tracked under the new law.

The author of the bill has in the past stated that the current environmental licensing process is “guilty for delaying the investments that are so needed in the country.”

Senator Jucá argues that in Brazil, certain infrastructure projects can take up to five years to obtain an environmental license. If the proposal is approved by the Senate, the deadline to grant environmental licenses will be limited to about seven months and the current three stages of the licensing (previous, installation and operational licenses) would be integrated into a single one. This special license would only be suspended or revoked if a violation of the environmental law occurs. 

“The problems at the environmental agencies are due to factors such as interruptions caused by judicial decisions, a lack of technicians that examine environmental studies, and the demand of three types of licenses for each construction,” says Jucá.

Another amendment brought on by PLS 654/15 removes the power of environmental agencies to halt the construction of infrastructure projects if the requirements aren’t being fulfilled. Also under the senator’s proposal: if the environmental agencies don’t act according to a certain project’s established deadlines, it will result in the automatic grant of the special environmental license.  

Under the new rules, a company that’s in charge of a construction project will have 60 days to present the documents and technical studies required by the environmental agency. Then, the agency will have 60 days for analysis and 60 more days to grant or not the license.

“The proposal doesn’t take the right away from the environmental agencies; their right to give their opinion. What we’re proposing is having deadlines for this to happen,” says senator Jucá. 

From 1986 to 1988, Romero Jucá was the president of FUNAI, or the National Indian Foundation, a Brazilian governmental protection agency advocating for indigenous interests and culture. He is currently the target of inquiries in the ‘Lava Jato’ operation, and is accused of money laundering, criminal conspiracy and corruption.

Politicians, scientists and NGOs have taken a stance against the proposal. Roraima senator Telmário Motta, is critical of the law project. 

“It’s a high-risk proposal. The environmental license is a protection guarantee that cannot be minimized or put in second place,” says Motta. Cristovam Buarque, senator from the Federal District (DF), declared that mega projects can typically be interrupted in name of sustainability, but he has also said he’s afraid that the proposal will harm the stewardship of the environment even more than it already is.  

Greenpeace Brazil campaign coordinator, Nilo D’Ávila, explains that the already existing environmental licensing law can take three to five years. “To reduce this time of analysis can lead to similar risks as in the Mariana tragedy, which resulted in more than 660 kilometers of debris and mud down the rivers.” 

“The content of the project is worrisome because it basically destroys the Brazilian licensing system which took decades to be built, explained Philip Fearnside, a professor at the National Institute for Research in the Amazon (INPA), and an Amazon resident for more than 30 years. “Even the current system is full of loopholes and fault points, as shown in the Madeira, Belo Monte and Tapajós rivers’ dams. Imagine then what it will be like in a shortened system, as proposed now.”  

If the Senate approves the new proposal tomorrow afternoon, as is expected, the law will then go on to the House of Representatives for a final vote. 

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