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Brazilian state invites private companies to run Atlantic Forest parks

  • São Paulo — Brazil’s wealthiest state and the country’s industrial powerhouse — has turned over the concessions for 25 state parks to the private sector. The parks protect a large portion of the Atlantic Forest, the most threatened biome in Brazil.
  • Environmentalists worry that these company concessions, granted for 30 years, will lead to greater deforestation, though the government denies this possibility.
  • Social advocates say that local people who rely on the parks for ecotourism jobs and other employment could easily be excluded from working in the parks by the for-profit companies.
  • Critics say the law is unconstitutional because the state did not invite environmentalists and the people that would be impacted by the law to participate in discussions of the legislation before it was enacted.
Campos do Jordão State Park, which will be among the first São Paulo state parks to see private concession feasibility studies carried out. Photo by Suellen as licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

Earlier this year, the governor of the state of São Paulo, Geraldo Alckmin, signed bill 16260/16, turning over the concessions of 25 state parks to the private sector. The parks in question protect a large portion of the Atlantic Forest, the most threatened biome in Brazil, which has only 8 percent of its original forest cover remaining.

The law will allow the state to grant companies a 30-year state park concession so that they can oversee and profit from ecotourism, timber exploitation and other park activities.

In early November, the São Paulo State Privatization Program (CDPED) approved the creation of two committees that will be responsible for modeling the concession projects in selected parks. Concession pilot projects are being modeled for Campos do Jordão park, and the Cantareira region parks, which includes Jaraguá and Alberto Löfgren (Horto Florestal).

Governor Alckmin has assured the public that the 25 state parks are not being privatized. “Privatization is when we sell something,” he explained. “What we want is to make a concession for a time, bring a private partner in to improve maintenance issues, custody, preservation and use”.

Estação Ecológica Juréia-Itatins is part of the Mata Atlantica forist in Sao Paulo state. Environmentalists worry that the new private concessions could increase deforestation in the state parks that protect the last remnants of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest biome. Photo courtesy of Secretaria Estadual do Meio Ambiente/SP

The law is being severely criticized by environmental NGOs, who argue that it will lead to increased deforestation. The government insists that the law will do the opposite. It will create “a close relation between people and the green”, claimed Sao Paolo Secretary of Environment, Ricardo Salles.

The Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA), an NGO that defends social and environmental rights, says that the law is unconstitutional because it does not respect the state’s constitutional obligation to involve local people in legislative decisions involving natural resource concessions.

“The communities living in those areas were not consulted. Obviously, they reacted very badly, because they were caught off-guard by a proposal of privatization. In the Ribeira Valley, for example, [local people in] the communities already provide tourism services. Many [local] people also work and engage directly or indirectly in the management of protected areas”, said Raquel Pasinato, ISA coordinator in the Ribeira Valley.

“In the case of parks, this procedure will only intensify existing social and environmental conflicts in the Ribeira Valley,” Pasinato added. According to the ISA, local communities organize many of their economic activities around the state parks, combining tourism, farm and craft. With the concession, the communities would become “hostage to a management model established by the companies that win the concession”.

Parque Estadual da Cantareira, one of the preserves that is likely to soon see private concessions for ecotourism, logging and other profit making activities. Photo courtesy of Secretaria Estadual do Meio Ambiente/SP

Salles insisted that the forests will not be “privatized” but conceded that the private companies will operate in the parks for some decades. “We can’t make the confusion between privatization and concession. The law does not address the privatization of parks, since the equity remains public and the purpose of conservation and protected area units remains the same”, he emphasized.

But Salles did admit that the law “does not provide specific clauses on deforestation”, though it does “stipulate that concessions must comply with legislation relating to protected areas and the management plan of each area”.

The Ribeira Valley accounts for the largest concentration of preserved Atlantic Forest in the São Paulo region. It makes up about 80 percent of the remaining biome there that has been declared a United Nations World Heritage Site.

“Companies will use the attraction, [which is] a heritage of humanity, to generate their own profit, ignoring local communities, and we can not accept this,” said Pasinato.

The Mogi Guaçu Experimental Station, one of the first parks slated for a private concession feasability study. Photo courtesy of Secretaria Estadual do Meio Ambiente/SP

São Paulo state representative Marcia Lia (PT, Workers’ Party), who is part of the Parliamentary Front for Land Reform, Family Agriculture and Food Security, noted that in addition to environmentalists, traditional communities that are likely to be the most impacted, were also left out of the lawmaking process.

“People living in [or near] these parks — the native population, quilombolas [descendants of Afro-Brazilian slaves], coastal communities, indigenous people, in short, the whole population living for many years in these areas — will suffer. No one was called on in these communities [to comment on the law]. No one [contacted] environmentalists to discuss the law, “he stated.

According to the São Paulo Secretary of Environment, the first feasibility studies regarding the new law have begun in two parks. The idea is to create two pilot units (Campos do Jordão, and the Mogi Guaçu Experimental Station) that incorporate the private concessions, and then gradually make other feasibility studies for other parks. Once these two pilot projects have been initiated and evaluated, feasibility studies will be activated in other parks. It remains to be seen whether concerned NGOs will challenge the law in court.