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Environment secretary of São Paulo faces controversies over management plans of protected areas

A cable car in the Atlantic. Photo by Max Pixel.

A cable car in the Atlantic. Photo by Max Pixel.

  • The suspension of the implementation of MPs affects over a million hectares of marine regions and oceanic islands.
  • One MP is under investigation following accusations that the secretariat surreptitiously introduced changes to decrease the level of protection for some areas.
  • Critics accuse the environment secretary of putting industrial interests over the defense of the environment.

SAO PAULO – In the Brazilian state of São Paulo, the relationship between the Environment Secretariat and environmentalists has proved to be tense and problematic. Just a few months after taking office last July, the secretariat’s new leader Ricardo Salles made the controversial decision to turn over the management of 25 state parks to private companies.

In December 2016, Environment Secretary Salles announced the interruption of the creation of new Management Plans (MPs). The decision impacted five conservation units on the coast of the state. The affected areas comprise marine regions and oceanic islands that extend for more than one million hectares (2.47 million acres).

Brazil manages natural resources through conservation units that are regulated by MPs, which define the use restrictions and activities that can be performed within each protected area.

Despite being Brazil’s economic center, the state of São Paulo has great biodiversity. It is home to one of the largest remaining stretches of Atlantic Forest, unique marine ecosystems, and several endemic and endangered species. Many of these areas are environmentally protected, including over a hundred conservation units. According to Brazilian legislation, each of these units must have an MP to regulate them.

The Atlantic Forest, as delineated by the WWF. Image by NASA and Miguelrangeljr via Wikimedia Commons.
The Atlantic Forest, as delineated by the WWF. Image by NASA and Miguelrangeljr via Wikimedia Commons.

Salles is known for having controversial views on the environment and other issues. He has publicly stated that, before his tenure, the environment secretariat had been “run by academia’s darlings,” and the “productive sector”— industry, mining, agriculture — had been discriminated against, both issues he aims to change. He has also described current MPs as being “ideological,” arguing that they put “absolute restrictions to development.”

Although the law requires all conservation units to have an MP within five years of their creation, in the state of São Paulo only about a third currently have implemented MPs.

Conservation units and MPs

The implementation of MPs in São Paulo is a complex process that is often outsourced to environmental NGOs through a public bid. It involves technical studies and public audiences with all involved agents. Once the plan is developed, it must be approved by the management council of the conservation unit, the state department responsible for it and the Environmental State Council before it can be sanctioned by the state governor and implemented.

Salles has stated on numerous occasions his dislike for the MP process, arguing it is “expensive” and “inefficient.” Late last year, the São Paulo Environment Secretariat announced a halt in current MP implementations while a new and more efficient implementation system is created.

A cable car in the Atlantic. Photo by Max Pixel.
A cable car in the Atlantic Forest. Photo by Max Pixel.

In March, members of the management council of two of the five affected units, the APA Marinha Litoral Norte and the ARIE São Sebastiao, joined with local environmentalists and civil organizations to send an open letter to Salles voicing their disagreement with the interruption.

In the letter, they note their concern for the waste of public money that the halt could cause, considering that the plans are in their final stages. They also complained about the lack of information on the decision and demanded the return of the activities to finish the MPs.

Salles did not respond to the letter, but a few days after it was published the secretariat announced the replacement of the head of both units.

Camila Dinat is the project coordinator of the NGO that won the bid for all five MPs, the Instituto Ekos Brasil. Dinat defends the professionalism of her team and the quality of the work delivered, some of which has already been approved — but not paid — by the secretariat.

“Despite this unfavorable scenario, our team has kept working and delivering new products,” Dinat said by e-mail. “However we haven’t received any comment whatsoever, be it of approval or disapproval.”

In addition to not having had any feedback, Dinat also says they haven’t been officially informed of the interruption and haven’t been able to contact anyone in the secretariat to discuss the situation.

“We tried several times to engage in a dialogue, we tried to set appointments with the executive director of the Fundação Florestal [the state department responsible for the plans] and the secretary,” Dinat says. “We sent three notifications, but still haven’t heard from them.”

Asked about the criticisms of Salles regarding how MPs are implemented, Dinat admits that there is room for improvement, but questions the lack of dialogue in the development of the new model. Regarding the economic costs of making the plans, Dinat doesn’t mince words.

“Thinking that spending on a MP for a conservation unit is an unnecessary spend is the stance of someone who doesn’t want to prioritize conservation,” Dinat says.

Under investigation

The decision to interrupt the plans did not affect the MP of the APA Vârzea do Rio Tietê, a conservation unit near São Paulo, whose plan was only awaiting approval from the Environmental State Council. Although the MP was voted on and approved by the council on January 31, the Public Prosecutor’s Office launched an investigation a few days later over possible irregularities in the process.

An aerial view of the city of São Paulo, Brazil. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
An aerial view of the city of São Paulo, Brazil. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Salles and two members of the secretariat were accused of interfering with the implementation of the plan after a technician revealed he had been urged to surreptitiously introduce changes in some of the zoning maps prior to the vote.

According to the accusation, the changes downgraded the level of protection of several areas, lessening restrictions on mining and industrial activities. The technician supported his testimony by presenting the e-mails he received from the secretariat where he was asked to introduce the changes. The thread of those e-mails suggests that the original request originated from the Industry Federation of the State of São Paulo, an association which includes companies with economic interests in the area.

Salles accused the public prosecutor’s Office of “demagogy” and said that the organism that provides them with technical support “is full of former workers of the environment secretary who had to leave due to their incompetence and today act to retaliate the environment secretary.” He later gave a press conference where he denied any wrongdoing, stating that all changes made on the MP were justified and corresponded to technical corrections.

He continues to face criticism.

“The least he [Salles] should have done is to take the issue back to the Management Council of the conservation unit [where the maps had been previously approved] and the team who organized the public hearings,” says Roberto Francine, an environmentalist who is also a member of the Environmental State Council, in an interview. “They are the ones who should have said if there were technical issues that needed corrections.”

Francine notes that many environmentalists believe that Salles is putting industrial and development interests over the protection of the environment. The fact that the decision to downgrade the protection of the areas came from within the environment secretary also worries him.

“This move would be understandable if it came from the government’s industrial sector or the area of development or planning,” Francine said. “The role of the Environment secretary should be to argue against it.”

The secretariat did not respond to numerous requests for comment on this story.

Banner image: A cable car in the Atlantic. Photo by Max Pixel.

Ignacio Amigo is a freelance journalist based in São Paulo, Brazil. You can find him on Twitter at @Sr_Tresillo.

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