Conservation news

Ruralists in Brazilian congress put nation’s protected areas at risk

An ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) stalking its prey. Passage of Bill PL 3,751 / 2015 would greatly endanger Brazil’s extraordinary biodiversity. Image by Rhett A. Butler Mongabay.

What do the ocelot, giant anteater, cougar, and hyacinth macaw have in common? They all live within Brazil’s protected areas­ — areas now at risk of losing their protected status if a newly written bill becomes law.

Bill PL 3,751 / 2015 would set a five-year deadline for the resolution of land issues and disputes, such as land ownership conflicts, in protected areas. If issues are not resolved within that time frame, a protected area could have its protected status removed.

In Brazil, there is a difference between creating a protected area and enforcing or implementing the protection of that area. When a protected area is first created, this does not immediately affect land ownership. Negotiations must be conducted with existing landowners and restitutions paid for the land to transfer it into government protection. This all happens in the implementation phase of the land protection process, which can take many years or even decades to complete.

The new law, if passed by the National Congress and signed by the president, would short circuit this process. There are currently more than 100 protected areas that have not had their permanent status implemented. If this legislation was applied retroactively to these areas, over 17 million hectares (roughly 66,000 square miles) — over half of all currently protected areas in Brazil — would be at risk.

Gandarela National Park. Brazil has a vast system of protected lands ranging from national parks and forests, to indigenous reserves. Many of these conserved areas would be threatened with destruction if the legislation becomes law. Image by Dr. Lucas Neves Perillo, Director Bocaina Biologia da Conservação.

In a letter published in Science, a group of Brazilian researchers denounced the bill, calling it an attack on the networks that support biodiversity, and arguing that it conflicts with the Brazilian constitution, Article 225, which states “all have the right to an ecologically balanced environment”

“In case of the law approval, it would be easier to apply the precedent principle, and override the creation of protected areas created previously to the law,” Dr. Fernando A. O. Silveira, a professor at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, told mongabay.org. “This would affect not only biodiversity, but also indigenous peoples and tribes. The extent to which it could jeopardize indigenous people is incalculable.”

Protected areas in Brazil are known hotspots of biodiversity, play a critical role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and are home to traditional, indigenous and quilombola communities (settlements first established by runaway slaves, and inhabited by their descendents). More than 2,100 protected areas span the country, conserving vital habitat in the Amazon, Cerrado, Atlantic Forest, Pantanal, Caatinga and marine biomes.

Mining activities in the Serra do Espinhaco Mountains of Brazil. The ruralists not only support the expansion of industrial agribusiness into conserved areas, but the similar expansion of large-scale mining operations as well. Image by Dr. Lucas Neves Perillo, Director Bocaina Biologia da Conservação.

Authored by Federal Deputy Toninho Pinheiro (PP / Mato Grosso), Bill PL 3,751 / 2015 specifically aims to add new language to the National System of Conservation Units (SNUC) Law (9.985 / 2000), which governs the establishment of all conservation and protected areas in Brazil.

Pinheiro belongs to the right wing União Democrática Ruralista party, known as the ruralists. The party supports private property owners’ interests over governmental or public agrarian reform processes. The bancada ruralista, the ruralist lobby in Brazil has gained significant political power in the past decade and currently controls at least 40 percent of seats in the congress, making the passage of this bill a real possibility. The Temer administration is also indebted to the ruralists who twice voted largely as a bloc to protect investigations from proceeding against the president on corruption charges.

“It is very likely [that this law will be enacted],” Silveira told mongabay.org. “Many recent examples of environmental regress are taking place in Brazil. There are many examples of protected area downgrading and downsizing throughout the country. Most of these changes have passed unnoticed by the population — some of the [votes occurred] during vacations, New Year’s Eve, and the World Cup, when Brazilians are focused on soccer games.”

Sempre Viva Park in Minas Gerais State could be dismantled if the bill is made retroactive. Image by Antonio Carlos de Albuquerque CC BY-SA 3.0.

Between 1981 and 2010, 45 million hectares (roughly 174,000 square miles) of protected areas were downgraded or lost due to reclassification or declassification; 70 percent of this loss occurred after 2008, when the bancada ruralista became increasingly dominant. Most of these changes were made to make way for hydroelectric mega-dams in the Amazon region, a policy especially pursued by the Rousseff administration (2011-2016). Since coming to power, the Temer government has continued in its support of the ruralist agenda, which elevates industrial agribusiness and large-scale mining interests over environmental and indigenous concerns.

“This new bill is an unprecedented act against our protected areas, virtually preventing the creation of new protected areas,” Silveira said. “We need people to make a stand against this drawback, otherwise it will be approved. We are calling all Brazilians to vote against the bill. If you’re Brazilian and do not want the dismantling of our protected area network, please visit and vote disagree (discordo).”

The bill has passed in the Brazilian Environment Committee and is awaiting a vote in the Finance and Taxation Committee. Though presidential elections could delay the process, it is likely this committee vote will occur in 2018.

Mongabay reached out to Federal Deputy Toninho Pinheiro for comment on this issue and has not yet received a reply.

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Hyacinth Macaws (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) in flight. Passage of the ruralist-supported legislation could put vital habitat at risk. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.