- In April, the president of Brazil’s environmental regulatory agency authorized the auction of seven offshore oil blocks located in highly sensitive marine regions.
- In doing so, he ignored technical recommendations made by his own environmental team — a first in the team’s 11-year history.
- The environmental team argued that if there were to be an oil spill, the contamination could affect the coasts of two Brazilian states, including the Abrolhos Marine National Park, which is considered the most biodiverse area in the South Atlantic.
- More broadly, the Brazilian Congress is also considering a bill that would profoundly change the way environmental authorizations are issued, abolishing the need for licenses for most farming and infrastructure activities and accelerating the procedure for other ventures.
The president of Brazil’s environmental regulatory agency has decided to ignore the recommendations of his own environmental team and authorize the auction of seven oil blocks located in highly sensitive marine regions.
A technical team from the agency, the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), had recommended that four blocks located in the Camamu-Almada basin off the state of Bahia should be excluded from the auction, a massive one planned for October of this year. The team argued that if there were to be an oil spill, the contamination could affect “all the south coast of Bahia and the coast of Espírito Santo, including the Abrolhos complex.”
Abrolhos Marine National Park is considered the most biodiverse area in the South Atlantic. Besides being a breeding site for humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), it has colonies of leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) and loggerhead (Caretta caretta) sea turtles and possesses one of the world’s largest coral reefs. According to the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), part of Brazil’s ministry of the environment, which administers the 880-square-kilometer (340-square-mile) park, it is home to 28 different species of mammals, birds, reptiles and fish that are threatened with extinction. Some 20,000 local people earn their living fishing in the region, which brings in nearly $25 million a year, about a tenth of Brazil’s total income from fishing.
IBAMA’s president, Eduardo Fortunato Bim, denied that he ignored the technical recommendation in the Estado de S. Paulo newspaper, which got hold of the report in which it appeared and first reported the story. The report called for the four blocks located in the Camamu-Almada basin to be excluded from the auction.
According to the newspaper, the technical report was published on March 18, and on March 29 Ana Maria Pellini, the executive secretary of the ministry of the environment and a close adviser to Ricardo Salles, the environment minister, sent a note to Bim, asking him to reconsider the recommendation because of the “strategic relevance” of the area. She gave the IBAMA president 10 days to take action. On April 1, Bim informed Pellini that he had placed the four blocks back into the auction.
Bim also included in the auction three blocks in the Jacuípe and Sergipe-Alagoas basins, to the north of Bahia. A separate technical report about these basins had likewise recommended that the three blocks should not be auctioned until their environmental assessments had been completed. According to a technical note from ICMBio, these areas contain 26 species threatened with extinction. However, in interviews with the press Bim asserted that the lack of these assessments “does not constitute a technical reason for not including these blocks in the auction.”
The group that makes the technical recommendations is called the Inter-institutional Work Group for Oil and Gas Prospecting and Production (GTPEG). It has been in existence since 2008 and never before have its recommendations been overruled, according to IBAMA officials in the Estado de S. Paulo story.
On April 10, Salles, the environment minister, backed Bim’s decision to include the blocks. Speaking in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Brazil’s National Congress, he said that if the blocks were considered environmentally unviable after the auction had occurred, the government could withhold the environmental licenses. “It will just be bad luck for whoever bought them,” he said. However, this seems unlikely to happen in practice. Once auctions occur, IBAMA generally comes under intense pressure to issue the environmental licenses as quickly as possible.
Two senators have mounted a legal challenge to the government’s action. Randolfe Rodrigues and Fabiano Contarato, senators representing Rede, a political party set up by a former environment minister, went to court to stop the auction. Rodrigues said at a press conference that they were trying to prevent an environmental tragedy. “The probable damage [from an oil spill] would be irreversible,” he said. “Ignoring technical recommendations is strong evidence of the petty and backward interests that surround this kind of business deal when the environment is involved.”
The judge of the 21st Federal Court in Brasilia did not grant an injunction, as the senators had called for. Instead, he told IBAMA that it must provide all the reports on which it had based its decision. After reviewing the documents, the judge may suspend the auction, but no decision has been announced.
In all, 36 blocks covering 29,300 square kilometers (11,300 square miles) will be auctioned in October. This is one of three auctions planned for this year.
Environmental licensing under attack
While authorizing the auctioning of oil in environmentally sensitive areas on a case-by-case basis, the government is also working behind the scenes to get the National Congress to approve a much broader bill that would profoundly change the way environmental authorizations are issued. The bill would abolish the need for licenses for most farming and infrastructure activities, and would accelerate the procedure for other ventures. It is due to be voted on soon in the Chamber of Deputies followed by a vote in the Senate.
The original intention behind the bill (called 3.729/2004) was to provide legal certainty and establish rules and fines for environmental licensing. But over the course of 15 years in which it has not come to a vote, the bill has been taken over by the rural lobby in Congress and turned into a tool for serving the interests of the business community, from agribusiness to mining.
The politician behind the original bill, Luciano Zica, formerly a deputy for the Workers’ Party (PT), said that he began to follow more closely what was happening to his bill after a tragic dam collapse in the southeastern town of Brumadinho in January of this year. The collapse caused 244 deaths and brought environmental concerns to public attention because one of the causes appears to have been the way the Córrego do Feijão mine was permitted to increase its output before a proper environmental assessment had been carried out. Zica said that if his bill is approved in its current form, it could lead to other environmental disasters on the same scale.
“What shocks me most is the absolute determination of the rural lobby to adopt the thinking that turns environmental preservation, which should be fundamental, into something secondary and considers business deals more important than preservation,” he told the online news service Agribusiness Observatory in Brazil.
The text of the bill, which could undergo further alterations, exempts rural producers from the need to ask for an environmental license – whether issued by a federal, state or municipal authority – for agricultural or ranching activities on their farms. Forestry projects, such as eucalyptus plantations, would be also be exempted from the need for authorization.
Infrastructure projects would also no longer be required to obtain licenses for construction work, such as dredging sea and river ports, or for extending or repairing existing structures, such as highways and railways. In this kind of work, it would not even be necessary to ask for authorization to clear native vegetation, even though such an exemption would infringe on forestry legislation.
According to Mário Mantovani, director of public policies for the SOS Mata Atlântica Foundation, an NGO that works to protect the Atlantic Forest, Brazil’s most threatened ecosystem, the bill seeks to free producers from any kind of control by society. “They [the rural lobby] don’t want environmental licensing as they see it as an instrument of social control over agribusiness,” said Mantovani, a geographer. “They want to open new agricultural frontiers in public land, indigenous territory and protected areas.”
Mantovani said he believes the rural lobby is encouraging other sectors to rid themselves of monitoring, too. “The wood pulp sector is also asking for its plantations to no longer require environmental licensing. The coal sector too. We are seeing the unraveling of the legislation.”
The bill would also replace the current three phases in the licensing process with one procedure to be called the Single Environmental License (Licença Ambiental Única) and state and municipal governments would be free to establish their own local rules. The bill doesn’t set out what kind of environmental study would have to be made before the license is granted, so the requirements could vary from region to region.
“We are at the disposal of Congress to collaborate with the bill,” Salles, the environment minister, said at a sustainability forum in São Paulo on April 25. He said the goal is “to improve environmental licensing, making the procedure more agile and of a higher quality.” At the end of 2018, as a federal deputy before she was appointed agriculture minister, Tereza Cristina also supported the changes in the bill.
The bill could be sent directly to the plenary in the Chamber of Deputies without being discussed in committees, where civil society groups can have input into bills’ final language . This has become possible because, in an ingenious parliamentary maneuver, the bill was annexed onto a bill on mining, which is being rushed through Congress as an urgent priority.
The way the bill is framed today is in line with ideas expressed by President Jair Bolsonaro. “Environmental licensing gets in the way when a mayor, governor or president wants to undertake an infrastructure project, build a road, for example,” he said in December, before he took office. “The problems are endless.”
In early May more than 80 NGOs linked to the environment issued a statement strongly criticizing the bill. It said, among other things, that the bill “infringed the right of the affected populations to be consulted,” could lead to “no environmental license being required for highly damaging activities” and could give rise to a “kind of anti-environmental war between the state governments.” The signatories include the international NGO Greenpeace and the Brazilian NGOs the Ethos Institute, the Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA) and WWF-Brazil.
For Maurício Guetta, legal adviser to the ISA, the bill is “a ragbag of measures aiming at exempting damaging activities from acquiring a license and at reducing the environmental safety of projects.” He concluded: “If it is approved, it will pave the way for new disasters and further socio-environmental harm.” When pressed at a media conference, Rodrigo Maia, the president of the Chamber of Deputies, said the Chamber would not vote on the bill until everyone concerned had been heard and that as far as possible a consensus had been reached.
Rodrigo Vicentin, an environmental adviser for the Workers’ Party in Congress and a former president of ICMBio, said the bill goes against current thinking in the developed world. “Ricardo Salles has made it clear that, despite the Brumadinho tragedy, he is pressing ahead with this licensing bill,” Vicentin said in an interview with Agribusiness Observatory in Brazil. “I hope we can bring [social] pressure as a counterweight to the economic interests [behind this bill] as the correlation of forces in Congress is absolutely unequal.”
Thais Borges is a Brazilian freelance journalist and independent filmmaker.
FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the editor of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.