Conservation news

Brazil bows to pressure from business, decrees 120-day Amazon fire ban

Mist rising from the Amazon rainforest at dawn. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

Mist rising from the Amazon rainforest at dawn. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

  • 38 transnational companies in the agricultural, industrial, mining and service sectors, along with four major business associations, sent a letter Monday to Brazil VP Hamilton Mourão, president of the Amazon Council, asking him to address “environmental irregularities and crime in the Amazon and other Brazilian biomes.”
  • The letter — backed by Amaggi, Suzano, Vale, Bradesco, Alcoa, Bayer, Shell, Siemens, among others — comes just weeks before this year’s Amazon fire season begins, and as criticism of rapid Amazon deforestation under Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro intensifies in the European Union and threatens the EU-Mercusor trade agreement.
  • The administration — long resistant to all efforts to redirect its Amazon development and environmental policies — responded today announcing a decree for a 120-day ban on fires in the Amazon. The Army has also been deployed to the region to guard against a replay of last year’s wildfires. Analysts say this is not near enough to curb rampant deforestation.
  • The business letter came just weeks after 32 international financial institutions that manage US$4.5 trillion in assets told Brazil that if it didn’t curb deforestation they would stop investing in Brazil. The problem, say critics, is Bolsonaro has set new policies that greatly undermine past socio-environmental safeguards, policies which need to be reversed.
General Hamilton Mourão, Brazil’s Vice President (left), and President Jair Bolsonaro, during the signing ceremony creating the Amazon Council. The president’s poor socio-environmental record, particularly concerning Amazon deforestation, has increasingly put his administration out of step with the international agribusiness, mining, and investment business communities. Image by Valter Campanato / Agência Brasil.

In the face of increasing pressure from international business, entrepreneurs and investors, Vice President Hamilton Mourão has declared that the Bolsonaro government will decree, in the next few days, an “absolute moratorium” on burning the Amazon rainforest and Pantanal wetland biomes for 120 days. The moratorium could be extended, depending on the occurrence of fires in the coming months. Fires in the other Brazilian biomes will be allowed in a controlled manner.

Mourão also announced that the government will take action to suppress illegal fire in coming weeks.

The new ban will encompass double the time in comparison to a similar measure adopted last year. In 2019, the 60-day moratorium decreed by the government ended up being extended by an additional 60 days. The poor results achieved at curbing 2019’s fires, however, are well known.

Ricardo Salles, Minister of the Environment, is currently preparing the moratorium decree, which will be sent “as soon as possible” for President Jair Bolsonaro’s evaluation, according to Mourão.

Yesterday, the Vice President met with Salles and other ministers, including Tereza Cristina of Agriculture, to discuss a meeting scheduled for tomorrow with representatives of international investment and pension funds, who have been pressuring Brazil on environmental issues.

Last month, 29 international financial institutions that manage US$3.7 trillion in assets warned the Bolsonaro government that if it did not contain rapidly escalating deforestation they would stop investing in the country. That number has since grown to 32 investors, with a total equity of US$4.5 trillion.

Most deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is driven by the conversion of forests to pasture and cropland. This satellite photo shows significant forest fragmentation in the state of Rondônia. Image courtesy of NASA.

In addition, on Monday, the business community made its conservation views known, when 38 large Brazilian and international companies in the agricultural, industrial, mining and service sectors, plus four major associations (three of them in agribusiness) sent a letter to Mourão, who is also president of the Amazon Council, asking him to “adopt strict inspection of environmental irregularities and crimes in the Amazon and other Brazilian biomes.”

The letter came just weeks before the annual Amazon fire season peaks in August, when land grabbers typically set fire to large areas of recently cut rainforest to claim those lands for new cattle pasture and cropland. The fires have been forecast to be worse this year as compared to 2019 when the world watched in horror as the Amazon burned.

The business declaration was backed by major transnational industrial and commodities players active in the Amazon region and across Brazil, including Amaggi (the world’s largest private producer of soy), Suzano (Latin America’s largest pulp and paper company), Vale (the gigantic Brazilian mining company), Bradesco (one of Brazil’s biggest banks), Alcoa, Bayer, Shell, and Siemens, along with the highly influential Brazilian Agribusiness Association (Abag) and Brazilian Association of Vegetable Oil Industries (Abiove).

All these interests are showing concern over business prospects in Brazil in view of its negative global image resulting from the socio-environmental policies of the Bolsonaro administration.

International criticism has especially intensified against Brazil since the 2019 Amazon wildfires, which were directly linked to deforestation. In recent days, European national governments, parliamentarians and non-profit organizations have been speaking out against the ratification of the European Union-Mercosur free trade agreement, the world’s largest trade deal ever negotiated. Failed ratification would deeply hurt the Brazilian economy, which is in recession, along with the international business and commodities community.

Oil made from Brazilian soy has become a ubiquitous product around the world, and particularly in the European Union where consumers are increasingly environmentally sensitive and concerned about deforestation. A boycott by EU nations and consumers could devastate Brazil’s already weakened economy. Photo credit: Male Gringo on Visual hunt / CC BY-NC.

“At no time in history has the future of humanity and the planet depended so much on our ability to understand that we live on a single planet and our survival is directly linked to the preservation and enhancement of its natural resources,” says the letter.

The signatories made themselves available to the Amazon Council to contribute their views on issues including the “inflexible and comprehensive fight against illegal deforestation in the Amazon and other Brazilian biomes; social and economic inclusion of local communities to guarantee the preservation of forests; and with incentive packages for economic recovery from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, conditioned on a… low-carbon economy.” The Amazon Council was recently established by Bolsonaro to oversee the environment and economy in the region, with Vice President Hamilton Mourão as its head. The council is notably short on socio-environmental representation from NGOs, indigenous and traditional peoples, and other stakeholders.

Abag president Marcello Brito stated that “We have been seeing that traditional agriculture has completely detached itself from the deforestation of the past. Today people are getting very rich with crime, land grabbing and real estate speculation in the Amazon. But the connection is still very strong with agribusiness. Unfortunately, despite [positive] efforts, an image is not cleaned overnight. We have to move on another agenda, which is of interest to Brazil.”

General Hamilton Mourão, Brazil’s Vice President, at the press conference announcing the formation of the Amazon Council on February 11, 2020. Image by Alan Santos / PR.

Despite Mourão’s statement, Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of the Climate Observatory, an NGO that is a coalition of 50 organizations that analyzes climate change in the Brazilian context, expressed his skepticism about the new initiative to Mongabay.

“The decree does not even get close to bringing any type of solution to the fires situation. It is a symbolic gesture, as it has no practical effect,” said Astrini.

“In fact, the fires — which we saw last year in the Amazon and [which] we are seeing again now, whose prospect is that they will repeat themselves and in a worse scenario — are directly linked to deforestation and criminal actions. It is not just by making one more law that the crime will be fought. What we need are actions to repress criminal activity. And this increase in deforestation that leads to criminal fires is the result of a consistent policy designed by the government to favor this state of affairs.

“The government [has] purposely reduced the protection of the Amazon, as well as [weakening] Ibama [Brazil’s environmental agency] and ICMBio [the Chico Mendes’s Institute]’s capacity to act, … repressed actions to combat environmental crime, and created a series of easy ways for these criminal deforesters to act more freely and confident in the destruction of the forest. Therefore, what we will see now with the return of fires is a consequence of the entire anti-environmental agenda of this government. A decree [banning fires], in the midst of this whole problem, which the Bolsonaro government itself created, will definitely not help in almost anything, except as a purely symbolic gesture,” Astrini concluded.

Banner Image: Aerial view of the Amazon rainforest. Image by Rhett A. Butler for mongabay.com.

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