- A series of bills being deliberated in Brazil threatens to legalize illegally occupied land, change demarcation rules for Indigenous reserves and open them up to mining, and ease concessions inside public forests.
- One of the bills targets the Amazonian state of Acre, proposing a reduction of the important Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve and a downgrade in the protected status of Serra do Divisor National Park.
- In another Amazonian state, Rondônia, a state bill was passed this year that significantly shrank the Jaci-Paraná Extractive Reserve and the Guajará-Mirim State Park, setting a worrying precedent, activists say.
- They warn this wave of legislation is part of the current administration’s bid to “run the cattle” through environmental protections for the benefit of commercial sectors such as agribusiness and mining.
June 8, 2021 was a tense day for environmental organizations and citizens’ groups working to protect the Amazon and Indigenous Brazilians. Groups like Greenpeace and APIB (Brazilian Indigenous People’s Association) referred to it as “Stampede Day” — the day the Senate converged on three bills with the potential to cause profound social and environmental impact.
Congress held an urgent session to vote on Bill 2633/2020, known as the land-grabbing bill; Bill 490/2007, which changes the rules for demarcating Indigenous territories (this was same the bill that prompted more than 70 Indigenous leaders from the south and southeast of Brazil to occupy Congress in protest and call for a veto); and Bill 984, which aims to create a road along the border of Iguaçu National Park in the state of Paraná.
The day’s agenda was the effective culmination of the infamous April 2020 injunction by then-Environment Minister Ricardo Salles at a government meeting: take advantage of the media’s focus on the COVID-19 pandemic to “run the cattle” through environmental regulations to benefit the interests of specific economic sectors like agribusiness.
Since that statement, Brazil has seen increases in invasions of public lands; deforestation in the Amazon; violations of protected areas; and threats to traditional and Indigenous populations. The land-grabbing bill alone, even before it’s been approved, is already a sufficiently influential force for detrimental change to the Amazon, according to a report published in May by the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA).
The bills form part of the strategy to consolidate the government’s intentions for an overhaul of environmental legislation by the end of the first term of President Jair Bolsonaro, in 2023. On the ground, this has translated into intensified pressure on protected areas, and in particular the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve in Acre state.
‘A promise that crime will be rewarded’
The recent ISA report evaluated the land-grabbing bill’s influence based on private land claims made through the Rural Environmental Registry (CAR) between 2018 and 2020 and that overlap with public forests and protected areas.
The CAR system is based on self-declared data input by landowners, and is part of the pre-approval process for legalization and possession of land. In practice, the registry is used indiscriminately by those aiming to cut down forest and, in many cases, transform forested areas into cattle pasture.
If the land-grabbing bill is passed, as the government wants, these illegally occupied areas will automatically be legalized. “It’s what we call a ‘consumed fact’: land-grabbing increases because of the expectation that anything occupied will soon be allocated,” says ISA researcher Antônio Oviedo. “It’s a sort of promise that the crime will be rewarded.”
In federally administered conservation areas used by traditional populations, like the extractive reserves where communities carry out sustainable forestry activities such as rubber tapping and nut harvesting, the land grabs are escalating: overlapping land claims by third parties grew by 274% in the CAR system over 2018-2020 period, coinciding with 243% more deforestation, according to the ISA report.
In undesignated public forests, the report found a 29% increase in overlaps. Deforestation in these same areas nearly doubled from 185,000 hectares to 367,000 hectares (457,000 acres to 907,000 acres) over the period, a 98% increase.
The western Amazonian states of Roraima, Acre and Amazonas are where protected areas are most under threat from these land grabs filed with the CAR registry. In Roraima, overlapping land claims surged by 301%, in Acre by 153% and in Amazonas 147% between 2018 and 2020.
Experts say the numbers indicate that the Bolsonaro administration’s policy of “running the cattle” — through the systematic introduction of deregulatory bills and weakening of environmental laws — is leaving a trail of biodiversity destruction and rendering forest communities more vulnerable than ever.
Threats to protected areas in Acre
The state of Acre is currently facing its own version of the stampede. Home to both an increased rate of land grabbing and the Brazilian extractive reserve most threatened by deforestation, it is regionally weakened and dealing with yet another threatening bill.
“We are currently suffering the consequences of a state government aligned with President Bolsonaro’s development agenda,” says Miguel Scarcello, head of the NGO SOS Amazonia. The group’s Harpia Project, funded by the Institute for Climate and Society (ICS), has carried out advocacy campaigns against proposed legislation known as Bill 6024/2019 together with more than 20 local organizations.
Introduced by Mara Rocha, a federal congresswoman representing Acre, Bill 6024 would redefine the boundaries of the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, reducing its total area of 931,500 hectares (2.3 million acres) by nearly 8,000 hectares (20,000 acres). It also calls for reclassification of Serra do Divisor National Park, on Acre’s border with Peru, as an “environmental protected area,” or APA — a designation that would paradoxically allow currently prohibited activities such as logging, cattle ranching, and mining.
At stake if the bill passes is the fate of the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve. A model for sustainable forestry, it was established 31 years ago as result of the fight led by rubber tapper and environmentalist Chico Mendes to safeguard the forests from which communities like his made their living. Since the start of 2020, the reserve has topped the list of areas most threatened by deforestation in Brazil. Today it’s home to at least 10,000 people, whose main activity of harvesting Brazil nuts faces challenging economic times.
A bulletin released in June by Imazon, a Brazilian conservation nonprofit, shows that the threat of deforestation in the reserve hasn’t slowed; it was the fifth-most deforested conservation area in Brazil between February and April 2021.
According to an SOS Amazonia report based on data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), the Chico Mendes reserve experienced the most deforestation of all Brazilian protected areas during the period from August 2020 to March 2021. It’s been replaced at the top of the most recent list by Jamanxim National Forest and Tapajós National Forest, both in the Amazonian state of Pará. There, trees are being cut down both inside the conservation units and in surrounding areas.
In another Amazonian state, Rondônia, local legislation has already decimated existing conservation areas. Complementary Bill 80, passed by the state legislature, lopped off 167,000 hectares (413,000 acres) from the Jaci Paraná Extractive Reserve, leaving it with a mere 10% of its original land area, and 50,000 hectares (124,000 acres) from Guajará-Mirim State Park, reducing it by nearly a quarter. The bill was signed off by Rondônia’s governor, Marcos Rocha, at the end of May, despite protests from environmental organizations in the region.
The Rondônia Attorney General’s Office had requested that the state executive branch veto the bill and maintain the protected areas as they stood. According to the Attorney General’s Office, one of the most insidious parts of the bill’s approval by the legislature was the lack of any discussion with the inhabitants of the Jaci Paraná reserve — a blatant violation of their constitutional rights.
“The NGOs and traditional communities are being practically ignored — the focus is on favoring business sectors. This posture became more radical with new political leadership in the state. We are truly facing worrying times,” says SOS Amazonia’s Scarcello.
In addition to setting a precedent for the abrupt alteration of two important protected areas, the new law in Rondônia is seen as legitimizing the narrative — pushed by outsiders seeking a slice of the land — that it’s acceptable to make such changes if the areas’ inhabitants have themselves engaged in unsustainable activities. But according to local organizations, these unsustainable activities are actually the result of land grabbing and increased cattle ranching, as is the case in Acre.
“If they make this change to [the] Chico Mendes [reserve], it will definitely be more difficult to maintain the boundaries of other extractive reserves here,” says Lila Marcondes, president of the Extractive Cooperative of Iaco River Valley Rural Producers (COOPERIACO), which advocates for inhabitants of the Cazumbá-Iracema Extractive Reserve — also the subject of intense deforestation. “These bills end up weakening environmental awareness and influencing forest workers to leave their traditional jobs to make money raising cattle,” Marcondes adds.
The other contentious objective of Bill 6024 — to downgrade Serra do Divisor from a national park to an environmental protected area (APA) — has a clear motivation: to allow the construction of a highway from Cruzeiro do Sul in Acre, to Pucallpa in Peru. As an APA, Serra do Divisor would fall under much lighter environmental regulations, easing considerably the licensing process for the road, an extension of the BR-364 highway.
“They saw that it is unlikely for the changes to be accepted because they are absurd,” says Acre forestry engineer and environmentalist Lucas Matos. “So the strategy the federal government is now using is to focus on defending the highway itself.”
While Indigenous leaders and riverine communities have condemned the construction of the road, government representatives, including former environment minister Ricardo Salles, continue to make the case that the project is important for the integration and development of the Brazil-Peru border region.
Serra do Divisor is considered one of Earth’s most biodiverse regions and is home to a large number of endemic species. It is especially unique because it straddles the transition zone between the Amazon Basin and the Andes mountains.
Matos launched an online petition last year warning of the impacts of Bill 6024. The petition has gained nearly 86,000 signatures to date, but on the ground, resistance to the bill has faced strong pressure from the political and institutional machinery pushing for Bolsonaro’s interests in Acre.
Bill 6024 moved forward in Brazil’s lower house of congress, the Chamber of Deputies, at the end of March. It’s now awaiting a response from the head of the congressional commission overseeing Amazonian affairs. There are concerns that, since the process is moving forward, there could be a call for an urgent vote in the Chamber, leading to the bill’s imminent approval.
WWF has kept close tabs on the bill’s progression in Brasília, with the Acre deputies not seen as being of any help in checking it: of the 11 deputies representing the state in the Chamber, only two oppose the bill. One, Rocha, authored the bill.
Future stampedes likely
Even though joint voting didn’t happen in the end on Stampede Day, June 8, the pressure to exploit and commoditize Brazil’s natural resources will not ease off, activists say. Under Bolsonaro, environmental protection agencies like IBAMA and ICMBio have been weakened, and of the 35 bills presented by the administration in February as priorities, at least three deal directly with environmental issues.
Bill 191/20 proposes regulations for mining inside Indigenous territories — currently banned under the Constitution — and exploiting mineral, water and organic resources inside reserves; Bill 5518/20 deals with forestry concessions and aims to speed up the bidding process to make contracts more flexible as a means of attracting more investment; and Bill 3729/04 aims to simplify the environmental licensing process.
No initiatives have been prioritized that would, for example, develop the bioeconomy or improve the living conditions of Indigenous Amazonians, despite what Bolsonaro said during the Leaders Summit on Climate, hosted online by U.S. President Joe Biden in April.
What is certain, activists warn, is that there will be more Stampede Days over the coming months in Brasília and in the Amazonian states. “It is a resourceful way to get things through and we will have to learn a lot, including from a legal standpoint, to try and keep the threats contained in these bills from becoming realities,” Scarcello says. “Because in truth, at least until now, the stampede is running — and in the case of the Chico Mendes reserve, it is a literal stampede.”
Banner image of fire to clear pastureland inside the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, Acre state. Image by Katie Maehler /Mídia NINJA (CC BY-NC 2.0).