- A bill loosening regulations on agrochemicals has been approved by Brazil’s lower house of congress and now goes before the Senate, prompting concerns that it will unleash environmental destruction and threaten consumer health.
- The bill is one of several in the list of priority legislation for 2022 that environmentalists and Indigenous groups say underscore President Jair Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental and anti-Indigenous agenda.
- If approved, the slate of proposed bills would allow companies to exploit Indigenous territories for resources and further impede Indigenous people from staking a claim to their traditional lands.
- Other bills in the works include one that would effectively facilitate land grabbing, and another that would do away with environmental licenses. Bolsonaro has already issued a decree encouraging small-scale gold mining, raising further concerns for the Amazon and its Indigenous inhabitants.
Brazil’s lower house of congress has overwhelmingly approved a bill that would loosen regulations for the use of pesticides, raising concerns that approval in the Senate would unleash further environmental damage in one of the world’s largest agricultural powerhouses.
The Safer Food Bill is promoted by the Ministry of Agriculture as a way to “modernize the registration process of pesticides,” allowing producers to be more competitive and lowering food prices for consumers. If approved by the Senate, it would supersede a 1989 law governing the use of agrochemicals and change the rules of their production, sale and distribution.
In practice, the new registration process would give the Ministry of Agriculture the sole responsibility to approve agrochemicals, cutting out the National Health Surveillance Agency, Anvisa, and the environmental protection agency, IBAMA, from the decision-making process.
“It’s dangerous to give the Ministry of Agriculture this power,” Marina Lacôrte, a spokesperson for Greenpeace, told Mongabay in a phone call. “[Brazil] has never had representatives in the Ministry of Agriculture that have a diverse vision of agriculture. It’s always people that have a conflict of interests. They’re just interested in expanding agribusiness.”
Victor Pelaez, a professor of economics at the University of Paraná, said the prevailing 1989 law prohibits any agrochemicals with agents that can cause developmental problems, cancer or mutation. But the new bill, with its “risk-based assessment” of substances, would theoretically allow carcinogens to enter the market if the risk isn’t considered “unacceptable” — a definition that Pelaez said is extremely subjective.
“Historically, the Ministry of Agriculture has been in favor of releasing any type of pesticide substance,” he told Mongabay in a phone call. “The economy is the most important agenda [for President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration].” He added, “this subjectivity will be present in the risk assessment.”
In a statement, the Ministry of Agriculture said that “there is no evidence to prove that using risk management weakens the rigor of public administration control.”
Other government agencies aren’t convinced. Anvisa said the bill will loosen control over the use of agrochemicals. “The proposal weakens the regulation of pesticides in the country, especially the evaluation of the impact of these products on the health of food consumers,” Anvisa told Mongabay in an email.
The same concerns were echoed by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, affiliated with the Ministry of Health and considered the leading health science and technology research institution in Latin America. In a public statement, it said the new bill would bring “damage to the environment and the health of the population” and “irreparable damage to the processes of registration, monitoring and control of risks and of the dangers of pesticides in Brazil.”
‘Anti-environmental’ agenda for 2022
The Safer Food Bill is one of 45 in Congress’s docket of priority legislation this year, collectively nicknamed the “Death Package” or “Destruction Package” by opposition groups. Critics say it’s evidence of the anti-environmental and anti-Indigenous agenda being urgently pursued by Bolsonaro, who has made clear his support of the agribusiness sector and actively sought to dismantle environmental protections since taking office at the start of 2019. His actions during this time have included implementing severe budget and personnel cuts in environmental agencies and refusing to punish environmental crimes.
“Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental agenda was obvious even before these new proposals,” Haroldo Heleno, a regional coordinator with the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI), an advocacy group affiliated with the Catholic Church, told Mongabay by phone. “[His agenda] has always been in favor of the miners and the timber companies.”
The package of priority legislation for 2022 features bills that push for development objectives at the expense of the environment and Indigenous rights. The Indigenous Land Timeframe Bill, for example, would deny Indigenous communities from obtaining legal recognition of their traditional lands if they weren’t already established in the area before Oct. 5, 1988, the date Brazil’s current Constitution was promulgated.
“The history of the Indigenous [peoples] didn’t start in 1988. It didn’t [even] start in 1500 when Brazil was colonized. It started way before,” Heleno said. He called this bill an attempt to weaken Article 231 of the Constitution, which states that Indigenous people have the right to their traditionally occupied lands and that federal authorities must demarcate and protect these lands.
Another bill that would undermine Indigenous rights is the Mining on Indigenous Lands Bill, which opens up these territories to the possibility of industrial mining, hydroelectric generation, and mineral prospecting. All these activities are currently prohibited on Indigenous lands under the Constitution.
“These bills will directly affect our people,” Agnaldo Francisco, a leader of the Pataxó Hãhãhãe people and coordinator of the United Movement of Indigenous Peoples and Organizations of Bahia (MUPOIBA), told Mongabay by phone. “[The government] creates them to ensure our lands are not demarcated and to annul the lands already demarcated.”
According to Heleno, the bills aim to facilitate the exploitation of the natural resources that lie within Indigenous territories, which, according to Bolsonaro, is worth trillions of reais. “The Indigenous [peoples] are considered an obstacle, a stone in the shoe,” Heleno said. “[The government] needs to get the Indigenous out of their way, it needs to remove all of those who defend the environment so they can freely exploit these lands.”
Another bill relaxes environmental licensing requirements, exempting projects such as hydroelectric dams, water treatment, and energy distribution. Activists say this will fuel serious human rights violations and environmental degradation.
Yet another piece of legislation, the Land Regularization Bill, dubbed the “Land Grabbing Bill,” has been criticized for weakening controls over the occupation of public lands, opening the way for amnesty for land grabbers and associated environmental violators. Under current laws, experts say, land grabbing is already associated with increased deforestation and deliberate fires, which critics say will escalate if the new bill is passed.
A study by Greenpeace in Gleba João Bento, an area of land in northern Amazonas state linked to an extensive land-grabbing scheme, revealed large-scale land grabbing and poor legal reinforcement, including land clearing that exceeded legal limits, and three-year delays in canceling the licenses of illegal logging schemes — plenty of time to allow a significant number of trees to be cut down.
“All of these environmental crimes within Gleba João Bento are the prelude to what is to come throughout the Amazon if the bill of Land Grabbing is approved,” according to the Greenpeace study.
Bolsonaro recently issued a decree to expand gold mining in the Amazon, aimed at stimulating small-scale mining. Known as the Support Program for the Development of Artisanal and Small-scale Mining, it’s touted in a statement by the Ministry of Mines and Energy as “a source of wealth and income for a population of hundreds of thousands of people.”
However, the plan backs an industry long accused of deforestation, large-scale pollution, and attacks on environmentalists and Indigenous people.
“It’s not only an agenda that’s anti-environmental,” Heleno said about the legislative priorities for 2022. “It’s anti-life. It’s an agenda of death.”
Banner image: A soy producer uses a small aircraft to spray crops with pesticides on land near the municipality of Sinop in Mato Grosso state. Brazil is among the world’s largest users of agrochemicals, and the Safer Food Bill, if approved by the Senate, would be a huge win for agribusiness, including farmers and agrochemical producers, environmentalists say. Image © Daniel Beltrá/Greenpeace.
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