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Brazil bill seeks to redraw Amazon borders in favor of agribusiness

According to the Forest Code, rural properties located in the Cerrado biome of Mato Grosso state must maintain 35% of their native vegetation.

According to the Forest Code, rural properties located in the Cerrado biome of Mato Grosso state must maintain 35% of their native vegetation. PL 337 proposes that the state's Legal Reserve be reduced to 20%. The same percentage would apply for the Amazon biome. Image © Marizilda Cruppe / Greenpeace.

  • A new bill before Brazil’s Congress proposes cutting out the state of Mato Grosso from the country’s legally defined Amazon region to allow greater deforestation there for agribusiness.
  • Under the bill, known as PL 337, requirements to maintain Amazonian vegetation in the state at 80% of a rural property’s area, and 35% for Cerrado vegetation, would be slashed to just 20% for both.
  • The approval of the bill would allow for an increase in deforestation of at least 10 million hectares (25 million acres) — an area the size of South Korea — and exempt farmers from having to restore degraded areas on their properties.
  • Environmental law specialists warn that the departure of Mato Grosso from under the administrative umbrella of the Legal Amazon would set off a domino effect encouraging the eight other states in the region to push for similar bills.

How do you justify tearing down the world’s greatest rainforest for agribusiness? Pretend it’s not a rainforest.

That appears to be the thinking behind a bill introduced into Brazil’s lower house of Congress in February that proposes removing the state of Mato Grosso from the country’s formally recognized Amazonian region — despite the fact that the Amazon makes up half of the state’s total area.

Mato Grosso is already Brazil’s breadbasket, and removing it from the group of nine states that make up what’s known as the Legal Amazon would allow for even greater deforestation to make way for farmland: at least 10 million hectares (25 million acres) — an area the size of South Korea — according to an estimate by the Forest Code Observatory, a collective of 36 civil society groups monitoring Brazil’s forest management over the past decade.

The bill, PL 337/2022, was introduced by Congress member Juarez Costa, from Mato Grosso, and is now before the lower house’s environmental commission.

“The approval of this bill would cause a great environmental impact in the state, which is already facing a water crisis,” Roberta del Giudice, an environmental lawyer and executive secretary of the Forest Code Observatory, told Mongabay by phone. The Pantanal wetlands south of the Amazon would also be affected, she said, as the biome depends on the precipitation generated by the rainforest to feed its rivers and swamps.

The Legal Amazon, conceived in 1953 to coordinate the economic development of the region, covers the nine Brazilian states that fall within the Amazon Basin. It also includes 20% of the Cerrado grasslands and a small portion of the Pantanal.

The Legal Amazon, formed by nine states — Amazonas, Pará, Roraima, Rondônia, Acre, Mato Grosso, Amapá, Tocantins and Maranhão — was created in the 1950s under a socio-economic perspective, and covering, in addition to the Amazon biome, the Cerrado and the Pantanal. Image courtesy of IBGE – Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics.
With massive deforestation and fires in the country, the Pantanal biome of Mato Grosso has been facing extreme drought. In 2020, large-scale fires consumed over 20% of the Pantanal wetlands. Even so, politicians like current local governor want to increase the state’s deforestation area. Image © Leandro Cagiano / Greenpeace.

Rural properties located in the Legal Amazon must, by law, maintain 80% of native vegetation in forested areas — dubbed the legal reserve — and 35% in Cerrado areas. PL 337 proposes that the legal reserves in both biomes be reduced to 20%. It also calls for dropping a requirement to restore deforested lands, which currently amount to 3.3 million hectares (7.4 million acres).

Del Giudice noted that the governor of Mato Grosso, Mauro Mendes, supports PL 337 yet still wants to maintain a 75% exemption on income tax for companies located in the Legal Amazon.

“The Mato Grosso governor doesn’t want the responsibility of complying with forest preservation indexes, but he wants to keep the tax benefits,” del Giudice said. “However, there are advantages in keeping the forest standing that go beyond tax exemptions. The generation of rain is one of them, vital for agricultural production.”

Mendes and Costa didn’t reply to Mongabay’s requests for comment.

Legal arguments and counterarguments

 

Political scientist Maria Cristina Bacovis coordinates the Mato Grosso team at the Legal Amazon Geopolitical Studies Laboratory (LEGAL), which brings together 40 researchers and academics from across the region. She explains to Mongabay why the justifications laid out in PL 337 for Mato Grosso to leave the Legal Amazon have no legal basis. They study the legislative and electoral behaviors of the nine states, and it will launch a website in the coming weeks.

These are the five core arguments in PL 337 and Bacovis’s responses to them:

1. Mato Grosso already lags behind every other Amazonian states in terms of meeting its legal reserve requirement, to the tune of 11 million hectares (27.1 million acres). This deficit is already consolidated.

Bacovis: Accepting this deficit is a disrespect to the law and would exempt from responsibility those who failed to comply with it. Besides, Mato Grosso already counts permanent preservation areas (APPs) toward the state’s legal reserve total. If it were to leave the Legal Amazon, it wouldn’t be allowed to do so, and the true area of legal reserves in the state would fall far short of the proposed 20%.

2. Mato Grosso leaving the Legal Amazon would spare its farmers the expense of reforestation and maintenance of legal reserves.

Bacovis: This is perhaps the most shocking argument of all because it’s based on granting the ruralists’ privilege. The Forest Code states that farmers must recover degraded areas, which can be done gradually, with goals and a schedule defined in an environmental recovery plan. Under the principle of proportionality, Congress must weigh its choices by appropriate and proportionate means. What must be guaranteed? Environmental preservation, which benefits everyone and future generations, or economic pandering to a group of farmers?

3. The increase in agribusiness production will create direct and indirect jobs.

Bacovis: The principle of proportionality can be applied again here: we need to weigh between the advance of exploratory agribusiness and the sustainable production of natural resources. Mato Grosso’s agribusiness needs to adapt itself to the green industry concept, industrial management that pays attention to the entire production chain’s sustainability. This also creates jobs, which require greater training and offer better wages.

4. Expanding the agricultural frontier would allow Mato Grosso, with its immense productive potential, to increase the number of annual crops.

Bacovis: The expansion of the agricultural frontier and a greater number of annual crops would certainly increase production. In the long run, however, soil depletion would result in the opposite of what was intended, that is, a drop in production.

5. The increase in crop production would meet domestic and international food needs.

Bacovis: Environmental degradation goes against the international markets’ stance. An increasing number of countries require that commercial products come from places that respect the environment. If Mato Grosso’s biomes are continuously being destroyed, Brazil’s grain and meat trade will be compromised.

Domino effect for the Legal Amazon?

In addition to the potential increase in deforestation and the dropping of the requirement to restore degraded areas, the passage of PL 337 would have other damaging effects, observers say.

“It would encourage the appearance of new similar bills in other Amazonian states,” del Giudice said. “It would be an attack on the principle of non-retrogression, conferred by the law, and on the Federal Constitution, which says that an ecologically balanced environment is a right and a duty for all.”

Maria Cristina Bacovis, Mato Grosso coordinator for the Legal Amazon Geopolitical Studies Laboratory (LEGAL), said the state’s departure would be a first step toward revoking the protection granted by the Legal Amazon umbrella.

“There are already movements, speeches by legislators in Acre, Pará and Rondônia states, all of them part of the Legal Amazon, who defend the withdrawal of their states from the region,” she said. “If the first one leaves, others would probably follow, and our greatest environmental heritage would be destroyed.”

Mato Grosso is the only Brazilian state that has three biomes: the Amazon covers about 50% of its territory, while the Cerrado 38.2% and the Pantanal 7.2%. Image via Toda Matéria.

Banner image: According to the Forest Code, rural properties located in the Cerrado biome of Mato Grosso state must maintain 35% of their native vegetation. PL 337 proposes that the state’s Legal Reserve be reduced to 20%. The same percentage would apply for the Amazon biome. Image © Marizilda Cruppe / Greenpeace.

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