- A damning report confirms what many environmentalists already knew: that the destruction of nature in Brazil from 2019 to 2022 was a deliberate campaign of sabotage led by the government of the time.
- The report compiled four years of data to describe record levels of land invasions, illegal mining and Amazon deforestation under the administration of Jair Bolsonaro.
- Against this challenging scenario, experts have mostly praised President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s initial actions in his first 100 days, especially his efforts to address the health crisis in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory.
- However, key actions remain pending, they say, including the quashing of anti-environmental bills and an end to the plan to pave a controversial highway through the Amazon Rainforest.
After four years of environmental destruction, Brazil has reached a crossroads that will determine the fate of its biomes and its role in the global climate crisis. In its first 100 days in office, the new government has taken decisive action to undo the damage inflicted by former president Jair Bolsonaro, experts say. However, they also warn there are three crucial measures pending that need to be pushed forward this year, and that failing to do so could undermine the campaign promises of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
A damning new report from the Climate Observatory, a network of civil society organizations, compiled four years’ worth of measures by the Bolsonaro administration, in office from 2019 to 2022, ranging from the dismantling of environmental protection agencies to record high levels of deforestation. The report makes a clear conclusion: the former president deliberately tried to sabotage environmental conservation.
“There was a calculated plan to destroy the environment,” Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of the Climate Observatory, told Mongabay by phone. “We know that everything that happened was not by chance. It was a plan of destruction.”
Final numbers of the damage the Bolsonaro administration inflicted on Brazil’s environment, according to the report, include: zero Indigenous territories demarcated; a 60% increase in deforestation from the previous four-year period, the largest increase ever recorded in a presidential term; a 12.2% increase in greenhouse gas emissions from 2020 to 2021, the highest in 19 years; and a 38% decrease in the number of fines for environmental crimes compared to the period between 2015 and 2018.
The latter is widely seen as part of a wider culture of impunity espoused by the Bolsonaro government that experts blame for a 212% increase in invasions of Indigenous lands and protected areas, and a 125% increase in illegal mining. The consequences of these actions came to light in January this year, with the revelation of the health crisis among Yanomami Indigenous communities, linked to illegal mining inside their territory.
The report calls on President Lula, in office since the start of 2023, to execute three measures by the end of this year to further demonstrate his commitment to a green agenda: reduce carbon emissions in line with a realistic commitment to the Paris Agreement; ban the “destruction package,” a slate of bills deemed environmentally damaging that’s being considered in Congress; and annul the license awarded for the paving of the BR-319 highway, which experts say would lead to mass deforestation if completed.
Fulfilling these steps will “show that his speech in Egypt [at the COP27 climate summit] was real,” the report says. During that event last November, which Bolsonaro refused to attend despite still being Brazil’s president at the time, Lula vowed to restore environmental protections and drive deforestation levels to zero. Although “some positive action has already been undertaken by the government,” said Astrini, others such as the quashing of the “destruction package” and the BR-319 highway conflict with Lula’s campaign pledges.
Several of the bills in the destruction package have already been approved by the lower house of Congress, the Chamber of Deputies, and are awaiting passage in the upper house, the Senate. Among the bills is one known as the “Poison Bill,” which proposes looser regulations for the use of agrochemicals; the “Land Grab Bill”, which allows for the legalization of claims by squatters illegally occupying public lands; and a bill to reformulate environmental licensing and exempt 14 types of businesses from licensing requirements.
At the end of March, the Chamber of Deputies approved a bill that weakens environmental regulations in the Atlantic Forest and could increase the risk of deforestation.
“All these four bills increase deforestation or create a backward environmental situation in Brazil,” Astrini said. “The government will have to find a solution, either by renegotiating the content of the bills or vetoing them.”
The BR-319 highway remains on the Ministry of Transport’s priority list, with Lula saying in a radio interview that it’s “fully possible” to pave the road. The muddy highway cuts through the biggest block of untouched forest in the Amazon to connect Porto Velho, capital of Rondônia state, to Manaus, capital of Amazonas state. Originally constructed by Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1970s, a 405-kilometer (250 miles) stretch of the route is impassable, especially during the rainforest’s six-month rainy season. The plan is to change that by repaving the road, which experts have said would quadruple deforestation and open up the region to land grabbers.
An initial license for paving work was approved last year, but is currently under analysis by IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental protection agency, which requires the National Department of Transport Infrastructure (DNIT) to provide environmental studies before deciding its viability. The DNIT told Mongabay in an email that it works with experts to “guarantee the minimum possible impact to nature during the works” and in a way that “ensures environmental licenses are granted and strives to meet their conditions.”
However, experts view the persistence of the BR-319 project as a contradiction of Lula’s zero-deforestation pledge, no matter the measures taken to try to minimize deforestation around the highway. “The government needs to choose what it will actually do: whether it will fulfill its promise to end deforestation or whether it will build the highway,” Astrini said. “It will not be able to do both things at the same time.”
Yet experts also say the Lula administration is generally on the right track, despite the potential setbacks. The Climate Observatory report praises Lula’s immediate efforts to get the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change back on its feet as well as the swift action to stop the Indigenous genocide, notably by evicting illegal miners from the Yanomami territory.
Brazil can also play a key role in limiting global warming, as outlined by the Paris Agreement. “The country can adopt an 81% emission reduction target by 2030, reaching it through zero deforestation,” according to the Climate Observatory report.
Lula has already taken a step in this right direction by appointing Marina Silva as the minister of the environment, said Acioli Olivo, vice president of SindCT, the union for science and technology workers in the federal government.
“It’s an incredible change because we removed those who were denialists and replaced them with those who have committed to preserving the environment,” he told Mongabay by phone.
Silva, who served as environment minister from 2003-2008, during Lula’s previous stint in office, has set up a National Climate Security Authority that aims to meet Brazil’s commitments under the Paris Agreement. Congress still has to approve the new authority, but once this is done, it will play an influential role, Olivo said. “It will be as important as the Ministry of the Environment, because it will organize all climate change issues and will represent Brazil in the main [global] forums,” he said.
Experts say the government faces challenges ahead, especially the conflict between imposing an environmental agenda while juggling the demands of the powerful agribusiness lobby and the need for infrastructure development. But Astrini said he’s hopeful the current government will stick to an environmental agenda.
“Facing political contradictions is normal in a democratic government,” he said. “We hope that the choices the government will have to make within these contradictions will never abandon the forest, nor the Indigenous peoples, nor the environmental agenda, as President Lula promised in his campaign.”
Banner image: IBAMA in Brazil is responsible for environmental protection and policing. The agency is currently reviewing the prior license authorizing the beginning of the BR-319 paving, with environmentalists calling for it to be annulled. Image © Marizilda Cruppe/Greenpeace.
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