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The counterstrike: Brazilian Congress moves to block Lula’s environmental agenda

Image courtesy of Pablo Valadares/Câmara dos Deputados

  • The Brazilian Congress approved a series of actions to dismantle the president’s ambitious environmental agenda, including attacks on Indigenous people’s rights and stripping powers of ministers.
  • Among the changes is the approval of the controversial time frame thesis for Indigenous lands, which can reduce new demarcations, shrink approved territory and open Indigenous areas for mining and infrastructure projects.
  • Some of the actions can be reversed by the Senate, Lula and the Supreme Court, but experts see the move as a major defeat for the president.

The Brazilian Congress approved this week two actions that clash with the environmental policy of the new President Luiz Inácio da Silva. On May 30, the Lower House voted in favor of a bill that limits the demarcation of Indigenous lands (as well as removes other protections for traditional peoples).

Another move, approved by the Lower House and confirmed by the Senate on June 1, reduces the powers of the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change and the newly created Ministry of Indigenous Peoples. With the changes, Environment Minister Marina Silva lost powers over the Rural Environmental Registry (CAR), a flawed, self-declaratory land registry used to facilitate land-grabs. Silva also lost authority over water management. The most criticized change was the one that removed the authority of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples to demarcate Indigenous lands.

The changes still need the approval of the president — although Congress can overturn vetoes. However, the actions against core environmental policies are widely seen as major defeats for Lula, even if some are reversed.

The counterstrike started after a routine act from IBAMA. On May 17, Brazil’s environmental regulatory agency denied state-controlled petroleum company Petrobras a request to drill in maritime block FZA-M-59, located 175 kilometers (108.7 miles) off the coast of Amapá state in the mouth of the Amazon River.

According to the decision, there are “worrying inconsistencies” in the project’s safety, offering severe risks for an area of high socio-environmental vulnerability. A similar decision was issued in 2018 when IBAMA denied French oil giant Total a license to drill near this area where the Amazon River meets the Atlantic Ocean.

Indigenous Deputy Célia Xakriabá (left, holding sign in hand) protests in the Lower House on May 30 against a bill that takes away the rights of Indigenous Brazilians alongside the Minister of Indigenous Peoples, Sonia Guajajara (right, holding a copy of the Constitution). Image courtesy of Pablo Valadares/Camera dos Deputados.

The so-called Equatorial Margin in Brazil’s extreme northeast is home to conservation units, Indigenous lands, 80% of Brazil’s mangroves and the Great Amazon Reef System, a sensitive formation discovered in 2016 and still understudied. The marine biodiversity also includes endangered species, such as the gray dolphin, red dolphin, sperm whale, fin whale, manatee, Amazon manatee and tracajá. In addition, eventual leaks pose risks to French Guiana and other neighboring countries. A Folha de S.Paulo newspaper report showed that rescue boats would take 43 hours to reach the drilled site in the case of an environmental disaster. IBAMA recommended new studies from Petrobras.

Environmentalists celebrated the agency’s denial. The Climate Observatory, a network of Brazilian civil society organizations advocating for climate action, said the decision “protects a virtually unknown ecosystem” and opens a broader debate about the role of oil in Brazil’s future. Greenpeace wrote that the decision “is a victory for common sense, based on scientific evidence and the precautionary principle.”

But soon, IBAMA and, by extension, the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change were harshly criticized even by political allies. The government’s leader in Congress, Senator Randolfe Rodrigues, from Amapá, left the Sustainability Network, Minister Silva’s party. In interviews, he said no Amapá authority was consulted about the decision, nor were the citizens of his state, as reported by environmental outlet Sumaúma.

Alexandre Silveira, the minister of mines and energy, classified as “an inconsistency and an absurdity” the requirement for new studies for drilling and asked Petrobras to keep the drilling equipment in the area. On May 25, guided by Silveira, the company requested IBAMA to reconsider the denial, alleging that the purpose of the drilling was a feasibility check, a temporary and low-risk activity.

“The conflict was overestimated,” Suely Araújo, senior specialist in public policies at the Climate Observatory, a network of civil society organizations, told Mongabay by phone. “IBAMA must be respected because the analysis is highly sophisticated, performed by a team with enviable preparation. This negative was transformed into a national issue in an inconsequential way, an attack on IBAMA,” Araújo said.

Silva said Lula’s administration would respect IBAMA’s decision. “If a license is denied, it’s denied,” she said. The minister clarified that the study of the region around the new exploration block, required by the protection agency to point out in which areas oil and gas cannot be extracted, takes more than two years to complete. IBAMA informed it would reexamine Petrobras’ request.

Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Marina Silva, during the presentation of the ministry’s work plan in a Lower House committee on May 24. Actions by lawmakers took power away from the minister, who is the international face of Lula’s environmentalist agenda. Image courtesy of Bruno Spada/Camara dos Deputados.

Weakness and opportunism

The conservative-led Brazilian Congress took advantage of the licensing controversy to counterstrike Lula’s environmental agenda, experts say.

On May 23, a week after IBAMA denied Petrobras’ license, congressman Isnaldo Bulhões Jr. finished his report on a bill that reorganizes Lula’s ministries and agencies, removing attributions from the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change and the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples.

On May 24, a commission formed by deputies and senators approved the report 15-3. The ministers didn’t receive consistent support from the government against the changes. In fact, Minister of Institutional Relations Alexandre Padilha, praised the report. “These contributions maintain the initial spirit of the government’s restructuring,” Padilha said.

“It’s an opportunism of the parliamentarians, who presented retrocessions. But the government had a weak posture in not defending with more effort the cabinet organization proposed by itself,” Araújo said. “The government must defend the structure that has been formulated, out of coherence with the narrative in defense of the environmental and Indigenous peoples’ agendas.”

The endorsement of the report by members of Lula’s administration raised rumors about the possible resignation of Marina Silva, repeating 2008, when she left the ministry in Lula’s second term, alleging difficulties in fulfilling the environmental agenda. Respected internationally for her conservation efforts, Silva is a key name on Lula’s team. Folha de S.Paulo reported on the concern of foreign investors about Lula’s real environmental commitment amidst the pressure on Marina Silva.

“It would be terrible for Brazil’s international image if Minister Marina Silva left the government,” Pedro Roberto Jacobi, senior professor at the Institute of Energy and Environment and researcher at the Institute of Advanced Studies of the University of São Paulo, told Mongabay by phone. “In the current scenario, she needs to be increasingly present to reorganize the government’s environmental agenda.”

Lula downplayed the actions of Congress and defended negotiations. “I went to see what was happening, and it was the most normal thing,” he said about the changes in the structure of his government. “Now the game has begun. We are going to talk to Congress, and we are going to do the governance of what we need to do,” he said. The president met with the affected ministers to show commitment and support.

After the Senate ratified these changes on June 1, the CAR registry will now be managed by the Ministry of Governance and Innovation in Public Services, with no record in dealing with a database of almost 7 million rural properties.

Despite its flaws, the CAR is vital to checking environmental crimes on rural properties, such as illegal occupation and deforestation, because it offers a kind of environmental X-ray of the property.

The ministry headed by Silva also lost the National Water Agency (ANA), transferred to the Ministry of Integration and Regional Development. The environmental agency will also lose control over basic sanitation, solid waste and water resources, now under the power of the Ministry of Cities.

In an attempt to put pressure on Congress, 800 organizations signed a manifesto criticizing the changes, saying the “dismemberment of the environment is a shot in the foot.”

As for the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, it lost its main attribute: the demarcation of Indigenous lands through Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency, Funai. The Ministry of Justice and Public Security will head these functions.

“We see Congress promoting a real attack on this ministry in a country that took 523 years to recognize the importance of Indigenous peoples and less than five months to try to silence and tutelage us again,” Minister of Indigenous Peoples Sonia Guajajara said.

Greenpeace wrote in a statement sent to the press that the bill reduced key functions of the ministries “without proper justification.” “The government must now analyze in detail what can be vetoed or modified to reduce the losses in the ministries,” the NGO wrote.

The Lower House is headed by Arthur Lira, a conservative congressman known to use authoritarian maneuvers to approve bills of interest to the right wing. Lira was a key ally of former president Jair Bolsonaro and will remain in charge of the Lower House until early 2025. Image courtesy of Pablo Valadares/Camara dos Deputados.

Other attacks

According to experts, the most worrisome move came from the Lower Houser on May 30, when it approved a bill that established a time frame — known as marco temporal in Portuguese — to create new Indigenous territories. The proposal challenges Indigenous rights guaranteed by the Federal Constitution by opening the way for mining, roads and hydroelectric dams on Indigenous lands. In an interview for the UOL news portal, environmentalist Tasso Azevedo classified the proposal as “the worst dismantling.”

Under the time frame, Indigenous peoples are only entitled to claim lands they were occupying when Brazil’s current Constitution was enacted, on Oct. 5, 1988. The thesis could represent a loss of 63% of Indigenous lands demarcated or being demarcated, according to Congresso em Foco news outlet. The bill has been criticized by Indigenous leaders because many tribes were expelled from their lands long before 1988 — some called it a “legal genocide” of the traditional peoples.

Now, the Brazilian Senate is looking at the matter. The Supreme Court is also reviewing the time frame thesis in a ruling that began in 2021 and was delayed several times — the judges’ decision may nullify the law passed in the Lower House.

In the past weeks, the deputies also approved a bill that puts the Atlantic Forest biome at risk by loosening rules for the protection of native vegetation and extending deadlines once again for the recovery of degraded areas. President Lula can veto it.

In addition, IBAMA may lose power to license works of “national interest” with the creation of a new tool for quick and easy license approval, as shown by Poder360 news outlet.

“The current political reality is the outcome of the last elections. There is difficulty for Lula’s government in building a more solid alliance in Congress,” said Jacobi. “It’s a very fragile arrangement, but the government needs to negotiate whatever is possible without losing the essence of what it had proposed.”

Indigenous Deputy Célia Xakriabá speaks in the Lower House against PL 490, a bill that created a time frame for the demarcation of Indigenous lands. According to it, Indigenous peoples will have to prove that they were on their lands on October 5, 1988 in order to request demarcation. The bill has been criticized by Indigenous leaders such as the Xakriabá because many tribes were expelled from their lands long before 1988. Image courtesy of Pablo Valadares/Câmara dos Deputados.

Catastrophic scenario

To some extent, according to activists, the current scenario is worse than under the Bolsonaro government, which promoted a dismantling of protection policies with decrees and other acts that Lula could revoke. Now, Congress enables a dismantling that is more difficult to be reversed.

“In the Bolsonaro government, there was a powerful action by the members of the environmentalist front to stop proposals against the environment. Now, the Congress is in charge of dismantling the country’s environmental legislation,” Araújo said. “That is why it is fundamental that the government takes a stance of defense of the laws and socio-environmental rights.”

The Climate Observatory said that, by downplaying the socio-environmental agenda, Lula’s administration emulates its predecessor and contradicts the president’s environmental discourse, which vowed to protect Indigenous people and strengthen the fight against deforestation and climate change. The Brazilian Coalition on Climate, Forests and Agriculture said the changes cause a series of damages to the country’s environmental governance system, bringing severe damage to the country’s image and international reputation.

For experts, the proposals against the environment can seriously damage Brazil’s image abroad, affecting donations to the Amazon Fund, negotiations of the agreement between Mercosur and the European Union and the efforts of Lula to lead the debate on climate change. “Inconsistencies and weaknesses in this challenge will have strong repercussions, affecting the funding and international support that President Lula is seeking,” Araújo said.


See related coverage:

Mouth of the Amazon oil exploration clashes with Lula’s climate promises

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