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Top stories of change from Latin America in 2023

Bigai Reserve in the Western Amazon. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

Bigai Reserve in the Western Amazon. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

  • As the 2030 deadline to prevent the worst impacts of climate change looms ever closer, changing direction from business as usual and tackling critical environmental issues need to become the norm, numerous experts Mongabay interviewed over the past year have stressed
  • In Latin America, the specter of the Amazon hitting its tipping point, corporations expanding their mining activities, and environmental defenders being killed with impunity made headlines throughout 2023. All this played out against a background of political change, civil unrest, and an intense El Niño phenomenon.
  • But change for good, though not as fast or as comprehensive as needed, is also happening across the region. The stories are of action on various fronts to protect the environment and its guardians.

Brazil confiscates biggest catch of shark fins to date

In June, IBAMA, Brazil’s federal environmental protection agency, announced it had seized 28.7 metric tons of shark fins, the largest confiscation of its kind in the world, in an operation targeting illegal fishing. The fins are believed to have come from 10,000 sharks, with some dating back three years. The catch, belonging to two companies that were looking to export the fins illegally, was reportedly destined for the Asian market, where shark fin soup is considered a delicacy. Most of the catch belonged to an exporting company from the state of Santa Catarina. Both companies were fined and received infraction notices, according to IBAMA, while other entities suspected of illegal fishing related to the catch were put under investigation.

Shark fins seized by IBAMA, Brazil’s federal environmental agency. Image courtesy of IBAMA.

The confiscation also raised the issue of the widespread consumption of shark meat in Brazil itself; most of it is sold under the umbrella name of cação, or dogfish in Portuguese, without distinguishing the species it comes from. According to marine conservation group Sea Shepherd Brazil, which has called for a ban on the shark fin trade and shark meat imports, the country consumes about 45,000 metric tons of cação per year, of which about 20,000 metric tons comes from the blue shark (Prionace glauca), a species listed as near-threatened. This year, it was listed in Appendix II of CITES, the global convention on the wildlife trade, which covers species that could become threatened if trade is unregulated.

An entire Bolivian town becomes a reserve to protect its condors

In August, Laderas Norte, a small town in southern Bolivia, passed a municipal law turning itself into a reserve for Andean condors (Vultur gryphus), a symbolic species in the country but also a threatened one.

The community decided to take the step after 34 Andean condors were found dead in the municipality in 2021; the government called for a period of national mourning after the event. The condors were the unintended victims of human-wildlife conflict: local farms angry about pumas preying on their livestock had left out poisoned bait to kill the cats. It was the birds who ended up eating the bait.

An Andean condor flying over the protected area. Image courtesy of the Nativa Foundation.

Laderas Norte became the first rural/municipal protected area for condors, including the community’s entire land area of 3,296 hectares (8,145 acres). The reserve also protects a stand of white quebracho trees (Aspidosperma quebracho-blanco), a species characteristic of the Chaco region, a vast scrubland ecosystem. Despite its small size, which won’t grant comprehensive protection for a species that roams over much larger areas daily, the Quebracho and Condor Natural Reserve is symbolic, experts say, as a community’s immediate response to an environmental tragedy.

A Brazilian state moves to tackle its cattle-related deforestation problem

The Brazilian state of Pará, where about 40% of all deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon since 2001 has occurred, announced it would increase its monitoring of cattle ranching, by far the biggest driver of forest clearance. A new mandatory traceability program aims to keep track of the millions of head of cattle in the state and help tackle deforestation and reduce carbon emissions. About 24% of the world’s annual tropical deforestation can be traced back to Brazilian cattle ranching, according to The Nature Conservancy. Cattle ranching overall accounts for 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

But monitoring cattle has long been difficult across Latin America, due to complicated supply chains, lack of documentation, and a general climate of opacity. Tagging cattle is also rife with counterfeiting and fraud.

Cattle ranching is the primary driver of forest destruction in the Brazilian Amazon today. Image by Marizilda Cruppe /EVE / Greenpeace.

Pará’s plan is to tag and monitor all cattle passing through the state by December 2025, and the state’s entire 24-million-strong herd by December 2026. The plan covers an area bigger than France, Spain and Norway combined, and includes 295,000 ranches. Tagging will allow authorities to reconcile ranch data with cattle movement information. This is the country’s first mandatory cattle-tracing initiative focused on the environment.

Earlier in the year, the Brazilian Bank Federation (FEBRABAN) passed new rules for issuing loans to meatpackers and slaughterhouses in Amazonian states. Banks must require that customers, both direct and indirect cattle suppliers, follow measures to combat deforestation, including a traceability and monitoring system that will enable them to prove by December 2025 that the cattle they buy isn’t associated with illegal deforestation.

French banks accused of money laundering for cattle-related deforestation

In November, a coalition of NGOs called for a criminal investigation into alleged money laundering and concealment by four French banks, based on their financing of leading Brazilian meat companies JBS and Marfrig. The complaint, filed with the French National Financial Prosecutor’s Office, was the first one made against French banks for funding and profiting from deforestation.

The NGOs said the meat companies hadn’t done enough to prevent cattle grazed in illegally deforested areas from entering their supply chains. They also said the banks funding them could be held criminally liable for endorsing deforestation, which is illegal in both France and Brazil.

Between 2013 and 2021, the banks involved — BNP Paribas, Crédit Agricole, BPCE and AXA — invested nearly $70 million combined in Marfrig and JBS, and made $11.7 million in profits.

The case took several years to prepare and is based on field research by the Center for Climate Crime Analysis, which analyzed environmental, commercial and satellite data, as well as information on animal supplier farms and protected and public areas in the Amazon.

If found guilty, the banks could be banned from working for the French state and their directors could be held liable. The NGOs expect the case to last at least two to three years.

Quilombola communities take Brazilian mining company to court overseas

Afro-Brazilian quilombola communities in the state of Bahia have gone through the English courts to seek compensation from Brazil Iron Limited, the U.K.-registered parent company of Brazil Iron Mineração, which they accuse of impacting their lives for more than a decade. The complaint includes claims of air and noise pollution and physical and psychological damage from the company’s mining operations next to their land. While the company has halted its operations at the moment after being ordered to for permit violations, residents say they fear the mining could soon resume.

Working with a U.K. law office, 80 community members filed the lawsuit on the grounds that Brazil Iron violated environmental requirements and wrought psychological and physical distress on the surrounding communities. It’s the first time the community has turned to a foreign jurisdiction to seek justice, after first trying to go through the Brazilian courts but being disappointed by the high costs and long waiting times.

Brazil Iron’s mining operations slice through a hill in the rural heart of the state of Bahia, leaving a grey scar across the vegetation-clad slopes. Two houses are situated in the foreground close to the mine. Image by Rodrigo Wanderley.

The law office also obtained a temporary injunction against Brazil Iron, prohibiting it from approaching community members, after they complained they had been intimidated. After the company broke those terms by sending letters to community members offering free medical examinations, the U.K. High Court ordered Brazil Iron to pay the claimants’ legal costs. Brazil Iron has rejected all the accusations.

Before the communities’ complaints can even be heard in court, however, the court must first determine whether it has jurisdiction over the case. The dispute will be heard in July 2024.

Oil extraction stopped in one of the world’s most biodiverse places

In August, Ecuador voted to stop all future oil drilling inside Yasuní National Park, in an area known as Yasuní-ITT, which hosts critical ecosystems and Indigenous communities living in isolation. More than 5.2 million people voted in favor of protecting the area from extractive industries.

The referendum focused on whether to close an oil block called Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT), where there are currently 12 oil platforms and 230 wells producing around 57,000 barrels of oil per day.

The Yasuní-ITT initiative was created in 2007 as an area where drilling would be prohibited as long as the international community compensated Ecuador for the opportunity cost of forgoing extraction, estimated at about $3.6 billion. But the plan failed, and by 2013, state-run oil company Petroecuador was pushing to start up oil extraction in the area.

The Porto Mirando oil platform run by PetroAmazonas, which lies along the border of the Yasuni National Park in what is known as Block 43, or ITT. Image by Kimberley Brown for Mongabay.

The 2023 referendum was more specific than an earlier one, in 2018, which was seen as insufficient in stopping oil extraction. Voters back then were asked whether the oil should “remain in the subsoil” indefinitely in Yasuní-ITT.

Following the latest vote, officials need to wind down all activity in the block over the next year and can’t authorize new oil exploration.

European Union passes historic law to track deforestation

On June 29, the European Union’s new regulation aiming to tackle deforestation and forest degradation came into force. Companies have until the end of 2024 to comply with the EU Deforestation Regulation (EUDR) and ensure that products they import into the bloc aren’t associated with deforestation at any point in the supply chain.

The law covers cattle, cocoa, palm oil, rubber, soy and wood, as well as commodities such as leather, chocolate, printed paper and furniture. Companies will be obligated to submit due diligence reports demonstrating the origin of their products and that they’ve complied with national policies on human rights and impacts on Indigenous peoples in the countries from which these products originate.

Exporting countries will be categorized according to their deforestation risk; checks for countries with high deforestation risk will be based on geolocation data, satellite monitoring and DNA analysis to trace product origin. Failure to comply could cost companies a fine or at least 4% of their annual turnover.

Critics of the law have warned its scope is insufficient for tackling deforestation; the EUDR doesn’t cover imports of biomass, such as wood pellets, or vulnerable ecosystems outside rainforests, such as the Brazilian Cerrado.

In Panama, pressure from civil society leads to copper mine closure

This November, Panama’s Supreme Court ruled that the concession contract between the government and the company running the country’s biggest copper mine, Cobre Panama, was unconstitutional, which means the mine will have to shut down.

Located in the province of Colón, near the Caribbean coast, the mine, which has operated since 2019, has been accused of contaminating rivers and affecting local ecosystems and the 15,000 people who live in the area. In 2022, the mine’s production accounted for 5% of Panama’s GDP; it employs more than 2% of the country’s workforce.

In October, the government renegotiated a contract with Minera Panama to increase the royalties paid by the company by about six times compared to what it paid in 2021 and to extend the concession by another 20 years. That sparked widespread protests, as people claimed the contract allowed the mine to continue damaging the environment and threatening water resources. Its critics also said the mine was taking away water that could have gone to the Panama Canal, the country’s economic lifeline, already in trouble because of an ongoing drought.

Protests against the copper mine in Panama. Image courtesy of Carlos Herrera/Re:Wild.

In response to the protests, President Laurentino Cortizo announced a referendum on the topic, but then shifted direction to wait for the Supreme Court’s decision.

The National Assembly also extended the moratorium on all mining concessions in the country, including pending ones. This could bring Panama closer to becoming free of legal mining activities.

Deforestation in the Amazon slowed down

An analysis at the end of the year showed that deforestation in the Amazon has gone down by 55.8% compared to the same period last year. According to the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), the total primary forest loss from January to the start of November was 911,740 hectares (2.25 million acres) compared with 2.062,939 hectares (5.10 million acres) in the same period last year across all Amazonian countries.

Brazil recorded 59% less primary forest loss, Colombia 66.5%, Peru 37%, and Bolivia 60%.

But earlier in the year, experts warned that deforestation levels in the region remained much higher than in the early to mid-2010s, while the rainforest has been experiencing a severe drought, partially attributed to historical deforestation.

In Brazil, the drop in deforestation was attributed mainly to environmental policies enacted by the new president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. But at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai, despite verbal commitments to fighting climate change, Brazil also joined OPEC+, a group of 23 oil-exporting countries, raising concerns among environmentalists.

Banner image: Bigai Reserve in the Western Amazon. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

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