- Agribusiness giants in the soy, beef, cotton and pesticides industries, among others, maintain a strong lobbying presence in Brazil’s Congress that offers advisory, technical and communication support to “ruralist” legislators.
- Central to these lobbying efforts is Pensar Agro (“thinking agribusiness”), or IPA, the think tank behind newly passed legislation like the so-called time frame bill that undermines Indigenous land rights and opens up the territories to mining and agribusiness.
- The institute’s strategy includes spreading fake news and crafting talking points for legislators from the agribusiness caucus to force through their bills.
Throughout 2023, the agribusiness caucus in Brazil’s Congress racked up several wins in the form of bills pushing back against the environmental agenda of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. These included the marco temporal, or time frame, legislation, which imposes a cutoff date for Indigenous land claims. The caucus also successfully passed legislation slashing regulations on pesticides.
Other bills have been approved by the lower house, known as the Chamber of Deputies, but are still pending review by the Senate. One of these is a proposed framework for a carbon market that would exempt emissions from the agribusiness sector, while another is legislation that would facilitate the reconstruction of BR-319, the highway between the Amazonian cities of Manaus and Porto Velho, which critics say would boost deforestation in the rainforest.
Most of the bills passed or poised to pass were championed by the Brazilian agribusiness lobby. Yet even under the highly favorable presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, from 2o19-2022, they failed to pass much of their agenda. But the 2022 election that saw the far-right Bolsonaro lose to the progressive Lula also created the perfect storm to set the agribusiness agenda into motion. Brazil elected a conservative Congress, which has managed to dominate Lula’s weak legislative base. Despite green speeches, vetoes by the president and rulings from the Supreme Court against bills deemed anti-environmental or anti-Indigenous, the caucus kept winning throughout 2023.
Those victories, however, didn’t happen overnight.
The agribusiness caucus has relied heavily on a think tank to draw up its talking points and strategies aimed at overcoming the environmental front: an institute called Pensar Agro (“thinking agro”), or IPA.
The institute convenes strategic alignment meetings, has advisers permanently lobbying in Congress, writes bills, and pays journalists to influence the public debate, including the spread of fake news. “There is no sector that compares to the agricultural sector [when it comes to lobbying strength],” Caio Victor Vieira, an expert in governmental relations at the climate policy think tank Talanoa who is deeply familiar with the workings of Congress, told Mongabay by phone.
The IPA’s mission is to orient the work of the agribusiness caucus, also known as FPA, a powerful group of lawmakers who control 63% of seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 62% in the Senate. Its opponent, the environmental caucus, has around 10%. “The FPA approves whatever they want in the National Congress,” Suely Araújo, a senior public policy adviser at the civil society coalition Climate Observatory, told Mongabay by phone.
The IPA has always managed to stay out of the spotlight despite its direct influence on the course of Brazilian politics — including in the impeachment of then-president Dilma Rousseff in 2016. “It was designed to operate predominantly behind the scenes of politics, which makes it significantly opaque to public opinion,” anthropologist Caio Pompeia wrote in his 2022 study “An ethnography of the Instituto Pensar Agropecuária,” for which he spent six months following the IPA’s work at its headquarters.
The relationship between the agribusiness caucus and the IPA is so intimate that both share the same address : a mansion in South Lake, one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Brazil’s capital, Brasília. The IPA is financed by 48 agribusiness association s representing different sectors — soy, beef, cotton, pesticides, sugarcane, cellulose — including powerful organizations like the National Confederation of Agriculture (CNA).
Most of these organizations are in turn backed by large multinational companies. According to a report from De Olho Nos Ruralistas, a watchdog for the agribusiness sector, the companies with the most influence in these associations — and, therefore, on the IPA — are the beef industry giant JBS, animal feed producer Agroceres, German pesticide behemoth BASF, and the U.S. soy trader Cargill.
“In addition to their political strength, with a majority in Congress, they have economic strength, with the support of large corporations,” Dinaman Tuxá, a lawyer and executive coordinator of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), the country’s biggest Indigenous organization, told Mongabay by phone.
Beyond its economic power, the IPA reigns on creating consensus between dozens of sectors and companies with different interests, which in turn allows the FPA to act like a monolith. “Their strongest suit is this standardization of the narrative through consensus building, and the IPA is who does this job,” said Araújo, a former head of IBAMA, Brazil’s federal environmental agency.
“Even if they have some disagreements in private, from the door of the office outward, it’s a very unique discourse and that’s what brings strength into Congress,” Vieira said.
There’s a consensus reached every Monday, when IPA staff meet with the representatives of the associations to assess the current political situation and decide priorities. On Tuesday morning, it’s the time for the IPA and FPA bigwigs to sit together. That meeting is followed by a traditional lunch that also brings in other FPA members and key politicians from the administration ; during their respective presidencies, Bolsonaro and his predecessor, Michel Temer , joined some of these meetings. After lunch, they all return to their positions “to execute on the public stage what has been planned behind the scenes,” as Pompeia, a researcher at the University of São Paulo (USP), wrote in his paper.
According to Pompeia, the IPA’s technical staff are always in the halls of Congress, feeding legislators with the information and arguments needed to approve the bills that are a priority for the agribusiness associations. “It’s organized, institutionalized lobbying,” said Nilto Tatto, coordinator of the Chamber of Deputies’ environmental caucus. “It’s as if the FPA parliamentarians had an extra office, such is the structure they have set up through the IPA,” he said in a video call with Mongabay.
The IPA even drafts bills, Araújo said. “The IPA got involved in each work of the Poison Bill,” she added, referring to the new law that slashed regulations on pesticides. It was approved in December last year, and had some of its controversial articles vetoed by President Lula. The vetoes may be overridden by Congress, however, as happened with the time frame bill.
“They have a structure of advisers and lawyers that we can’t even get close to,” Tuxá said. In May last year, news outlet Intercept Brasil obtained copies of manuals distributed by the IPA to deputies to teach them how to defend the time frame bill. The booklet included talking points tailored to guide lawmakers in debates and interviews, including that the law would “provide legal safety in relation to property rights.” The argument was replicated in the speeches of several deputies. “It seems they’ve set up a team to monitor and act against Indigenous peoples,” Tuxá said.
To face such an imbalance of power, APIB relies on pressure from the international community. “One of our strategies is to take action in the international market, calling for those companies that commit crimes against Indigenous peoples to be penalized,” Tuxá said. Tatto, the environmental caucus deputy, follows a similar playbook, saying that pressure from civil society is the only way to change the course of the votes in Congress: “More than 80% of the population believes that these major events we are witnessing are a consequence of climate change. We need to translate it into political force, to put pressure on Congress from the outside.”
Fake news campaigns
What’s now a fancy mansion in Brasília’s South Lake began as a small office maintained by representatives from the soy and cotton trades, along with a small group of FPA members. The first major flexing of the IPA’s muscles was in 2010, when it lobbied in favor of a bill introducing a new forest code bill. The bill defined, among other things, the percentage of land that could be exploited in each biome.
The impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in 2016 was another step toward strengthening the IPA, which has increased its staff and taken new roles over the years. “The IPA has been modernizing. As well as advising Congress, it has also started to shape public opinion and even influence diplomatic issues,” said Vieira from Talanoa.
In April last year, investigative reporting outlet Agência Pública showed that the institute financed a campaign on Twitter and Instagram against the Landless Workers Movement (MST), a group that calls for land reform in Brazil and is seen as the nemesis of agribusiness. “Whoever invades land also invades your home, invades your table,” one of the videos shared on social media said. During deliberations of the time frame bill, the IPA shared a video on WhatsApp saying that ordinary people could lose their homes to Indigenous communities if the bill wasn’t approved — a lie revealed by the newsmagazine piauí. “They try to portray Indigenous peoples in a very negative light, saying that we are against development, that we are a step backward,” Tuxá said.
An analysis by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro’s Netlab and published by Agência Pública showed the IPA spent more than 77,700 reais (nearly $15,800) for 207 posts on social media from January to November 2023. Of these, 45% had disinformative, decontextualized and distorted content, including posts that minimized the negative impacts of the agribusiness sector.
Despite all the IPA’s efforts, Brazilian civil society and the environmental caucus were able to hold off the approval of the time frame and poison bills during the four years of the Bolsonaro government. Bolsonaro told the members of the ruralist caucus that “the government was theirs.” That’s why the approval of both bills in the first year of the Lula presidency — which has publicly committed itself to the Indigenous and environmental agendas — came as a shock for many. “We were taken by surprise,” Tuxá said.
Araújo, from the Climate Observatory, said Lula’s support base in Congress is too weak. “When you put a bill like this to the vote, the ruralists are going to win. So you have to prevent them from coming to a vote,” she said.
At the same time, Lula needs the FPA’s support to approve measures it considers priorities, like tax reform, Vieira said. “And the environmental agenda is the one the government has chosen to use as a bargaining chip,” he said.
Tatto, a member of Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT), denied this was the case: “It’s false that it’s a bargaining chip.” He attributed the legislative defeats throughout 2023 to the expansion of the agribusiness caucus after the 2022 election and the reduction of the pressure from civil society after Bolsonaro left office. “Today, we don’t have so much pressure because we have a government that has included all the agendas that came from civil society in the government plan,” he said.
Both the poison and the time frame bills are part of the so-called “destruction package,” a set of bills aimed at loosening Brazilian environmental regulations and undermining the rights of traditional populations. Still up for passage from the package are bills that critics say will legitimize land grabs (bills PL 2.633 and 510), and one that weakens environmental licensing requirements (PL 3729/04).
“What we try to do is publicize the issue as much as possible so that there is pressure on Congress from the outside, as well as a lot of day-to-day battles in Congress,” Araújo said. “We do what we can, but it would be essential to guarantee a stronger position from the executive in defense of these agendas.”
Mongabay sent requests for an interview to the IPA and the FPA, but didn’t receive any response as of the time this story was published.
Banner image: A harvester harvesting soy in Brazil. Image by charlesricardo via Pixabay (Public domain).
Pompeia, C. (2022). An ethnography of the Instituto Pensar Agropecuária. Mana, 28(2), 1-33. doi:10.1590/1678-49442022v28n2a206
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