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Brazil’s environmental David fights Congress’s agribusiness Goliath: Interview with Nilto Tatto

  • Nilto Tatto heads the environmental caucus in Brazil’s lower house of Congress, where the government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has suffered key legislative setbacks at the hands of the well-funded and organized agribusiness caucus.
  • Tatto attributes the challenges to the more conservative candidates voted in at the 2022 elections, and the drop-off in international pressure and civil society scrutiny following Lula’s return to the presidency.
  • He acknowledges the uphill task of taking on the powerful agribusiness lobby, saying the administration will never have a majority vote on environmental issues, and adds there needs to be a stronger civil society movement inside Brazil and abroad to put pressure on Congress.
  • In an interview with Mongabay, Tatto also refutes the claim that given its weakened position, the administration is using the environmental agenda as a bargaining chip to get its economic plans approved.

The first year of the new presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was a tale of two Brazils: In the Amazon, federal agents were finally cracking back down on land grabbers and illegal gold miners following the cycle of impunity that had become the norm under the previous president, Jair Bolsonaro. But in the capital, Brasília, the agribusiness lobby steamrolled its agenda through a compliant Congress, whose agriculture caucus, the FPA or Bancada Ruralista, easily passed two of the four bills that make up what critics call the “Destruction Package” — legislation aimed at weakening environmental protections and Indigenous rights in Brazil.

The marco temporal or “time frame” bill imposed a cutoff date on Indigenous land claims, making it even more difficult to demarcate Indigenous territories, and opened the latter up to mining and agribusiness — in clear violation of the Constitution. The bill passed but was vetoed by Lula, only for Congress to overturn that veto. The same thing appears likely to happen with the vetoes the “poison bill,” which largely deregulations the approvals and use of pesticides, and which Lula has similarly vetoed.

Lula’s coalition, led by his Workers’ Party (PT), also watched as the FPA passed bills making it easier to repave the BR-319 highway that cuts through the Amazon, and establishing the framework for a carbon market that exempts the agribusiness sector from emissions caps. Both bills were approved in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, and are now awaiting a vote in the Senate.

The task of pushing back against the agribusiness machine belongs to Nilto Tatto, a PT deputy and coordinator of the Chamber’s environmental caucus. In a video interview with Mongabay’s Fernanda Wenzel, Tatto refutes the claim by NGOs that the Lula administration has used the environmental agenda as a bargaining chip to gain approval for its economic agenda: “This bargaining-chip claim is untrue.”

Tatto links the 2023 defeats in Congress to the presidential and congressional elections of 2022: By ousting Bolsonaro, the outcome also meant a drop-off in international pressure on Brazil’s environmental policies. The congressional polls, meanwhile, ushered in more members to the swelling ranks of the FPA.

“[Congress] needs to feel influence from the outside in … If not, we will face off in the Chamber and the Senate and lose, then President Lula will veto, and at the first opportunity, Congress will override the veto and the bill will be made into law,” Tatto tells Mongabay.

Since March 2023, Tatto has led a group of some 60 members of the Chamber and the Senate, representing about 10% of all congressional seats. The FPA, meanwhile, represents 57% of seats. The massive imbalance between the two caucuses also extends to their funding: While the environmental caucus depends on nonprofit volunteers to staff small team of experts, the FPA is backed by a full team of lobbyists from an institute called Pensar Agro (“Think Agro”). Known as the IPA, it’s lavishly financed by Brazil’s large agribusiness players.

Tatto, who before being elected to Congress worked for Indigenous organizations like Instituto Socioambiental (ISA) and the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations in the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB), says another tough year looms ahead. The last two bills in the “Destruction Package” are expected to come to a vote in the coming months: the “land grab” bill, which would effectively legitimize the theft of invaded public lands, and a bill easing the environmental licensing process.

In an hour-long interview on Jan. 18, Tatto spoke of Lula’s lack of political alliances on environmental issues, and about strategies for taking on the FPA. The following interview was translated from Portuguese and edited for clarity.

Mongabay: Despite all the environmental policy setbacks that happened during Bolsonaro’s term, it was still possible to hold back Congressional approval of the “Destruction Package.” What happened during the first year of the Lula administration?

Nilto Tatto: During the most difficult period under the Bolsonaro administration, we were able to raise much more pressure from the outside. First of all, this was because Congress, even though it was bad, was better than it is today. The voters who elected President Lula elected just 130 of the 513 members of the Chamber, so we are weaker in Congress today than we were in the previous legislature. Also, back then, we, like the civil society, had more capacity and a higher level of organization and influence — which on certain agendas even had international clout — that helped keep certain other agendas from moving forward. It was all very well coordinated, with pressure from overseas, from civil society, and with much work being carried out by people inside Congress. And when we needed to, we could call on the judicial branch.

That’s what the scenario was like back then. These days, things are different. We have a more conservative Congress. The FPA has never been as strong as it is in this legislature — and it was always the largest caucus in terms of political clout inside Congress. We also don’t have the same amount of pressure coming from nonprofit organizations because it’s clear that we have a president who implemented all of civil society’s agendas in his policy; it’s all built around taking on the climate crisis.

We are very pleased about what is going on in the executive branch. But the situation is different inside Congress. The bills that we managed to hold back as the resistance are flying through Congress today because the FPA is more organized. When [a bill] gets to the executive branch, the president vetoes it, but then they [the FPA] have the power to override that veto in Congress.

It’s a completely different reality, very challenging. We have been debating over this within the environmental caucus. We need to bring back pressure from society on the environmental agenda, which is not aimed at blocking growth — to the contrary. This is an agenda that offers opportunities for Brazil and security in terms of the actual existence of agriculture when we look at the impacts of climate change [impacts] on agribusiness. The FPA itself needs to look carefully at this agenda, but it’s not easy because the current head of the FPA has a short-term outlook. She can’t understand the issues that the agribusiness sector itself is already feeling: the impacts affecting productivity, and [trade] threats to Brazilian exports if the farming and cattle sectors continues to cut down the rainforest and invade Indigenous territories or territories belonging to traditional communities.

Mongabay: Would you say that the dismantling done by ex-president Bolsonaro brought the international spotlight onto Brazil, increasing pressure on Congress?

Nilto Tatto: Yes, and there is yet another factor at play. Bolsonaro dismantled the entire monitoring and surveillance system. One of the main instruments for control was imposing fines, and he pardoned a good share of the fines. It wasn’t just because of us that those projects were held back during the period. Their approval also wasn’t on the FPA’s list of priorities, since they were managing to do everything they wanted through the executive branch. Today, we have an executive branch that is monitoring, imposing fines, and removing squatters from Indigenous territories, therefore the FPA needs to force the federal government to stop what it’s doing so it can get back to what it had been doing under the Bolsonaro administration.

Lula had promised to defend Indigenous peoples but has seen the Brazilian Congress aprove the Marco Temporal bill in his first year in office. Image courtesy of Ricardo Stuckert/Presidência da República.

Mongabay: But there are also civil society organizations accusing the Lula administration of using the environmental agenda as a bargaining chip for approval of priority projects like tax reform.

Nilto Tatto: This bargaining-chip claim is untrue. [Among the congressional leaders], members list the projects that need to be voted on and the group agrees on which have priority for a vote. The president of the Chamber has the final say. So when it goes up for a vote, there need to be [enough] votes. The government objected to the vote of the time frame bill, so saying it was a bargaining chip is untrue. On the contrary, President [Lula] would not have vetoed the project. And there are situations like the carbon market bill, in which we placed a number of highlights in the bill. But if we were to vote on the highlights, we would have lost them all and the carbon credit bill wouldn’t have been voted on at all.

We decided that it was important that Brazil have a carbon credit project, which is one more tool for taking on the climate crisis. And agribusiness placed absurd criteria for approval, with which we disagree. But if we were to vote, we would have lost the highlights because we don’t have the votes. It’s important to note that the government built a base that will never work for our agenda when the short-term, direct interests of agribusiness are involved. This is because they get together and form a majority. The FPA aligns itself with the evangelical front and the security front. They form a caucus of three that votes as one on the issues that are important to each group. We don’t have that.

Mongabay: So the alliances that President Lula formed inside Congress may work for certain agendas like the economic agenda, but when the topic is the environment, these Congress members will never vote with the government?

Nilto Tatto: No, they won’t. Anything that confronts their model, which questions the expansionist agriculture model involving the intensive use of chemicals, the spread to new areas of land … this is where they stand together. It doesn’t matter if there are Congress members inside the FPA who are more linked with exports, who are concerned with climate change and Brazil’s image overseas, with trade … at the end of the day, they stand together to defend their agenda. We know we will never have the majority on these agendas.

Mongabay: What sort of structure does the environmental caucus have inside Congress today?

Nilto Tatto: The team we have that’s exclusively dedicated for our caucus, aside from the congress members and their consultants, is composed of an executive secretary and a journalist. In truth, they aren’t part of the group’s organized structure; rather, they are provided through support from our partner organizations. The caucus is run not only by deputies and senators, but also nonprofit organizations that work together to provide us with a person to help with the secretariat and also the press. Depending on the topic, we also rally support from the NGOs to create reports, statements, studies … anything that helps out our work in Congress.

Mongabay: Is it a very different structure from what the FPA has?

Nilto Tatto: Yes, without a doubt. The FPA created an institution to support its coalition: the IPA. We have nothing like this. And the IPA is funded by every branch of the farming and cattle industries. They contribute to the FPA’s structure every month. The growers’ associations — soybean, corn, sugarcane, grain, and so forth — pay monthly to maintain a structure, an economic power and capacity for intervention inside Congress that no other congressional coalition holds. We are unable to do the same. In the environmental caucus, we have much more militant work and use the support of what is organized by civil society.

Mongabay: What do you mean by an institutionalized lobby?

Nilto Tatto: A legal entity with a tax number and a structure. The IPA was created to fund the FPA. It’s an organized lobby that created an institution so they would be able to hire people to make statements, consultants, journalists, and provide other types of support for members of Congress. Those who are part of the FPA probably receive as much funding from the coalition as their cabinet allowance, which is the support allocated to each member of Congress, including employees and funding to perform their congressional duties like air travel, communication, an office … the strength and structure they’ve put together through the IPA make it as if the Congress members in the FPA receive an extra cabinet allowance.

Mongabay: What is your perspective on this year, given the scenario? We are expecting to have votes on important bills like environmental licensing and land grabbing.

Nilto Tatto: If we let this debate be settled inside Congress, with its relationship with the government, no matter how concerned the government is with the environmental agenda, it won’t come out well for the challenges and opportunities Brazil is facing on the environmental agenda. We need to organize pressure from the outside in, and I think the climate events we are already seeing will help favor this debate in society.

We need to translate what studies have already shown: that more than 80% of the population believes that the large events we are experiencing — severe drought [in the Amazon], and heavy rains in Rio de Janeiro and Rio Grande do Sul — are consequences of climate changes. We need to transform this into political clout that places pressure on Congress. To make members of Congress not vote just because there is an interest placed there by the agribusiness sector driven by the IPA or FPA. They need to feel this influence from the outside in, and we need to be organized about it. If not, we will face off in the Chamber and the Senate and lose, then President Lula will veto, and at the first opportunity, Congress will override the veto and the bill will be made law.

Mongabay: Do you think this is the best strategy given the power the FPA has?

Nilto Tatto: I think this is the way. Most of the members of Congress who make up the environmental caucus work on this full time, participating in activities, organizing public hearings and rallies. But we are lacking structure. We don’t need something the size of the IPA, but something that would enable us to mobilize people, including in the press. Who are the main advertisers in Brazil’s major media? The companies in the agribusiness chain, or in finance, which leverages the agribusiness chain. Sure, there’s a journalist here and there in the mainstream media who defends environmentalism, but when it comes down to it, they support agribusiness interests. Just take a look at Globo, Record, Bandeirantes and so on. This is a market, and the media will not take part in any confrontation that goes against its advertisers.

Banner image: Nilto Tatto, a PT deputy and coordinator of the Chamber’s environmental caucus. Image courtesy of Zeca Ribeiro/ Câmara dos Deputados.

This interview was conducted by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on Jan. 31, 2024.

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