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Agribusiness bill moves to block grassland protections in Brazilian biomes

  • The Brazilian Congress is analyzing a bill that would leave all the country’s non-forestry vegetation unprotected, affecting an area twice the size of the United Kingdom.
  • Behind the proposal are the interests of economic sectors such as agribusiness and real estate companies.
  • The most affected biome would be the Pantanal wetlands, a Natural World Heritage Site known for its highly biodiverse grasslands and flooded fields.

A bill framed to benefit a particular group of rural producers was morphed into a drastic change to the Brazilian Forest Code with the potential of destroying 48 million hectares (118.6 million acres) — an area twice the size of the United Kingdom — of native vegetation all over the country. If approved, the legislation (called PL 364/2019) will allow the conversion of all non-forestry areas for activities such as agriculture, cattle ranching and tree plantations.

The bill, approved March 20 by a lower house commission, was initially proposed in 2019 by the ruralist federal deputy Alceu Moreira (MDB). It was framed to benefit farmers from a specific region of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’s southernmost state, who occupy mountaintop fields of the Atlantic Forest and want the region to be excluded from the more restricted environmental framework of the Atlantic Forest Law.

But the supercharged ruralist caucus, which has been piling up victories during President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s administration, managed to twist the bill so that all “formations of predominantly non-forest native vegetation” would be considered areas of “human occupation” and therefore, open to exploitation. The only requirement is that the land had been used for any rural activity at some point before July 2008.

According to the federal deputy who proposed the change, José Mário Schreiner (MDB), the measure would “standardize understandings and avoid misinterpretations, providing legal certainty and peace of mind for producers.”

The strategy of introducing controversial legislative changes into somewhat-related bills is so common in Brazil that it even has a name: jabuticaba, a native Brazil blackberry.

The PL 364/2019 bill was approved by a commission of the Brazilian Congress lower house, in another victory for the agribusiness caucus. Image courtesy of Bruno Spada/Deputies Chamber.

“It was a bit of a surprise how quickly it was voted on,” Antônio Oviedo, public policy analyst at Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), a Brazilian organization that defends traditional peoples, told Mongabay. Experts say the rush favors agribusiness, which will benefit from weakening the protection of these areas, especially amid an increase in environmental surveillance in the Amazon.

“There is this interest in expanding the agricultural frontier into less conflicted areas. When close to urban centers, these areas also have real estate interests,” he said.

According to SOS Mata Atlântica, a Brazilian nonprofit that advocates for the Atlantic Forest, the new wording of the bill “removes all legal protection from the native grasslands of all the country’s biomes,” allowing it to be freely converted for activities such as agriculture, planted pastures, and mining without any limitation.

The NGO’s note concluded that the Pantanal wetlands, a Natural World Heritage Site known for the richness of its wildlife, would be the most affected by the measure. The biome’s natural grasslands and flooded fields, which cover 7.4 million hectares (18.3 million acres) and represent 50% of the Pantanal’s area, would be left unprotected.

According to SOS Mata Atlântica, the bill would also impact 32% of the Pampa grasslands (6.3 million hectares or 15.6 million acres), 7% of the Cerrado, the world’s most biodiverse savanna (13.9 million hectares or 34.3 million acres), and around 4% of the Amazon, where native grasslands are mostly concentrated in Roraima state. Despite the small percentage, it means 15 million hectares (37 million acres) of the Amazon, an area larger than New York state, would be impacted.

“Bill 364/2019 is the biggest of all the cattle herds against all Brazilian biomes. It frees up deforestation throughout the country to defend private interests,” Malu Ribeiro, director of public policy at the SOS Mata Atlântica Foundation, wrote on Twitter (X), referring to an expression that became a synonym for environmental deregulation after former President Jair Bolsonaro’s government.

“Brazil cannot sacrifice everything in the name of development at any cost,” the civil society coalition Climate Observatory also tweeted. “It is a threat to a country that seeks to be a global leader in the preservation of its biomes.”

The importance of grasslands

The environmental role of native grasslands is often underestimated according to WWF-Brasil public policy especialist Clarissa Presotti. “Native grasslands are important for maintaining biodiversity, harboring a variety of species adapted to these specific environments, such as grasses, herbaceous plants and shrubs,” she told Mongabay. “These areas also play an essential role in protecting the soil from erosion, recharging underground aquifers and regulating the hydrological cycle.”

The Cerrado, for example, is known as Brazil’s water tank since eight out of 12 of the country’s major river basins and three of its aquifers rely on this biome for much of their water. Native grasslands are also great carbon storages, and their destruction may aggravate the impacts of climate change.

The Cerrado savanna, 7% of which would beaffected by the bill, is known as the Brazilian water tank for its role in assuring water for Brazil. Image by Marizilda Cruppe/Greenpeace.

Oviedo noted that these areas are also essential to avoid major floods in urban areas. “When these grasslands are close to bodies of water, they dampen the floods, absorbing that pulse of flooding and gradually returning it to the river.”

Not even protections provided by the Brazilian Forest Code, such as the legal reserve (a parcel of private properties that must be preserved) and the permanent preservation areas (like river banks), were spared by the bill, which doesn’t impose any limit on clearance.

By stating it would overlap “conflicting provisions contained in sparse legislation, including those that refer only to part of the national territory,” the new legislation also ends up with the Atlantic Forest Law, which establishes stricter rules in the country’s most endangered biome.

According to SOS Mata Atlântica, precisely this protection “allowed the biome not only to achieve low levels of deforestation, which reached close to zero in some states in the years before the Bolsonaro administration, but also induced a net increase in the areas covered with remnants.”

It is still uncertain whether the bill will be put to a vote in the Chamber of Deputies before going to the Senate. Civil society, however, believes it will need a lot of pressure to avoid its approval by Congress.

“As the scenario and the legislature’s composition is very unfavorable to the environmental agenda, a major mobilization campaign will be needed to engage people so that they put pressure on parliamentarians to vote against the bill,” said Presoti from WWF.

Banner image: Fifty percent of the Pantanal wetlands, which are already endangered by the advance of agribusiness, would be affected by the approval of the PL 364/2019 bill. Image by Sarah Brown for Mongabay.

Meet the think tank behind the agribusiness’ legislative wins in Brazil

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