Site icon Conservation news

Brazil’s new pro-agribusiness pesticide law threatens Amazon biodiversity

Experts warn that uncontrolled pesticide spraying from planes is one of the main concerns for Amazonian biodiversity. Image courtesy of Vinícius Mendonça/IBAMA.

  • A priority project of Brazil’s congressional agribusiness caucus, the so-called Poison Bill eases restrictions on the sale and use of a wide range of agrochemicals dangerous to humans and the environment.
  • The bill went into effect as the use of pesticides banned long ago in the European Union exploded in the Brazilian Amazon.
  • In the rainforest, use of the fungicide mancozeb skyrocketed by 5,600%, and the use of the herbicide atrazine increased by 575% in just over a decade.
  • Experts warn that lax pesticide controls will worsen impacts at the edge of the Amazon, where the chemicals affect intact biodiversity and aggravate risks to Indigenous people, riverside communities and small farmers.

The agribusiness caucus in the Brazilian Congress has pushed several new bills since President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took office in January 2023. Taking advantage of a conservative majority in Congress, it has approved long-dreamed legislation slashing environmental regulations in favor of cattle ranching and farming, despite Lula’s green promises.

One of them took effect in late 2023: The so-called Poison Bill, which opened new doors for the approval, retail and use of pesticides by the world’s largest buyer of pesticides — including several substances banned in the European Union.

In discussion since 1991, the Brazilian Congress approved the bill in November 2023. The new pro-agribusiness regulation assigns exclusively to Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply the analysis of which pesticides can be used in the country. It also weakens the role of health and environmental agencies, relaxes the use of agrochemicals under consideration and establishes shorter registration deadlines.

President Lula signs new Indigenous territories with Brazil’s Environmental minister, Marina Silva, (left), Indigenous Peoples minister, Sonia Guajajara (at his right) and Funai’s president, Joenia Wapichana. The new pesticides law clashes with Lula’s green agenda. Image courtesy of Joédson Alves/Agência Brasil.

Pedro Lupion, the deputy coordinator of the agriculture caucus, the FPA, endorsed the new law as a way to “reduce bureaucracy and modernize pesticide policy.”

During Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency (2019-22), the agribusiness caucus set the bill as a priority, enjoying the favorable scenario as the far-right president backed any pro-agribusiness legislation. However, it didn’t go into a vote before Lula took office.

In the past 10 years, Brazil has increased its pesticide consumption by 78%, particularly in the Amazonian areas where the agricultural frontier is advancing. To experts, the Poison Bill is catastrophic: As well as increasing the risks to Indigenous people, riverine communities and small farmers, the legislation can devastate the Amazon Rainforest biodiversity.

“Pesticides are especially harmful at the edge of the Amazon Rainforest, where they affect an intact biodiversity, which suffers more to adapt,” Ricardo Theophilo Folhes, a researcher in geography and environmental sciences at the Center for Advanced Amazonian Studies at the Federal University of Pará, told Mongabay by phone. “Studies show that soil and water contamination is long-lasting, affecting entire chains.”

Experts say the scenario is alarming because agrochemical consumption has grown massively in the last years in the Arc of Deforestation, Amazon’s eastern and southern edges, which have topped deforestation and biodiversity loss rates in the last decades.

“It’s a disaster,” Larissa Mies Bombardi, a lecturer in geography at Brazil’s University of São Paulo and researcher in exile at Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, in France, told Mongabay by phone. “Pesticide consumption has exploded in the Brazilian Amazon. This increase in consumption includes substances that have long been banned in the European Union, which have terrible impacts.”

Without a majority in Congress, President Lula’s allies in the Senate failed to stop the deregulation of pesticides. Image courtesy of Jefferson Rudy/Agência Senado.

In 2021, during Bolsonaro’s administration, Bombardi was forced to seek exile in Europe after repeated intimidation and threats related to her report Atlas of Agrochemicals and Connections between Brazil and EU, which shows data on Brazil’s pesticide sector that refutes agribusiness allegations of safe practices and effective regulation on pesticides. In her recently released book, Pesticides and Chemical Colonialism, she writes that more than 80% of the pesticides consumed in Brazil involve just five crops: soybeans, corn, sugar cane, cotton, and pasture. All of them are present in the Arc of Deforestation.

According to Bombardi, consumption of the fungicide mancozeb skyrocketed by 5,600% in just over a decade. In the same period, the use of the herbicide atrazine in the Amazon region increased by 575%. Linked to cancer, infertility, spontaneous abortion and other human health problems, these two substances are banned in Europe but face fewer and fewer restrictions in Brazil. The application of glyphosate, a well-known chemical also linked to various diseases and environmental damages, grew by 218%.

“It’s a living nightmare,” Sonia Corina Hess, a chemical engineer and retired professor at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, told Mongabay by phone. “Dangerous pesticides are directly affecting human lives and the environment. There is violence associated with the use of agrochemicals, a chemical war that expels Amazonian populations from their lands and poisons all forms of life.”

“The new law only brought disadvantages,” Suely Araújo, public policy coordinator at the Climate Observatory, a network of civil society organizations, told Mongabay by phone. “We have lost the express ban on substances that are carcinogenic, mutagenic, teratogenic, cause hormonal disorders and impact the environment. Now, the basis is risk analysis, an acceptable risk. But what is acceptable or not when it comes to cancer risk? It’s a huge defeat.”

For Bombardi, potentially harmful substances should not be approved, even without scientific studies conclusively documenting their effects. “Doubts already indicate that it should not be approved. With a law that talks about acceptable risk, we have a scientific and legal loophole to define what is acceptable or not,” she said.

The newly passed law loosens pesticide controls, allowing the unsafe use of substances already banned in other countries. Image courtesy of Vinícius Mendonça/IBAMA.

In December 2023, Lula sanctioned the pesticide bill with 14 vetoes to “guarantee adequate integration between production needs, health protection and environmental balance.” In May, the Brazilian Congress overturned part of Lula’s vetoes to make the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply solely responsible for registering and inspecting pesticides, excluding environmental and health agencies, as agribusiness wanted.

Poisoned rainforest

Although scientific literature on pesticides has increased recently, the effect of these substances on the Amazon’s biodiversity still needs more research. One barrier is a lack of funding for studies. An article published in January reveals that Amazonian institutions receive only 10% of Brazil’s federal budget for biodiversity research. Another hurdle is the influence of agribusiness and the chemical industry, whose lobbying has made investigations about pesticides taboo in key research agencies, sources told Mongabay.

There are also known cases of intimidation of researchers working on the topic. In 2019, Butantan Institute researcher Mônica Lopes Ferreira was harassed for showing there is no safe dose of pesticides. She exposed zebrafish embryos (Danio rerio), a species with 70% of its genes similar to human genetic material, to 10 pesticides extensively used in Brazil. The results indicated that these pesticides cause death and malformations even at dosages well below the recommended levels. Her original focus was human health, but experts often cite this experiment when discussing the risks to some 3,000 species of fish and other aquatic animals in the Amazon.

In 2023, a broad review of scientific studies on the impacts of pesticides in the Amazon basin pointed to decreased biodiversity in areas where chemical use is known, affecting animal species responsible for pollination, seed dispersal and other processes that guarantee ecological balance.

In January, the massive death of bees led Brazil’s environmental agency, IBAMA, to restrict the use of the pesticide fipronil, known as the “bee killer.” Under the new law, decisions like this fall to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Other research has shown cases of poisoned Amazon wildlife, including hyacinth macaws (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) and tapirs.

Greenpeace Brazil activists protested against the Poison Bill in front of the Congress building in Brasília in October 2023. Image © Otávio Almeida/Greenpeace.

According to Folhes, agrotoxins are part of an “agribusiness technological package” — mechanical, chemical and genetic — designed to remove Amazon biodiversity to allow the establishment of a homogeneous agricultural system in the rainforest. “The strategies are designed for agricultural production without considering the environmental damage,” he said.

In 2021, investigative news outlet Agência Pública showed that farmers were spraying large quantities of pesticides over the Amazon from planes to accelerate the deforestation of large areas for soy and cattle. These tactics also impact the local population, with countless cases of pesticides being criminally spread over areas to displace Indigenous people, riverside communities and small farmers.

“The growth of soybean, corn and pasture areas in the Amazon increases the use of pesticides, aggravating problems linked to their use. We have many situations of soil, water and plant contamination on properties that don’t use pesticides. It’s violence to force the displacement of traditional communities and peasants,” Folhes said.

A sprayer deploys pesticides on a soybean plantation in Mato Grosso, a state in the Amazon Arc of Deforestation. Image © Bruno Kelly/Greenpeace.

In her new book, Bombardi writes that Brazil’s Ministry of Health recorded 56,870 cases of pesticide poisoning in the country between 2010 and 2019. However, the huge underreporting of cases could put the number of victims at nearly 3 million.

Bombardi also criticizes European countries’ double standards. They allow locally banned pesticides to be exported to agricultural commodity producers like Brazil, an arrangement that enriches European chemical companies with the trade of substances that affect human health and biodiversity. The researcher says the new pesticide law is terrible because it encourages this harmful dynamic.

“The pesticide law should be modernized in the direction of protecting human life and biodiversity, but it has been transformed into something that condemns future generations, guaranteeing the interests of agribusiness and the agrochemical industries. There is no gain for society or the environment. It’s sad,” she said.

For Hess, who monitors the approval of new pesticides, the scenario is bleak. “The power of the multinational agrochemical industry is clear. Brazil is now the world’s biggest chemical dump, allowing the use of substances that have long been banned in other countries. And it still pays dearly for the poison.”


Banner image: Experts warn that uncontrolled pesticide spraying from planes is one of the main concerns for Amazonian biodiversity. Image courtesy of Vinícius Mendonça/IBAMA.

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

Stegmann, L. F., França, F. M., Carvalho, R. L., Barlow, J., Berenguer, E., Castello, L., … Ferreira, J. (2024). Brazilian public funding for biodiversity research in the Amazon. Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation, 22(1), 1-7. doi:10.1016/j.pecon.2024.01.003

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.

Exit mobile version