By Christian Poirier
Deforestation in Brazil is at a nine-year high. President Michel Temer's political horse trading could make it worse.
Brazilian President Michel Temer’s June 26 indictment on corruption allegations marked a new peak in the country’s political crisis. While the charges grabbed global headlines, they also overshadowed the environmental crisis unfolding in the Brazilian Amazon, where vast tracts of protected forests and indigenous territories are under growing threat.
Brazilian forests are being felled at the fastest rate in nearly a decade, with the rate of deforestation jumping 29 percent since 2015 and 75 percent since 2012, according to satellite monitoring. Instead of bolstering the protections that helped Brazil reduce deforestation rates last decade, the Temer administration is bartering the forests’ future for political support from the powerful congressional bloc that represent the country’s big farmers, cattle ranchers, land speculators, loggers, and mining companies – the ruralistas. It’s a dangerous, short-sighted gamble, trading short-term political gain for long-term forest health – and one from which the Amazon may not recover.
It is also not guaranteed to save the president. Nevertheless, since he took office following the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff on August 31, 2016, Temer’s government has overseen a rollback on environmental and human rights protections, targeting the territorial rights of Brazil’s indigenous peoples while articulating plans to slash safeguards on the Amazon’s forests and gut the country’s environmental licensing standards for high-impact projects like dams and roads.
The president appointed as minister of justice a prominent member of the ruralistas, Osmar Serraglio, who authored a constitutional amendment to halt the titling of indigenous lands. Serraglio was later fired, but the current agricultural minister, Blairo Maggi, is one of the world’s largest soybean producers and winner of Greenpeace’s “golden chainsaw” for his leading role in felling Amazonian forests.
Despite appointments and proposals aimed at curtailing existing protections, the administration has worked to greenwash its actions, especially on the international stage. On the eve of his trip to Russia and Norway on June 19, Temer vetoed contentious amendments to two proposed laws that would have opened up around 2,300 square miles of rainforest to land-grabbing and deforestation. The amendments aimed to downgrade the Jamanxim National Forest and National Park, located adjacent to the so-called Soy Highway in the western Amazonian state of Pará, from Conservation Units to the weaker status of Environmental Protection Areas, which would allow for agribusiness and extractive industry to expand across vast, currently preserved ecosystems.
The reprieve will likely be short lived. Preceding the veto, environment minister José Sarney Filho, flanked by a ruralista ally from Pará, issued a video announcement that the government would introduce a new bill that essentially resurrects the rollbacks vetoed by the president. Given that the ruralistas are a dominant voting bloc in Brazil’s Congress, the bill should have smooth passage.
The presidential vetoes were clearly an effort to salvage the administration’s image with the Norwegians, who have contributed more than $1 billion since 2008 to Brazil’s “Amazon fund.” It didn’t work. When Temer and Sarney Filho arrived in Oslo, Norway’s Ministry of Climate and Environment announced that it would cut its contribution to the fund, committing only a third of its average annual donation in 2017.
The Ministry statement cited last year’s 29 percent jump in deforestation as the reason for this drastic shift, saying it would increase disbursements to previous levels if deforestation were to drop again.
During the visit, asked whether he could guarantee the reduction of deforestation, Sarney Filho seemed to abdicate responsibility, answering, “Only God can guarantee this.” The minister’s gaffe made waves in Brazil, where he was forced to hold a press conference to clarify his statement.
In addition to considering efforts to reclassify protected forests, Brazil’s Congress has approved a measure that would weaken protection for lands set aside for land reform and make some public lands that have been illegally put to productive use eligible for land titles. This move legitimizes illegal deforestation and cattle ranching while sending a resounding signal that crime pays by confirming the Brazilian saying: “He who deforests the land, keeps the land.” (“O dono é quem desmata.”)
Such outright incentives to deforestation in land tenure policy are a driving force behind the recent spike in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.
Earlier this month, Temer signed a decree that enshrined Brazil’s commitments to the Paris Climate Accord into law, promising the country would “live up to its responsibility” and tackle climate change “systematically and vigorously.” Sarney Filho expressed concern about President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw the U.S. from the agreement, saying, “We have shown the world that Brazil's commitment to the Accord’s implementation remains unabated.”
Unfortunately, words mean little in light of the country’s spiking rates of deforestation and the Temer administration’s overt support for legislation that would reduce existing protections and encourage further destruction. As steward of globally critical ecosystems like the Amazon rainforest, Brazil should immediately cease its attacks on environmental and indigenous rights protections.