Brazil’s Bolsonaro plans to axe environmental panel that protects Amazon rainforest

President wants to replace expert independent body with small group of political appointees

Mauricio Savarese,Conrad Duncan
Monday 08 April 2019 17:02 BST
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The president has often questioned climate change and accused environmental groups of holding back economic growth
The president has often questioned climate change and accused environmental groups of holding back economic growth

Jair Bolsonaro’s administration is considering axing an independent panel for Brazil’s environmental policy in a move that activists warn could lead to increased deforestation, documents have revealed.

Brazil’s president proposed creating a “government council” of political appointees to replace the National Council of the Environment (known as Conama), which has almost 100 members, including representatives of independent environmental and business groups.

Conama helps protect the 60 per cent of the Amazon rainforest that is in Brazil, which scientists see as crucial for efforts to slow global warming.

The new body, proposed in a policy roadmap drafted by Mr Bolsonaro’s transition team, would consist of five presidential appointees and environment minister Ricardo Salles – one of the authors of the plan.

The documents, first published by the Brazilian Climate Observatory environmental group, were obtained and verified by the Associated Press.

Brazil’s Environment Ministry did not reply to a request for comment.

Part of the transition plan has already come into force. The country’s forestry service, aimed at promoting “knowledge, sustainable use and widening of forestry coverage,” was transferred to the agriculture ministry on Mr Bolsonaro’s second day in office.

On the same day, the agriculture ministry was given the power to determine the limits of indigenous lands, rather than Brazil’s official indigenous rights agency.

As a congressman and candidate, Mr Bolsonaro often questioned the reality of climate change and cast environmental groups as foreign-influenced meddlers restraining Brazil’s economic growth by holding back mining and agriculture.

His stance has similarities to the views of Donald Trump, who before taking office described the US Environmental Protection Agency as a “disgrace” that largely should be dismantled.

The authors of Mr Bolsonaro’s transition plan say Conama is a “confusing” body that “acts emotionally, without due technique, being subjected to ideological interference”.

In another transition team document, lawyer Antonio Fernando Pinheiro Pedro argues that its decisions have led to “the emission of norms and standards that are far from reality”.

In an interview shortly after his election, Mr Bolsonaro complained that it could sometimes take a decade to get an environmental licence. “That will not continue,” he said.

While officials have not yet formally proposed the smaller council, there has already been increased friction over Conama. Security guards blocked alternate members of the council from joining the main meeting at a March session in the capital of Brasilia, breaking a long tradition of wide-open debate in Brazil’s top environmental council.

Carlos Rittl, executive secretary of the Brazilian Climate Observatory, which includes several nonprofit groups, said he believed that chaotic meeting was “more evidence that the plan (for a smaller council) is indeed being implemented”.

“Deforestation ended 2018 on the rise. It is on the rise in 2019, but we haven’t heard a word from the minister about that. We have heard about limiting the access to civil society so we can’t have a fair discussion,” Mr Rittl said.

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Former environment minister Rubens Ricupero speculated the new administration may have delayed creating the new council because of public anger over the collapse of a mine dam near the city of Brumadinho in January that killed at least 223 people, with 70 still missing.

Mr Ricupero noted Mr Bolsonaro’s chief of staff suggested closing the environmental ministry during the campaign, but said that the powerful agribusiness lobby was afraid such a move would damage trade and has prevented any such move.

The Bolsonaro transition plan also suggested closing the federal agency that oversees conservation zones, such as national parks and biological reserves, and issues fines for violation of environmental laws there. Many of those penalties are never paid, but several Brazilian agribusiness leaders have complained about them over the years.

Pinheiro Pedro, the transition team lawyer, wrote that the agency should be folded into the Environment Institute, which enforces other environmental legislation and aims to promote the sustainable the use of natural resources. He said the two have “the same objective” and streamlining environmental governance is key to “avoid international interference”.

Mr Rittl, of the Brazilian Climate Observatory, said he believed that change would reduce oversight in key areas by diluting the focus of regulators.

Environmentalists also criticised the language used in the transition documents, though the tone echoes Mr Bolsonaro’s own pronouncements.

The plan says NGOs involved in climate change discussions are “uncontrollable organisms” that need to be stopped so the system is closer to ministerial control. It also contends Brazil’s environmental governance is crafted to give jobs to political appointees, describing that as “a risk to national sovereignty”.

Emilio Bruna, a tropical ecologist focused on the Amazon who is based at the University of Florida, said the transition plan showed the worst fears about Mr Bolsonaro’s presidency were starting to come true.

“Scientists are not only concerned about the government not creating new protected areas, but also the downgrading of existing protections in the rainforest,” he said.

“There was already a culture of impunity, but now it’s being reinforced.”

Agencies contributed to this report

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