Areas of protected national forest in Brazil equivalent to the size of Portugal are under threat from a push by Brazil’s government and the powerful rural lobby to shrink the country’s conservation areas, environmental group WWF says.
In the latest move, activists say the government of President Michel Temer is planning to redraw the borders of the Jamanxim national forest in the Amazon, introducing a bill to congress just weeks after vetoing similar legislation.
“Brazil is facing an unprecedented offensive against its protected areas,” said Marco Lentini, the leader of forests at WWF-Brazil.
Critics say that Mr Temer is swapping trees for votes by agreeing to back demands from Brazil’s rural lobby to make it easier to operate in protected areas in return for their support as he battles corruptioncharges.
The president faces a vote in congress on August 2 over whether he should be tried in the supreme court for allegedly discussing bribes with a businessman, Joesley Batista, the former chairman of JBS, the world’s largest meatpacker. Under Brazil’s constitution, a president can only face criminal trial with the permission of congress.
To survive the vote and pass an economic reform programme on which he has staked his political future, the president needs to summon all the support he can get, analysts say.
This makes the powerful ranching lobby, known as the ruralistas, which has 230 members in the 513-seat lower house of congress, an indispensable ally. “This is a currency of exchange,” said Jaime Gesisky, a specialist in public policy at WWF-Brazil.
The concern over the future of Brazil’s protected areas comes amid rapid deforestation in the Amazon. Last year, the National Institute for Space Research reported a 29 per cent increase in deforestation from 2015.
The WWF’s Mr Lentini said the latest efforts to lift environmental protection meant that conservation reserves were threatened with a loss of 10 per cent of their area, or a total of about 80,000 square kilometres.
Last month Norway delivered a rebuke to Brazil as it cut back on aid to the country linked to conservation.
The two decrees vetoed by Mr Temer last month would have reduced national forests by 600,000 hectares, not only in Jamanxim in the northern Amazonian state of Pará but also in areas of rare protected trees in the southern state of Santa Catarina. The decrees were opposed by celebrities including Brazilian super model Gisele Bündchen.
But immediately after the veto, Mr Temer’s environment minister José Sarney Filho reassured landowners in the Jamanxim area, saying in a video that he would launch a bill in congress to achieve the same ends. The bill, presented to congress last week for urgent consideration, will reduce the size of the Jamanxim national forest by 27 per cent.
The government has justified the move as being needed to solve land disputes in the area and reduce uncertainty for farmers who were in the region before it became a national park in 2006.
Earlier it passed a decree, Medida Provisória 759, that allows for the easier resolution of land title on disputed properties in Brazil. Activists allege the proposal is aimed at smoothing the way for some land-grabbing ranchers in the Amazon.
But the government argues the law will enable people in urban and rural areas living in precarious conditions without land title to resolve their situation. “The truth is that the environmental impact won’t be big,” says Covatti Filho, a ruralista lawmaker from Rio Grande do Sul.
Nurit Bensusan of the Instituto Socioambiental, a non-governmental environmentalist organisation, says the fear is that the Jamanxim bill, if passed, would set a worrying precedent for Brazil’s national parks.
Some ranchers and land-grabbers across the country would be incentivised to deforest and invade public land and protected forests in the expectation that eventually land use rules might be changed in their favour. “Where one cow can pass, the whole herd will go,” said Ms Bensusan.