Pandemic hides setbacks in Brazilian environmental laws

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The number of environmental fines for illegal deforestation in Brazil fell by 72% in 2019-2020 despite an increase in deforestation rates. Credit: Amazônia Real, under Creative Commons 2.0

Environmental progress in Brazil is set to be one of the casualties of COVID-19, with damaging changes to the law as attention is diverted by the global pandemic, a study warns.

Since January 2019, the Brazilian government has approved 57 pieces of legislation that effectively weaken national environmental laws, according to the study published in Biological conservation found.

Of these, almost half (27) occurred between March and September 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, with the highest number (16) occurring in September.

The study is based on data from the Official Journal of the Union, which publishes all new decrees and amendments to Brazilian legislation.

The researchers also analyzed monthly deforestation rates provided by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), and fines associated with illegal deforestation, issued by the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources ( IBAMA).

They found that over the study period, the issuance of environmental fines for illegal deforestation fell by 72% despite an increase in deforestation rates.

According to INPE, deforestation in the Amazon was 9.5% higher between August 2019 and July 2020 than between August 2018 and July 2019, making it the highest level of annual deforestation since 2008.

Among the legislative setbacks, the study highlights the toxicological review of 47 pesticides, which in July 2020 were classified as less hazardous or left without a specific category.

Another cited legislation, from June 2020, makes it more necessary to restore all permanent environmental conservation areas, even if they are illegally deforested.

In an interview with SciDev.Net, Brazilian biologist Erika Berenguer, co-author of the study and researcher at Oxford and Lancaster universities in the UK, said a weakening of environmental standards was expected.

In April 2020, Environment Minister Ricardo Salles told a ministerial meeting that environmental laws should be relaxed as much as possible “while the media was only worried about COVID19”.

Berenguer, however, is surprised by the radical way in which environmental deregulation has occurred. “I imagined it would be concentrated in certain areas, like less control of deforestation, but the data shows another scenario,” she said.

Decisions range from reducing the amount of biodiesel added to Brazilian diesel (from 12% to 10%) to allowing mining in designated areas before final clearance from the relevant authorities. There were also frequent military appointments to environmental agencies.

“As a biologist, I couldn’t command a military battalion because I have no experience for that,” Berenguer added. “It makes no sense that military men without technical knowledge can run environmental agencies.”

Rubens Morato Leite, professor of environmental law at the Federal University of Santa Catarina in southern Brazil, says the legal dismantling revealed by the study is not surprising, given that the Ministry of environment is led by a lawyer, Salles.

“As Sao Paulo state’s environmental secretary (2016-2017), Salles had already shown his managerial profile,” said Morato Leite, who was not involved in the study.

Salles took office as environment minister in January 2019 in the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro. And this despite his conviction in December 2018 for administrative irregularity, for having changed the zoning maps in the management plans of a protected area around the Tiete River for the benefit of mining companies.

Despite the legal rollback, however, pressure from civil society may have limited the damage, according to the study.

The researchers said there had been intense media coverage of environmental issues during the pandemic, while scientists wrote a number of letters and conducted studies to highlight the problem. Some celebrities and Pope Francis have also drawn attention to the impact on the rights of indigenous peoples in Brazil.

2020, another dark year for the Brazilian Amazon

More information:
Mariana M. Vale et al. The COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to weaken environmental protection in Brazil, Biological conservation (2021). DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2021.108994

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