Thousands of people in Brazil protest anti-environmental laws

On Wednesday, thousands of protesters gathered in Brazil to challenge a series of anti-environmental laws that are expected to be passed in the coming weeks.

The protests, “Ato pela Terra” (Stand up for the Earth), came after one of the country’s leading musicians, Caetano Veloso, called for a protest to denounce the upcoming laws. The event brought together many other artists and around 200 non-profit groups.

If approved, the anti-environment laws would approve commercial mining on indigenous lands, relax environmental licensing regulations on pesticide use, and spur land grabbing and illegal logging in the Amazon. — an already pressing issue facing the Amazon since Bolsonaro took office in 2019.

The bill has been debated in Congress since 2020, but as the Ukraine-Russia War continues, Brazil’s crucial fertilizer supply from Russia has come under increasing threat and prompted the administration to proceed with an emergency vote.

The Senate is not expected to vote on these laws until the second week of April, allowing time for a working group to review the environmental laws before they are passed, according to President Arthur Lira.

As the Amazon hits record deforestation ratesthese anti-environmental laws will be a historic decision to decide the future of one of the most important tropical forests in the world.

Protections have weakened significantly since Bolsonaro took office in 2019

Since Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, 57 laws have been passed that have weakened environmental laws. According to an analysis published in March 2021 by Biological Conservation, a leading international journal in the discipline of conservation science, these pieces of legislation range from easing forest protections to declassifying tons of toxic pesticides. The majority of these bills, 27, were passed at the height of the pandemic – from March to September 2020.

Supposedly, Brazilian officials strategically passed these bills during the pandemic, as COVID-19 diverted many people from other pressing issues.

In April 2020, Brazilian Environment Minister Ricardo Salles told government officials at a meeting to take advantage of how “media attention is almost exclusively on COVID…to open the floodgates and change all the rules and simplify the standards.”

Following this declaration, in the following months many environmental protections in place were weakened.

In In June 2020, a law was passed that no longer required the restoration of environmental conservation areas damaged by deforestation. In July 2020, 47 pesticides had their toxicity classifications lowered or eliminated absolutely.

Deforestation by year due to mining in the Brazilian Amazon between August 2016 and July 2021 according to INPE.

During the pandemic, the study found the issuance of environmental fines for illegal deforestation has dropped by 70% while deforestation in the Amazon has increased by 9.5%.

Most recently, on February 11, 2022, Bolsonaro released a decree which supports the development of artisanal mining, garimpeiros – a mining technique that simultaneously extracts minerals while promoting “sustainable development”. However, this sustainable development usually does not occur because artisanal mining incorporates machinery and infrastructure construction.

Now the government wants to further relax protections and expand mining and logging areas to encompass Indigenous lands.

Mining has plagued indigenous peoples for years now

Gold mining is the most significant type of mining that has impacted indigenous lands in the Amazon. As gold mining releases large amounts of sediment into waterways, including the mineral mercury, many of these toxic minerals end up polluting important water sources for the indigenous population and can lead to mercury poisoning if ingested. Mercury poisoning can cause brain damage and serious irreversible health effects.

Alongside polluting waterways, gold mining also kills fish that reside in the flows concerned, spread the disease and overall physically and culturally disrupts Indigenous peoples.

One of the many communities affected by gold mining is the indigenous Munduruku people in the Tapajós Basin. A recent study by Fiocruza research institution associated with the Brazilian Ministry of Health and the World Wildlife Fund, WWFdiscovered the toxic chemical mercury in the river fish on which the communities of Munduruku depend in the territory of Sawré Muyby.

The study also revealed that in three of its villages, 58% of Munduruku residents had dangerous levels of mercury in their blood.

Community members who oppose mining on their lands have also been threatened and intimidated. On March 19, 2021, armed men prevented a group of Mudrukuru residents from mooring their boat in their own territory. A few days later, on March 25, in the municipality of Jacareacanga, miners and their supporters broke into and destroyed the properties of the Wakoborun Women’s Association and other similar organizations that oppose the mining on indigenous lands.

As indigenous communities now face the potential for even more and this time legal mining on their lands, this be detrimental to their livelihood.

At the protest, many indigenous people spoke out against environmental laws that will target their lands – which they call “the destruction package”.

“We are not going to accept (the extraction of) potassium on indigenous lands, to pay the bill for those who kill themselves. Enough native blood! Sônia Guajajara, member of the tribe and executive coordinator of the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, told the crowd.

With the continued efforts of the Brazilian government – and the bill being discussed – to ease logging restrictions in the Amazon and to increase mining in indigenous territory, the Brazilian environment and indigenous communities have a target on the back which is about to be shot at.

If these anti-environmental laws are passed, mining and deforestation will increase dramatically, affecting the health and lands of indigenous communities and the Amazon rainforest which plays a key role in reducing the impacts of climate change. To make a difference, citizens and activists must continue to protest in what often seems like an impossible fight for, hopefully, a clean and healthy future.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own and not those of featured photo: Deforested land in the Brazilian Amazon on October 8, 2020. Source: Bruno Kelly/Amazônia Real, Wikimedia.