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Brazil’s lawmakers renew push to weaken environmental rules

Legislation includes proposals to open up the Amazon rainforest to agriculture.

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Trees taken in illegal logging operations in the Brazilian Amazon lay in piles at a sawmill.Credit: Nacho Doce/Reuters

The conservative coalition that dominates Brazil’s Congress is girding itself for one final push to roll back environmental regulations before campaigns for the country’s October presidential election ramp up.

The legislation under consideration includes proposals to open up the Amazon rainforest to sugarcane farming — which was banned in 2009 owing to concerns about deforestation. Another proposal would weaken licensing requirements for infrastructure such as dams, roads and agricultural projects. But the rural-agricultural coalition behind the proposals are running up against public opposition that has thwarted previous efforts to loosen environmental rules.

This fight has been further complicated by an ongoing political corruption scandal that has engulfed the country and landed former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — who would have probably won the October election, according to a March poll — in jail.

“There’s this very delicate balance,” says Mercedes Bustamante, an ecologist at the University of Brasilia. The conservatives have support from Brazilian president Michel Temer as well as the votes they need to move legislation through Congress, she says. Although lawmakers are trying to push forward, Bustamante says, they're also wary about sparking a public backlash before the coming election.

Long-running resistance

Previous efforts to scale back protected areas and indigenous rights in the Amazon rainforest floundered as activist groups and celebrities such as supermodel Gisele Bündchen mobilized public opposition. And long-simmering resistance has kept the environmental licensing proposal for infrastructure on the backburner for the past two years.

The conservatives have had only one major success on the environmental-regulation front thus far. In 2012, they successfully overhauled the Brazilian law governing forests, which included eliminating penalties for any illegal deforestation that took place in the Amazon before July 2008. Environmental groups challenged the constitutionality of the revised law, but in February Brazil’s Supreme Court upheld those changes.

“It was the worst thing that could have happened,” says Carlos Nobre, a climate scientist in São José dos Campos and former secretary for research and development at Brazil’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. But he thinks the conservative coalition's broader environmental agenda has stalled and is unlikely to advance in the coming months.

Uncertain future

Brazil was once seen as a global leader on environmental issues, in large part due to its success in curbing deforestation. Between 2004 and 2012, the annual amount of rainforest that was cleared for agriculture fell by nearly 84% to 4,571 square kilometres. Those numbers subsequently crept back up, peaking at 7,893 square kilometres cleared in 2016. However, deforestation dropped 16% to 6,624 square kilometres in 2017, partly because of lower demand for beef and the restoration of funding for law enforcement, which had been cut during a prolonged financial crisis.

Environmental policies enjoyed much more support during the Lula administration between 2003 and 2011. But now, says Bustamante, environmentalists are on the defensive. The only good news, she says, is that Lula’s first environment minister, Marina Silva, has announced she will attempt another run for president. (Silva won nearly 20% of the vote when she ran for president in 2010.) “That will put the environment on the presidential agenda for the election,” Bustamante says.

This year, former president Lula was the clear frontrunner, but his sudden departure has opened up the election, which could feature up to a dozen candidates. A March poll examined election scenarios with and without Lula, and found Silva in a statistical dead heat with a leading conservative candidate, Jair Bolsonaro.

Regardless of the outcome, the political dynamic in Brazil's Congress is unlikely to change, says Paulo Barreto, a senior researcher with the activist group Amazon Institute of People and the Environment in Belém. The conservative coalition is strong, and Barreto thinks that they will stay in power.

Nature 557, 17 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05022-2
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