Greenpeace activists and Munduruku Indians protest on a sandy beach on the banks of the Tapajos river, near Itaituba, Pará, where the government plans to build the first of a series of five dams. Photo: Greenpeace Brazil via Flickr (CC BY).
Brazil: rules protecting Amazon under threat
27th May 2016
A constitutional amendment that would allow 'strategic' public works including dams, roads, mines and other mega-projects to go ahead following the mere completion of an environmental impact assessment is being considered by a Committee of the Brazilian Senate, writes Helle Abelvik-Lawson.
The government environment agency, IBAMA, has said of the proposals for 'auto-approval' would constitute a serious setback for environmental management in Brazil.
Environmentalists in Brazil fear that the new rightist government will move undermine essential environmental protections.
And a key battle is looming over a long-proposed constitutional amendment, PEC65/2012, under which environmental licensing would be 'auto-approved' once an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is been submitted.
The rule could apply to any major projects considered 'public works' including roads, hydroelectric dams or oil platforms.
Controversial schemes include stalled plans for the São Luiz do Tapajós hydroelectric complex - which critics warn could infringe on indigenous lands, destroy local biodiversity and trigger deforestation.
An attempt by lawmakers to pass PEC65 was stalled last week in the Senate, but the threat has not gone away: the fear is that the government itself may now force these measures through. If the rule is eventually passed by the new government it would mean that projects considered important public works, following the EIA submission, could not then be suspended or canceled.
It also means that communities affected by projects - such as those opposing the Tapajós project - would not be consulted on the plans before 'auto-approval' is given. "It is completely absurd; it is as though the act of applying for a driving licence entitled you to drive a lorry", says Carlos Bocuhy, president of environmental NGO PROAM.
Proposed in 2012, the move to eliminate formal licensing was recently pushed forward by Senator Blairo Maggi, the new agriculture minister in the newly appointed right-wing government.
Senator Maggi from Brazil's centre-right Republic Party, also known as the 'soy king' due to his extensive agribusiness interests in the commodity, is a key new appointment in the interim cabinet.
The amendment was approved by the Brazilian Senate's Commission on Constitution, Justice and Citizenship (CCJ) on 27th April, bringing it back to the Senate for its next stage last week.
But it was foiled by the leftist Senator for Amapá, Randolfe Rodrigues, who successfully argued that the move should have been considered in the Commission alongside another more recent amendment named PEC153/2015 - as passing the two could prove contradictory.
The move led to the changes being sent back to the CCJ because the rival amendment actually calls for more assessments and sustainability planning for large projects.
This newer amendment was submitted following the Samarco Mariana tailings dam burst in late 2015, which is widely considered to be the worst environmental disaster in Brazilian history. The burst iron ore mine's tailings dam polluted 400 kilometres of the Rio Doce and devastated local communities, and 19 people were killed.
PEC153 would oblige the government to adopt sustainability criteria in their actions and services and works contracts. Now both amendments are to be considered together.
Impeachment plot leak
The fight over the change follows the suspension of the former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff and the formation of a new centre-right government.
The new cabinet was formed following Rousseff's suspension on 12th May by Senate vote. She stands accused of manipulating public finances ahead of her reelection campaign, a charge she denies. Dilma Rousseff's impeachment is still not complete. She will face a Senate trial in the coming months, which will end with a vote.
The interim government is led by President Michel Temer, a 75 year-old lawyer who has appointed an all-white, all-male cabinet. Temer has promised to restore "economic vitality" to the country.
Many of the new cabinet ministers are themselves embroiled in corruption allegations within the 'Lava Jato' corruption probe - and Temer is himself facing the same charges that led to Rousseff's suspension.
On Monday, one of Temer's closest allies, Planning Minister Senator Romero Jucá, was forced out of the government after just one week following the leak of a phone conversation in which he appears to discuss stopping the progress of the investigation into the complex Lava Jato scandal by impeaching President Rousseff.
He says his words were taken out of context.
'Radical' auto-approval a distraction technique?
Temer has avoided taking a position on the environmental licensing issue and said only in a television interview that it would be up to Congress to examine the text - in effect giving his supporters a green light to pass the measure.
He advocated "combined efforts among environmentalists and those who take care of agriculture in the country" - referring perhaps to Maggi: the agro-industrialist is from Mato Grosso state and - critics suggest - stands to benefit from large infrastructure projects such as the reconfiguration of the Tapajós River for canals to transport soy through to Amazon River ports.
The government environment agency, IBAMA, has said of the proposals for 'auto-approval' would constitute a serious setback for environmental management in Brazil - and that there is a need for balance between development and environmental protection.
Some environmental groups have also suggested that PEC65 is too radical a proposal to be realistic and that an alternative will likely emerge from other proposals currently under consideration.
There are currently three other proposals relating to the removal of environmental licensing being discussed different stages in Congress. Being comparatively moderate, they are more likely to pass.
Helle Abelvik-Lawson writes for the Greenpeace Energy Desk.
Also on The Ecologist: 'Ecocide in Brazil: new laws threaten Amazon devastation' by Jan Rocha.
This article was originally published on Greenpeace Energydesk. Some additional reporting by The Ecologist in this version.
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