The move by Congressmen from the Brazilian state of Amazonas to slash down a string of conservation units in the south of the state is an attempt to “officialise land grabbing” in public forests and will expose Brazil to “international shame”.
These words belong to Izabella Teixeira, the former environment minister, in whose tenure the five protected areas that now are targeted were created.
“I think it’s a shame that Brazil, which is a conservation role model, is backtracking and undoing the creation of such important areas for the conservation of biodiversity in our country,” the former minister told Observatorio do Clima. “They want to officialise land grabbing. This sets a very serious precedent for the other regions. It has no explanation, it makes no sense.”
The demand to trim down four protected areas created by former president Dilma Rousseff on her last day in office, and to cancel a fifth area was presented last Tuesday by seven parliamentarians from Amazonas state to the Chief of Staff, Eliseu Padilha, a member of centrist PMDB, the party of current President Michel Temer.
As reported by Instituto Socioambiental, a Brazilian NGO, the government has embraced the proposal and will send it to Congress as a bill proposal. O Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper states that the current environment minister, Jose Sarney Filho, wasn’t even told about it.
But he should have been, since the currently protected lands in southern Amazonas that the Congressmen want to set aside for agriculture belong to his office.
The area was legally transferred to the Chico Mendes Institute, an organ of the Ministry of Environment (MMA), in August 2014, after almost two years of consultations. The transfer was part of a policy called Terra Legal, aimed at regularizing ownership of land in the Amazon, devoting vacant public lands to diverse uses, from settlements to indigenous lands, from urban expansion to national parks.
At the time, 3 million hectares of federal land were offered for conservation, with the consent of the state government and several federal offices.
In 2016, after two more years of studies and consultations, five units were created: the Manicoré Biological Reserve, the Acari National Park, the Aripuanã National Forest, the Urupadi National Forest, and the Campos de Manicoré Environmental Protection Area (APA). Together they amount to 2.69 million hectares – a smaller area than the one destined to MMA. “We created a smaller area because it was where there was convergence to minimize the conflict,” she said. “They are the first units created with land regularization already.”
The parliamentary proposal, now under evaluation in the Temer government, aims to extinguish the APA Campos de Manicoré and reduce the other units. In total, the area under protection would fall 40%, to 1.6 million hectares.
The problem is that, as the entire area of the units is already regularized and titled for ICMBio, the eventual bill to reduce them would be, in practice, giving one million hectares of union land away to the productive sector, which is illegal – hence the former minister’s talk about “officialising land grabbing”.
“Congress will break the very law that it has created, the law of Terra Legal. Everyone knows that one of the main problems of deforestation in the Amazon is the issue of land regularization. The government has run a regularization program. And they [the parliamentarians] want to make a law to undo what the current law orders to do. This is shameful,” says Teixeira.
According to the former minister, the movement also calls into question the international credibility of Brazil, since the country has for years now raised funds from donors abroad to finance conservation – through the Arpa (Protected Areas of the Amazon) program.
In his inauguration speech, Michel Temer’s minister of foreign affairs, José Serra, said that one of the top priorities of his foreign policy would be to assume the “special responsibility” that Brazil had in environmental matters. “If we do our homework properly, we could receive huge resources from international entities interested in helping us to preserve the forests,” said Serra.
With the rate of deforestation rising for two consecutive years, and conservation units being reduced with the endorsement of the Brazilian presidency, the tendency is for donors to begin to decline – and international pressures on Brazil will grow again as it did under president Fernando Henrique Cardoso 1995-2002, when the creation of a mosaic of protected areas in south of Amazonas was first proposed.
In presenting the proposed reduction of areas to Padilha, the Congressmen from Amazonas, led by Átila Lins (from the right-wing party PSD), claimed that the units are causing “losses” and paralysis of investments in the agribusiness of the region, as well as causing the productive sector to “panic”.
The manifesto delivered to Padilla, according to newspaper A Crítica, points to “vices of legality” in the decree that created the areas, and “absence of technical studies and public consultations”.
Teixeira said: “Saying that there was no consultation is an utter lie, because there was consultation in two moments: in land regularization and in the creation of units.” According to her, the units should have been created in 2015, but it only happened the following year due to the bureaucracy.
“They want to argue that they will undo it because they have not been heard? At the very least, they should disclose the interests behind them. It is about time. Since Brazil is a country that is being renewed through transparency, they should disclose their interests. Be objective. Speak what is really behind the whole issue.”
When asked about what interests she thinks they would have, the former minister declined to respond.
The south of Amazonas is a region still rich in primary forests, that buffer the heart of the state, the largest area of continuous preserved tropical forest on the planet. It is at the confluence of three squatter fronts – from the states of Rondônia, Pará and Mato Grosso – and is the main timber expansion zone of the state. Land grabbers, illegal loggers, and cattle ranchers are interested in the land and forest stocks in the location.
The region is also the main focus of deforestation in the state. According to data by Ibama, the federal environmental agency, and Inpe (National Institute for Space Research), deforestation in the five municipalities where the contested parks are located has increased between 2011 and 2015 – from 27% to 36% of the total deforestation in the state of Amazonas.
“I beg the chief of staff, Minister Padilha, who was my colleague at President Roussef’s cabinet, to think the issue through politically before taking any position. We should debate about what the real interests behind the whole issue are,” concluded Teixeira.
This article was first published in Portuguese on the Observatorio do Clima website