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What does a new Brazilian government mean for the environment?


The world’s eyes turn to Brazil this August as it hosts the Olympics. Its been a challenging few months for the country, with concerns over the zika virus, and the impeachment process of the country’s President Dilma Rouseff. In this blog I explore what the country’s new government might mean for the environment.

Brazil is home to the largest amount of rainforest on Earth. An incredible diversity of life inhabits its forests, wetlands and rivers. And the Amazon  in particular plays an extremely  important role in helping regulate our climate. The last few months however have seen great movement, and some confusion, in Brazilian politics that are not only affecting the political climate in the country, but potentially climate itself.

This is something I’m sure the UK has empathy with, following it’s recent months’ political rollercoaster. In May Brazil’s interim president, Michel Temer, was appointed, and he  brought in new ministers in yet another coalition government which attempts to balance the interests of all supporting parties – and there are a lot of them in Brazil.

The new Minister of the Environment, congressman José Sarney Filho, belongs to the Green Party and has been the main advocate of WWF’s causes in Congress. Other ministers, however, belong to the politics-as-usual spectrum and pose new serious challenges to our agenda.

Although this is a transitory government, its laws and public policies have great potential to become permanent, given that Brazilian society and the weakened economy are in great need of development proposals able to provide some perspective of midterm recovery.

It is in this complex, although exciting, arena that WWF-Brazil is acting more than ever in Brasilia, our capital, inside Congress (made up of the House of Representatives with 513 members, and the Senate with 81 members). We also engage with key ministries like those for Environment, Agriculture and External Relations.

Critical topics at stake:

  • Environmental licensing
Construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Teles Pires river, Brazil. © Zig Koch/WWF-BrazilConstruction of a hydroelectric dam on the Teles Pires river, Brazil. © Zig Koch/WWF-Brazil

A new General Law on Environmental Licensing is being put forward by the current Minister of the Environment, Sarney Filho. The idea of a new law that improves on current legislation and can cope with the movements of Congress to relax rules for big infrastructure projects (aka “fast track licensing”) resonates well with what WWF-Brazil advocates for on this issue.

As soon as the new proposal was announced by the minister,  WWF-Brazil approached the government in order to support the initiative and to influence the draft text. After a meeting between our  Public Policy and Conservation teams with the director of the Brazilian Environmental Agency (IBAMA), Suely Araujo – who is one of the main influencers of the proposal – we sent comments and suggestions on the draft law to the Ministry. We were among one of the few organizations invited to feedback in this way.

After receiving all contributions, including those from other ministries, the text will be debated in Congress. Our intention is to contribute with technical and legal elements to ensure that robust social and environmental safeguards are fully guaranteed in the new law.

It is important to add that this ministerial proposal is configured as a “third way”, as other draft laws and constitutional amendments have recently been put forward by conservative political forces within Congress which represent a serious setback in Brazilian environmental legislation .

  • Ratification of the Paris climate deal

Following the signing of the Paris Agreement (which resulted from last year’s climate talks in Paris) in New York in April, President Temer sent the customary message for the Agreement to be submitted for approval by Congress before Brazil’s final ratification. Since then, WWF-Brazil has joined other environmental NGOs in the ‘Ratify Now!’ campaign, led by the Brazil Climate Center (BCC).

In early June the House of Representatives unanimously approved  the ratification of the Climate Agreement. This is an important step and means that the legislation will now be voted on by the Senate before being passed to the President, who has the power to sign it into domestic law.

We are advocating, however, that the country should go beyond ratification and show international leadership on climate change . The Paris Agreement was inspired by countries publishing their intended post-2020 climate actions, known as their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). WWF-Brazil is working to transform Brazil’s INDC targets into national legislation. For instance, an important commitment in our INDC is the restoration of 12 million hectares of forest by 2030, and if this can be captured as part of a Brazilian ordinary law it will be easier for society to keep track of its fulfillment. Government in its turn will need to regulate the implementation of the law and define public policies with indicators of accountability.

  • New threats to protected areas
Uatumã Biological Reserve in the state of Amazonas in Brazil. © WWF-US / Ricardo Lisboa Uatumã Biological Reserve in the state of Amazonas in Brazil. © WWF-US / Ricardo Lisboa

Brazil’s protected areas and indigenous lands are like the jewels in the country’s crown of biodiversity. They are however increasingly under threat in Brazil, with a raft of proposals that look to lower the levels of protection afforded to individual areas or the whole system of protected areas and indigenous lands. In her last week in office, President Dilma Roussef created 2.83 million hectares of new protected areas in the Amazon, in Amazonas state. Now Amazon parliamentarians from both federal and state legislatures want to reverse this decision.  Two new indigenous territories which were also created at the same time may also be revoked.

The parliamentarians argue that it was a last minute decision by Rouseff taken without proper technical studies and social debate. However, these territories were the object of long and proper studies and fulfill all legal requirements to be transformed into protected areas. Thus, WWF-Brazil is working to maintain their newly protected status.

More challenges to come…

Congress in Brasilia, with the ministry buildings in the background © Sarah Hutchison/WWF-UKCongress in Brasilia, with the ministry buildings in the background © Sarah Hutchison/WWF-UK

The House of Representatives has a new president, Congressman Rodrigo Maia who stands for a less conservative agenda than his predecessor, Eduardo Cunha. Cunha resigned in July and is currently under investigation for corruption.

Despite being less conservative, Maia is likely to join forces with the president of the Senate, Renan Calheiros, in support of President Temer’s economic recovery agenda, especially after the final decision of President Dilma’s impeachment to be taken by the Senate in the next months.

Thus, the environmental movement must be very attentive, because new threats are likely to emerge as well as the resurfacing of old ones. In the current moment of serious economic downturn and high unemployment it will be challenging to mobilize civil society against measures that promise a fast recovery, even if these will result in environmental damage. For this reason, our advocacy work with Congress and the Ministries is more important than ever.

Interested in local leadership in the Brazilian Amazon on climate? Sarah Hutchison’s blog from last year’s climate talks in Paris highlights progress from Acre state.

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