“All different but highly destructive”. This is how Richard Pearshouse, Director of the Environment division of the Human Rights Watch organisation, described the combination of five bills that have been voted on by the Brazilian government last month. These would see an increase in mining in the Amazon Forest, taking over more lands belonging to indigenous people. These five bills have been described as a ‘death combo’ (for the environment) or ‘package of destruction’ by many people in Brazil.
Put on hold during the pandemic, these bills were put back on the table in March. Simultaneously, Bolsonaro was awarded the indigenous award by the Minister of Justice, an award supposed to celebrate the defence of the many indigenous tribes still living in Brazil.
Unsurprisingly, this caused an uproar from many Brazilians. Leading the charge is singer Caetano Veloso, who started the “Ato pela Terra” (Stand for the Earth) campaign, which united artists and celebrities to stand against the bill. Together with the support of the public, protests went ahead last Wednesday in Brasilia, the country’s capital. Thousands showed up to defend not only the rights of indigenous people, but also attempt to save whatever is left of the Amazon, dubbed by many the ‘lung of the planet’.
“Caetano and other activists in Brazil know they can’t wait until Election Day (2 October) to protest. This flurry of proposed laws is designed to ensure that even if Bolsonaro doesn’t win the election, his policies of eviscerating environmental protections and converting the Amazon into farmland for cattle ranching and soy plantations will continue for years to come. The combined effect of these laws would embolden illegal land grabbers and wealthy ranchers who buy up the land, at the expense of Brazil’s indigenous people and other disadvantaged groups who depend on the rainforest.”, explains Richard Pearshouse.
Yet, this was not enough. While protests went ahead, the bills were approved in the Senate. “It was a big ‘f*** it’ to the protestors”, tells us Mattheus Yoshikawa Stachissini. This student of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro studies a Masters in Public Policy and Development Strategies. His current thesis research looks into the management of the agricultural industry in Brazil and more specifically the Amazon. “It’s good to get international coverage of this story, because here I have given up. It’s going to be really difficult to get things changed”, explains Mattheus.
While the main target in appearance should be Jair Bolsonaro, it is in reality the President of the Federal Senate, Rodrigo Pacheco, pulling the strings. With agriculture being the main source of income in Brazil, corruption and lobbying were inevitably going to exist. With everyone having stakes in this debate, it is unsurprising to see a divided country on this matter. “People know about this issue but they don’t care”, tells Mattheus. “People are hostages of the system; we need to change things”.
While Veloso’s campaign has shed light on the matter, this does not seem to be enough. “Inequity is a big issue in Brazil. We need to talk about redistribution of lands, it’s a necessity in the process of democracy”, adds Mattheus. 75% of agricultural productions come from family-owned farms, which are being protected by the more organic farming MST (Landless Workers Movement) program, but this is still not enough to revolutionise the way agriculture is done there. “We need to study more these new kinds of production techniques; deforestation has been around for too long. We need to change from the inside”, explains Mattheus. He adds that until people in Brazil and abroad stop buying from farms that don’t do organic farming, they will continue producing this way.
As many organisations try to fight these bills, Veloso led the way in the protests. Accompanied by representatives from A Vida no Cerrado (Life in nature) association, Veloso and thousands of protestors marched on to make their voices heard. I think it’s time for us to get out onto the streets and to show our faces,” said the 79-year-old songwriter to the Guardian. “I’m optimistic about the future of Brazil. That’s to say, I’m taking action to foster something new here, something that might enlighten the world,” Veloso added. “But right now, it’s hard to cling on to this mindset.”
We spoke to Vitor Sena, biology master’s student at the University of Brasilia and representative of A Vida no Cerrado. Taking the stance for his association, he believes the “bills weaken Brazilian environmental legislation and can exacerbate the socio-environmental setbacks that have been occurring in Brazil”. They will have a destructive effect on the indigenous population and the rich Brazilian fauna.
He stressed that the areas homologated to indigenous people (21% of the Amazon Forest) have low deforestation percentages, showing they are certainly not responsible for the wider deforestation issue in Brazil. These laws would not only mean the government continue taking more land from them but could also challenge the demarcations at any point in time, leading to more displacement of indigenous people.
Other than it being a huge issue for the inhabitants of these lands, the environmental impact would be tremendous. “One of the bills repeals the current Pesticides Law (7,802/89) and intends to make the approval and use of pesticides more flexible in the country”, explains Vitor. It would exclude key members (Ibama and Anvisa) from the approval process, leading to a far wider spread of pesticides throughout the country. This would only worsen the situation which sees Brazil topping the list of consumers of pesticides in the world.
“In summary, those bill projects if approved would enable the increased deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, loss of socio-biodiversity, land grabbing, degradation of protected areas, invasions of indigenous and other traditional territories, food poisoning, violence and criminalisation against traditional and peasant populations”, states Vitor. These issues would spread further than just the Amazon, into Cerrado, Caatinga and other Brazilian territories.
APID, the Articulation of Indigenous People of Brazil, put out several statements in the lead up to the protests as well as strong protest messages online, using the #PL191Não (No to Bill-191). A statement from 8th March read:
“The existence of potassium in the Amazon has been recorded for decades, but the mineral is in conditions of difficult extraction. Even if approved, the feasibility of this project would have high logistical and operational costs, which could imply that its cost would be even higher than its import. Even if Bill-191 were approved now, it would take years for the deposits to be explored, once again not justifying the opening of mining in indigenous territories for this purpose at the moment. Furthermore, it would have a huge impact on deforestation rates and the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, further increasing territorial conflicts.”
The hope is that public unity, even if it is not generalised, will prevail in the long term and will stop these bills from being implemented. However, that hope is very low. “Even if we change the president and we change Brazil’s environmental stewardship, these [new] rules would make it very hard to fight environmental crime,” told Marco Astrini, one of the protests’ organisers, to the Guardian.
“The Cerrado is one of the most threatened and rich biomes in the world. If we really want to mitigate climate change, ensure water security and save biodiversity, the international community and we here in Brazil need to start giving more importance to other biomes, beyond the Amazon”, says Vitor. With elections coming up in October, more answers will come to light, but more needs to be done by the international community as well, in order to save precious lands in the fight against climate change.