Brazil President Sacrifices Protected Areas to Accelerate Dam Construction
An attempt by President Dilma Rousseff to eliminate 86,288 hectares of protected areas in the Brazilian Amazon (equivalent to the area of 161,178 football fields) to make way for five large hydroelectric dams has been challenged as unconstitutional in the Supreme Court by Federal Public Prosecutors (the Ministério Publico Federal or MPF). The MPF alleges that the Provisional Measure (Medida Provisória) signed by Rousseff in early January violates the Brazilian Constitution and the country's environmental legislation.
According to head prosecutor Roberto Monteiro Gurgel Santos, the majority of the proposed dam projects lack environmental impact studies. As a result, there is no certainty whether the dams will be constructed, and if so, in what location that would minimize their negative impacts. Hence, reducing the boundaries of protected areas to make way for dam reservoirs, prior to carrying out environmental impact studies, is both ludicrous and illegal. Economic viability studies for the proposed dams have also not been carried out.
"The Provisional Measure signed by President Rousseff signals a growing tendency within the federal government, already visible with the Belo Monte Dam, to blatantly disregard human rights and environmental legislation in the rush to construct over 60 large dams in the Amazon," said Brent Millikan, Amazon program director at International Rivers. "This shows that the president is backtracking on Brazil's environmental commitments, and will use any means necessary to push through an agenda of expensive mega-infrastructure projects in the Amazon, reminiscent of the military dictatorship in the 1970s. It begs the question, who will protect the Amazon and the rights of its people, if not the government?"
If the Provisional Measure is not overturned by the Supreme Court, it still needs to be ratified by both houses of Congress to enter into law. In Para State, the Provisional Measure would eliminate a total of 75,630 hectares in five conservation units to make way for the reservoirs of two large proposed dams on the Tapajós river—São Luiz do Tapajós and Jatobá. The areas that would have their boundaries reduced include the Amazonia National Park (17,800 hectares), the Itaituba 1 and Itaituba 2 National Forests (7,705 and 28,453 hectares, respectively), Crepori National Forest (856 acres), and the Tapajos Environmental Protection Area (19,916 hectares).
In the states of Rondônia and Amazonas, 8,470 hectares would be excluded from the Mapinguari National Park so they could be flooded by the Jirau and Santo Antônio dams on the Madeira River. Additionally, 2,188 acres would be excluded from the Campos Amazônicos National Park to make way for the reservoir of the proposed Tabajara hydroelectric dam on the Machado River, a tributary of the Madeira River.
According to a document submitted by the Rousseff administration to the Brazilian Congress, the reduction of protected areas was proposed by the federal environmental agency, ICMBio. However, internal memos reveal that local staff of ICMBio—who are responsible for the management of protected areas in the Tapajós region—expressed direct opposition to the proposal. According to them, the reduction of protected areas, in the absence of socio-economic and environmental assessments of impacts and risks, is likely to cause tremendous damage to the region's biodiversity, including endemic and endangered species, and to the livelihoods of local populations.
Raione Lima, regional coordinator of the Movement for Dam Affected People (MAB) in Itaituba (Pará state) argues that "the government's attempts to reduce the size of conservation units on the Tapajós river shows that it is catering to the interests of large construction contractors, mining interests, agribusiness, commercial loggers and other members of the local elite, at the expense of biodiversity and the rights of indigenous communities and other local populations."
The São Luiz do Tapajós and Jatobá dams are the first of seven large dams proposed by the parastatal energy company Eletronorte for construction along the Tapajós River and its main tributary, the Jamanxim River. The reservoirs of five additional dams (Chacorão, Cachoeira do Caí, Jamanxim, Cachoeira dos Patos, and Jardim de Ouro) would inundate a total of 165,324 hectares in two national parks, four national forests and the Mundurucu indigenous territory. Recently, the Mundurucu tribe denounced Eletronorte's plans to build the Chacorão dam, slated to flood 18,721 hectares of indigenous lands, as a "criminal act" that demonstrates an "absolute lack of concern of the federal government with the rights of the indigenous people of Brazil."
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One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.