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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The next stage of voting on Brazil’s new Forest Code—which could have devastating impacts on the Amazon—has been once again postponed before going to President Dilma Rousseff, who can either approve or veto it. The new code, which has been labelled a ‘forest protection measure,' has been so badly altered that it has become nothing more than an invitation for bulldozers and chainsaws to come to the forests.
The new forest proposal was passed by the Senate last week, and was set to be voted on this week by the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Brazil’s National Congress. However, at the Chamber meeting, the vote that was meant to happen was postponed until March 2012. While this means more time for the agribusiness sector to make even more damaging changes to the Forest Code, it also means more time to make sure President Rousseff hears the worldwide demand to protect the Amazon.
In the past week alone, 50,000 of you sent emails directly to President Rousseff urging her to use her veto power to protect the Amazon. This same demand was made by people all over the world and a wide spectrum of civil society groups, including World Wildlife Fund, Avaaz.org, and Floresta Faz a Diferença, a Brazilian coalition.
The discussions on changes to Brazil’s Forest Code have lasted more than a decade in total, including a two-year long messy legislative process in the National Congress. There have been multiple delays along the way and a last minute effort from scientists, environmentalists, religious leaders and social movements to restore sanity to the Forest Code with amendments designed to make the Code an effective measure for forest protection. Despite this, the Senate, under intense pressure from the agribusiness sector, voted to pass the new Forest Code last week and open the Amazon up for widespread destruction. The final result threatens to turn back the clock on several years of struggle against deforestation and grant amnesty to past crimes of illegal deforestation.
Inside Brazil, more than 1.5 million people have already called for action against the new Forest Code, but the fight to save the Amazon is not over. President Rousseff is still the only real chance to stop this regressive Forest Code in its tracks, before it is delivered on a silver platter to the agribusiness sector. The delay means there is more time to stop this destructive new code. We will continue to stand up for the Amazon against this threat, but we will still need your support.
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Thousands of people occupied the great lawns in front of the Brazilian National Congress sending a resounding message to President Dilma Rousseff against granting amnesty for illegal deforestation, exemption from the obligation to recuperate devastated Permanent Protection areas and restore legal reserve vegetation, and vehemently repudiating the new pro-ruralista legislation.
The demonstration that took place Nov. 29 in Brasilia shows how far the House of Representatives and Federal Senate are failing to represent the interests of Brazilian society as a whole in the discussions on the proposed changes to the Forest Law. Thousands of students, environmentalists, researchers, family farmers, progressive parliamentarians and representatives of civil society occupied the lawns in front of the Congress and the Três Poders Square, in Brasilia, to show that Brazil is not willing to accept modifications to its environmental legislation that only promote the interests of a favored few—in this case the big agribusiness and landholding interests of the ruralistas.
The group unfolded a peaceful protest against the legal text of the draft reform bill that will come before the Senate for voting, probably in the next few days. Criticism is most vociferous against the proposal to pardon environmental crimes committed before July 2008, the proposed changes to the form of calculating the size of Permanent Protection and legal reserve areas, the exemption from the obligation to recuperate illegally deforested areas and the transfer of the power of decision on a series of environmental issues to the state and municipal spheres of authority.
Former Senator and ex-Minister of the Environment Marina Silva defended the mobilization of the people to pressure senators to reject the retrograde proposals and to call on the president to veto the provisions that promote amnesty and reduce protection for the legal reserve and Permanent Protection areas. “Dilma will be more than justified in vetoing these points of the law in keeping with the commitments she made during the second round of the presidential election campaign," she said.
Senator for Amapa Randolfe Rodrigues (PSOL) also spoke out during the demonstration. He regretted last week’s approval of the draft version presented by Senator for Acre Jorge Viana (PT). “The draft bill as it stands only benefits a handful of big agribusiness groups and large landowners and it will actually be promoting and rewarding deforestation in the Amazon. The text sets us against the tide of history, it stands for economic power alone, which destroys and debilitates so many beautiful things," he said.
Via Campesina representative Luiz Zarref feels that the people have been sending very clear messages that they are not willing to accept the changes proposed in the ruralistas’ draft bill. “Agribusiness has no serious commitments to society as a whole. They release their pesticides from their crop-dusting aircraft onto the crops, families, cities forests and wild animals below. Those that only know how to produce commodities for export see the forest as an enemy. Family-based agriculture produces food crops without resorting to the destruction of the forests," he said.
University of Brasilia sociology student Pedro Piccolo highlighted the grassroots mobilization on this issue and declared that society’s dissatisfaction with the changes that are being pushed through in the Senate and House of Representatives is very clear. “The Congress and the federal government are on their knees before the big agribusiness interests. The supposed concern for governability is casting out our dreams of a better country," he said.
There were also around 300 children in the Tres Poderes square showing the Congress and the president of the Republic that the upcoming generations are the ones that will be most highly jeopardized by the changes to the Forest law. A petition with more than 1.5 million signatures was handed in to the president of the republic expressing society’s deep discontent with the direction taken by the debate on the draft bill in the Senate and House of Representatives and calling on the president to veto those provisions that contemplate amnesty for deforestation and the reduction of Permanent Protection and Legal Reserve areas.
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