ruralists assault environmental laws, Amazon

  • With the Brazilian public focused on the October elections, and many members of congress gone home to organize runs for office, the bancada ruralista, rural lobby, has launched a raft of amendments, attached to unrelated bills, that would undo many of Brazil’s environmental and indigenous protections. There is a strong chance of passage.
  • These stealth measures are known as “jabutis” or “turtles.” Two jabutis, attached to an energy bill, could lead to the privatization of Brazil’s electricity sector, and to allowing the ownership of land by foreigners, currently forbidden in Brazil, for the purpose of building dams, transmission lines, and other energy facilities. Passage could greatly benefit China.
  • Another rider, attached to a bill giving emergency humanitarian assistance to Venezuelan refugees, would abolish a legal requirement to consult with indigenous communities about new energy projects to be built beside roads and railways that already cross their lands. The rider would immediately impact the Waimiri-Atroari Indians in Roraima state.
  • Another jabuti would benefit Cerrado agribusiness by classifying all proposed irrigation projects as “projects of public interest,” making them easier to approve, with less rigorous environmental impact studies. Another jabuti would simplify the environmental licensing process for small hydroelectric dams, potentially harming both the Amazon and Pantanal.
In a rowdy session on 9 May, a mixed commission including members of both Brazilian houses approved changes to MP 814/2017, a provisional measure restructuring the electricity sector. A rider attached to the bill would permit the sale of land to foreign companies, provided this land is used for the generation, transmission or distribution of energy. The measure is seen by opponents as a serious threat to the environment. Image by agencia senado

The jabuti (the red-footed tortoise or Chelonoidis carbonarius) is an animal that appears in surprising places, according to rural Brazilians, who say you can even find it stranded in a treetop, carried there by floodwaters. It is for this reason that the word has come to refer to a trick by which Brazilian politicians stealthily attach a controversial amendment, dealing with a wholly different topic, to major pieces of legislation moving through Congress.

Now is a good time to push through jabutis, with the House of Deputies and Senate emptying as politicians return home to secure their base in the run-up to the general elections in October. So it is that Brazil’s bancada ruralista, the right wing ruralist caucus, has attached a raft of measures to major bills that together, if approved, would result in a catastrophic setback to the environment and social movements in Brazil.

The jabutis would make far-reaching changes, undermining current restrictive laws. Amendments potentially headed toward an up vote would allow foreign companies to buy vast swathes of land in Brazil (currently forbidden), permit the construction of large energy infrastructure projects without consulting indigenous communities, reduce environmental hurdles to large-scale irrigation projects, and simplify environmental licensing for hundreds of small hydroelectric dams, potentially harming above all the Amazon and Pantanal wetlands region.

Many of these controversial legislative riders clearly infringe on existing Brazilian laws, including an international treaty that Brazil has signed (the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169), and also the country’s own 1988 Constitution.

Environmentalists and social movements will certainly fight back, and in the past they have defeated the rural lobby. But over the years the ruralist caucus — representing industrial agribusiness, mining, energy and construction interests, as well as elite land thieves — has learnt how to leverage Congress and its parliamentary procedures to gain passage of measures that would likely be rejected if there was a full and informed political debate.

National Force police flown in by the Temer government to protect the São Manoel dam from a Munduruku indigenous protest. The dam was built by a consortium led by the China Three Gorges Corporation. One of the legislative riders now in the Brazilian congress would allow foreign companies like China Three Rivers to buy land outright on which to build dams, transmission lines and other energy projects, rather than being required to be part of a consortium that includes Brazilian companies. Image by Fernanda Moreira.

A troubling political landscape

Now, with presidential front runner, Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva, Brazil’s charismatic former president, in jail, polls show that Brazil may be poised to elect as its next president the extreme right-wing politician, Jair Bolsonaro, a staunch ally of the rural lobby, and a populist with disdain for indigenous rights and environmentalism — dubbed “Brazil’s Trump.”

However, the political situation remains highly volatile, and there is no assurance of a Bolsonaro victory come October. So the rural lobby has aggressively seized the current legislative opportunity.

One way in which the rural lobby has achieved its goals is by imposing stiff conditions on President Michel Temer in order to assure ruralist support in congress. Temer is a weak unpopular president with a single digit approval rating, and he depends on the lobby to stay in office and not face serious corruption charges.

Since taking power in 2016, Temer has issued a wave of executive orders, or provisional measures (medidas provisórias, MPs), which largely benefit the lobby. These measures are valid for 60 days, and require congressional approval to remain in force after that.

The use of MPs by the president (a mechanism created by the 1988 constitution and intended only for emergencies), has become a commonplace for Temer, as the ruralists seek to quickly push through controversial measures they fear could be stopped if civil society has time to mobilize.

To make the MPs even more retrogressive than they are, the ruralists at times attach jabutis. These maneuvers were banned by the Supreme Court in 2015, but the rural lobby still uses them.

Over the last few weeks the lobby has issued what opposition politicians have called “a plantation of jabutis.” In a flurry of activity, it has got several of these jabutis approved by Congressional commissions, the first step toward legislative approval. There is now a real risk that some of these amendments could become law.

A Munduruku indigenous woman. The Munduruku strongly oppose what they see as injustices committed in connection with dam construction on the Teles Pires River, including the São Manoel dam, built by a consortium led by the China Three Gorges Company. A jabuti, or rider, now in front of congress would allow foreign companies, to directly buy land for their energy projects, a practice currently forbidden in Brazil. Image by Mauricio Torres.

An energy bill becomes a privatization bill

In a rowdy session on 9 May, a commission made up of members of both houses approved by 17 votes to 7 changes in MP 814/2017, a provisional measure that aims to restructure the electricity sector. Opposition politicians tried in vain to stop the new MP, presented by Júlio Lopes, of the right wing Partido Popular. Opponents argued that, without debate, this revised MP had been changed from a modest measure, which consisted of just four articles, to a sweeping initiative, made up of 30 articles, that will transform the energy sector.

The opposition says that the MP, if approved, will increase electricity bills and absorb financial resources that should be used for public health and education. State-owned electricity companies would be provided with new mechanisms for paying back their huge debts, transferring more of the cost to the consumer. These are big changes that, opposition politicians say, require broader public debate.

Lopes withdrew the most controversial element in the MP — an authorization to privatize the state-owned Eletrobras (Latin America’s largest utility company), and the companies it controls, via the National Program of Denationalization (PND). However, many believe this withdrawal is no more than a tactical move and that an attempt to privatize Eletrobras will come again soon.

Rural lobby members have expressed satisfaction with the approval of the new version of the MP. Senator Eduardo Braga said that the bill “restructures, reorganizes and makes viable the electricity sector” and “guarantees energy security for the next 50 years.” Wilson Ferreira Júnior, president of Eletrobras, said that it “eliminated doubts” and “brought transparency” about the privatization of energy distribution.

Construction of the São Manoel hydroelectric project, built by a consortium led by the China Three Gorges company. Many Brazilians fear the takeover of their country’s resources, such as oil, land and rivers, by foreign interests, so they would likely oppose the jabuti now in congress that will allow foreign ownership. However, the Brazilian media has done a poor job of informing the public of the rider. Photo by Mauricio Torres

Jabutis #1, #2: Opening the door to foreign land ownership

While environmentalists and social movements object to the new version of the MP itself, it is the jabutis that were inserted into it that concern them most.

One amendment, introduced by Fábio Garcia, a Mato Grosso federal deputy for the right-wing DEM Party and a prominent member of the rural lobby, will permit the sale of land to foreign companies, provided this land is used for the generation, transmission or distribution of energy. Opposition politicians are calling it a jabuti because the rider craftily inserts the issue of land ownership into an MP dealing with energy.

The rural caucus has long lobbied for foreigners to be allowed to own land in Brazil, currently forbidden. Indeed, the ruralistas have presented a bill to do exactly this, which is presently moving through Congress. However, the issue of foreign land ownership is highly objectionable to most Brazilians, since the time of nationalist president, Getúlio Vargas. He created the giant state-owned oil company, Petrobrás, in 1953, and most of the public still believes that only Brazilians should be allowed to own key assets, including oil and land.

This jabuti is seen by analysts as an attempt by the ruralists to finally break the deadlock, a maneuver to avoid debate and take a first step toward allowing foreigners to buy land throughout Brazil. Garcia denies this accusation, insisting the motive behind his amendment is practical and limited: to guarantee that foreign firms that win contracts for big energy projects will not face bureaucratic delays. Currently, foreign firms must form a consortium that includes Brazilian companies in order to buy or rent the land needed for hydroelectric dams, wind and solar projects, transmission lines and energy distribution stations.

“I’m only concerned with the electricity sector,” stated Garcia.

China, which a year ago pledged a $20 billion investment in Brazilian infrastructure, along with its national construction companies, could be a big winner if this jabuti becomes law, allowing the Asian nation to play an even bigger role in dam building than it does today.

Maurício Guetta, the lawyer for the Socialenvironmental Institute (ISA, Instituto Socioambiental), an NGO, has another concern: “One possible effect of this measure, and a very serious one, would be to allow foreigners to acquire farms that supply raw material for the generation of energy, like sugar cane [for the production of ethanol],” he said. “They are smuggling in an amendment to find a way round the current legislation on this theme.”

Deputy Gabriel Guimarāes, from the Workers’ Party (PT), introduced another potentially environmentally harmful amendment. This jabuti would exempt companies in the electricity sector from the obligation to register their properties with the Rural Environmental Inventory (Cadastro Ambiental Rural, CAR). Guimarães refused to give the reason for his amendment and has denied that it is a jabuti.

However, critics say the proposed measure has little to do with energy, but is meant to weaken environmental safeguards, something Guimarāes’ party was repeatedly accused of doing in the past, particularly under President Dilma Rousseff. “With the exclusion of these properties from the CAR, it will be extremely difficult for the authorities to [inventory and track them and] ensure that the Forest Code is respected,” explained Guetta.

Another problem with this amendment, according to analysts, concerns Areas of Permanent Preservation (Areas de Preservação Permanente, APPs). When a consortium builds a hydroelectric dam, it creates a reservoir and the law now requires that an area around that water body be conserved as an APP. The authorities monitor APPs through CAR. But if the dam building consortium doesn’t have to register its land via CAR, it will be far harder for authorities to know whether the consortium has created the APP and is conserving the land.

MP 814/2017, including its jabutis, has been approved by the legislative commission, but now has to make its way through both houses. Time is tight — if the measure is not approved by 1 June, it loses validity.

The Waimiri-Atroari are specifically targeted by a jabuti, a rider that would abolish a current legal requirement to consult with indigenous communities regarding new energy projects to be installed beside roads and railways that already cross their ancestral territory, a violation of the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169, a treaty which Brazil has signed. If passed, the rider could allow the construction of infrastructure projects on indigenous lands across Brazil without consultation, provided a road or railway already crossed the land. Image by Mario Vilela FUNAI.

Jabuti #3: Installing energy projects without indigenous consultation

Another jabuti, potentially harmful to indigenous groups and the environment, has been attached to a bill concerning a very different topic — a provisional measure (MP820/2018) that offers humanitarian assistance to the growing number of refugees fleeing Venezuela into Brazil. The unrelated amendment would abolish a current legal requirement to consult with indigenous communities regarding new energy projects to be installed beside roads and railways that already cross their ancestral territory, a direct violation of the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169, a treaty to which Brazil is a signatory.

The rapporteur of this amendment is Jhonatan de Jesus, one of a handful of deputies who represent the northern Amazonian state of Roraima, a stronghold of the rural lobby. He openly admits to proposing this amendment to allow an electrical transmission line to be built across the territory of the Waimiri-Atroari Indians.

The amendment, if passed, would negate a judicial order made by the Amazonas state federal justice in February 2018, disallowing large-scale projects from being carried out on Waimiri-Atroari lands without their consent. The Waimiri-Atroari are greatly concerned about the transmission line, as they recall the catastrophic impact their communities suffered during the military dictatorship, when the BR-174 highway, a road running from Manaus to Boa Vista, was forced across their land. They have fought long and hard to stop the proposed transmission line project. The jabuti could undo all that effort.

A large-scale irrigation system in the Cerrado, where soy, corn and cotton make heavy water demands. Conservationists are concerned about the draining of aquifers due to rapid agribusiness expansion. A jabuti rider attached to MP 824/2014, likely pushed by agribusiness, would make planned irrigation projects far easier to get approved, with much less rigorous environmental impact studies. Image by Flávia Milhorance.

Jabutis #4 and #5: A water giveaway to agribusiness

Two other jabutis have been attached to MP 824/2014, which deals with irrigation. One seeks to classify all proposed irrigation projects as “projects of public interest.” This designation would make such projects much easier to get approved, with much less rigorous environmental impact studies required. The amendment would also allow currently protected riverbanks around these irrigation projects to be deforested.

Soy growers in the Cerrado, Brazil’s savanna, are believed to be behind this amendment, as they want a quick solution to water shortages faced by industrial agribusiness. However, many local people are critical of the huge amount of water soy producers already consume, dubbing the pumps they use to extract riverwater “the pivots of dissension.”

Climatologists note that recent drastic changes in the Cerrado landscape brought by agribusiness are also altering the regional rain regime for the worse. The Cerrado includes vast aquifers critical to Brazil’s water supply, and is the headwaters to major rivers that flow down to São Paulo and other heavily urbanized areas, which are also suffering severe water shortages.

Another jabuti seeks to simplify the environmental licensing process for small hydroelectric dams, of between 30-50 megawatts, known as PCHs. This amendment is also controversial, as it could prove particularly damaging to both the Amazon and the Pantanal, Brazil’s biologically rich wetlands.

A jabuti rider now moving through congress seeks to simplify the environmental licensing process for small hydroelectric dams, of between 30-50 megawatts, known as PCHs. This amendment could prove particularly damaging to both the Amazon and the Pantanal, Brazil’s biologically rich wetlands. Photo by mhpproject/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

Pierre Girard, a lecturer in geology from the Federal University of Mato Grosso, warns that PCHs are not as small as many people imagine, often requiring the flooding of up to 13 square kilometers (5 square miles). He continues: “There are 41 PCHs already functioning in the Alto Paraguai River basin, which is the region where the headwaters of the rivers that feed the Pantanal are located, and they are planning another 96.”

Those projects together, he says, will produce a total of 9,000 megawatts, with each having a very small energy output. But, he adds, “These 96 PCHS will have a huge environmental impact… So I ask if it is worth harming the ecological integrity of the Pantanal for such a low energy return? Wouldn’t it be better to invest in solar energy?”

Analysts and observers of the congress agree that all these jabutis, with their sweeping potential impacts, need to be widely debated by Brazilian society. But with many senators and deputies absent, and the public distracted by news of the approaching elections, this discussion is not happening. So far, the wave of stealth legislation has scarcely been mentioned in the mainstream Brazilian press. By far, the best coverage is coming from the NGO Instituto Socioambiental, which monitors congress closely.

The risk is that the surreptitious “turtles” will be rushed into law by ruralista legislators before the people even know that the jabutis exist.

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The red-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonarius), or jabuti, appears in surprising places, according to rural Brazilians. The word has now come to refer to a strategy by which Brazilian politicians stealthily attach controversial amendments to major pieces of legislation in order to gain approval without public debate — ironic in that some of the “jabutis” now moving through congress could help extinguish the real jabuti along with other species. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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