MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, Jul 24 (IPS) – During a meeting with European and Latin American leaders in Brussels last July, Brazilian President Lula da Silva reiterated the bold commitment he had done in his first international speech as president-elect, when he attended the COP27 climate summit in November 2022: zero deforestation in the Amazon by 2030.
Lula’s presence at COP27 was a signal to the world that Brazil was ready to become the climate champion it should be. Next to a asked by the Brazilian Forum of NGOs and Social Movements for Environment and Development, Lula offered to host the 2025 climate summit in Brazil; it is now confirmed that COP30 will be held in Belém, gateway to the Amazon River.
At COP27, Lula also said he destined to revive and modernize the 45 years Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organizationa body that brings together the eight Amazon countries – Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela – to take concerted action to protect the Amazon rainforest.
Four years of regression
During his four years in power, Lula’s far-right predecessor, climate denier Jair Bolsonaro, dismantled environmental protections and crippled key environmental agencies by cutting funding and staffing. He vilified civil society, criminalized activists and discredited the media. It has allowed deforestation to continue at an astonishing rate and encouraged corporations to grab land, clear it for agriculture by setting fires, and carry out illegal logging and mining.
Under Bolsonaro, already beleaguered indigenous communities and activists have become even more vulnerable to attacks. By encouraging the looting of the environment, including on protected and indigenous lands, the government has enabled violence against defenders of the environment and the rights of indigenous peoples. A glaring example is the murder of Brazilian indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips in June 2022. Both were ambushed and killed on the orders of the leader of an illegal transnational fishing ring. The material and intellectual authors of the crimes are now accused and wait for the trial.
Having be elected on a promise to reverse environmental destruction, the new administration sought to restructure and staff oversight and law enforcement institutions. It strengthened the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), the federal environmental policy enforcement agency, and the National Indigenous Peoples Foundation (FUNAI), which is now led for the first time by a native, Joenia Wapichana.
Bolsonaro had transferred FUNAI to the Department of Agriculture, led by a congressional agribusiness caucus leader. Instead of protecting indigenous lands, he allowed deforestation and the expansion of agribusiness.
In contrast, Lula’s first political gestures were to create a new Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs, appointing an indigenous leader Sonia Guajajara direct it and do Marine Silvaleader of the Green Party Rede Sustentabilidade, Minister of the Environment, a position she held between 2003 and 2008.
Lula also restored the Action plan for the prevention and control of deforestation in the Amazon, launched in 2004 and implemented until Bolsonaro took over. In February, the government facility a Permanent Interministerial Commission for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation and Fires in Brazil to coordinate the actions of 19 ministries and develop zero deforestation policies.
The strategy establishes a permanent federal government presence in vulnerable areas with the goal of eliminating illegal activity, establishing bases, and using intelligence and satellite imagery to track criminal activity.
The new Federal Police Director for the Amazon and the Environment, Humberto Freire, has launched a campaign to rid protected indigenous lands of illegal miners. This seems to be bearing fruit: in July, it announcement that around 90% of the miners operating in Yanomami territory, the largest protected indigenous land in Brazil, had been expelled. According to law enforcement sources, there were 19 mine-related deforestation alerts in April 2023 – up from 444 in April 2022.
But the fight is not over. There are still a few thousand active miners and the criminal enterprises that employ them are still alive and well. The key task of reclaiming damaged lands and rivers can only begin once they are all driven out for good. And a problem that calls for international cooperation remains unresolved: Violence and environmental degradation continue unabated in Yanomami communities across the border in Venezuela, and will only increase as illegal miners move out of court.
Achieving the ambitious goal of zero deforestation will require efforts on a much larger scale than in the past. And such efforts will antagonize very powerful people more.
With the environmental program back on track, the pace of deforestation in the Amazon slow motion in the first six months of 2023, down 34% from the same period in 2022. However, the numbers remain high and the reductions are uneven, with two states – Roraima and Tocantins – showing increases. Deforestation also continues to increase in another important part of the Brazilian environment, the Cerrado, where conservation areas are few and most deforestation occurs on private property.
For the Amazon, a crucial test will come in the second half, when temperatures will be higher. A stronger El Niño phase, with warming waters in the Pacific Ocean, will make the weather even drier and warmer than usual, helping the fires spread quickly. Anticipating this, IBAMA has expanded its recruitment of firefighters to expand brigades into Indigenous and Black communities and conduct inspections and impose fines and embargoes. To discourage people from starting fires to clear land for agriculture, the agency prevents them from putting that land for agricultural use.
But in the meantime, the Brazilian Congress has gone on the offensive. In June, the Senate made radical amendments to the draft law on ministries sent by Lula, diluting the powers of the ministries of indigenous peoples and the environment and limiting the demarcation of indigenous lands to those already occupied by the communities in 1998, when the current constitution was promulgated.
Indigenous leaders complained that many communities were off their land in 1998 because they had been evicted over the centuries, and especially during the military dictatorship of 1964-1985. They denounced the new law as “legal genocide” and urged the president to veto it. Civil society took to the streets and social media to support government environmental policies.
They face a formidable enemy. A recent report from the Brazilian intelligence agency exposed the political connections of illegal mining companies. Two business leaders directly associated with this criminal activity are active lobbyists in Congress and have close ties to local politicians. They are also accused of having financed a attempted insurrection January 8.
Against these shady elites, civil society wields the most effective weapon at its disposal, illuminating their actions and letting them know that Brazil and the world are watching and will remain vigilant for as long as it takes. The stakes are too high to let our guard down.
© Inter Press Service (2023) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service