Science, Tech & Environment

Environmentalists are very worried about Brazil's new government

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An aerial view of a section of deforested Amazon forest turned into farmland near the city of Alta Floresta, Para state in June 2013.
Credit:

Nacho Doce/Reuters

Brazil’s acting president is named Michel Temer. Fun fact: In Portuguese, temer means “to fear.”

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For some environmentalists, it’s a fitting name. They are genuinely fearful that the interim leadership will plow down years of modest environmental protection gains.

That’s despite appointing a Green Party member, José Sarney Filho, as environment minister on an all-male cabinet.

Sarney Filho did not respond to calls for comment.

But several leading environmentalists and analysts in Brazil and abroad say they’re worried about a new direction.

The country’s record is far from spotless, but it did set ambitious climate goals and (at times) protected the Amazon under the now suspended President Dilma Rousseff. With her facing impeachment, and a self-described pro-business administration taking over, there’s concern about what’s to come.

The fear: With Brazil’s economy tanking, the environment will be scapegoated in the name of progress.

Formerly vice president, Temer took over this month temporarily while Rousseff is tried for alleged financial crimes. If the Senate votes to impeach Rousseff, he’ll serve out the rest of her term ending in 2018.

Temer inherited a country in deep trouble. Brazil is facing its worst recession in more than 100 years. Its currency has lost more than 40 percent of its value against the dollar in two years. Unemployment has reached double digits.

Some observers worry Temer and his team could attempt to kick-start the economy with legislation that strips away environmental protections. The chief concern: a proposed constitutional amendment that would decimate the licensing system for large infrastructure projects like dams and mines.

Proposal 65 was sponsored by billionaire farmer Blairo Maggi. He’s known here as the “Soybean King,” reigning over an industry that’s often blamed for deforestation. Maggi is the new agriculture minister.

One author of the bill was Romero Jucá. He just stepped down Monday from his post as planning minister after a Brazilian newspaper published leaked phone recordings of him appearing to obstruct a huge criminal investigation that he’s targeted in.

“Members of Temer’s cabinet are behind some of the most regressive attempts to modify the Brazilian constitution,” said Christian Poirier, program director for Amazon Watch, a nonprofit advocacy group that monitors the region. “[Prop. 65] would do away with environmental licensing whatsoever and is one of the most alarming environmental regressions since the fall of the dictatorship.”

The fear: Bad news for the rain forest, bad news for the climate.

Emilio Lèbre La Rovere, a professor and leading expert on climate change based in Rio, warned that Temer has taken over Brazil at a critical juncture. Last year, Rousseff pledged to cut greenhouse emissions by 37 percent below 2005 levels over the next decade and 43 percent by 2030. The country should just about be able to meet those goals if it can curb deforestation in the Amazon region.

But despite dropping significantly in the late-2000s, deforestation rates spiked in 2013 and again in 2015, according to the Environment Ministry. The conservative Temer cabinet looks unlikely to take the sort of strict measures needed to buck that trend and get Brazil back on track for its climate goals, La Rovere said.

“The balance of power is now favoring the other side,” he said, referring to the side of agricultural interests. “Temer isn’t an environmentalist either. So that’s the main source of concern for Brazilian environmentalists.”

The fear: Bad news for Brazil’s indigenous population.

Rousseff was never much of a champion of the environment. But her government at least acted as a “moderator of disputes” between those who want to exploit Brazil’s natural resources and the indigenous population, said Paulo Adario, a campaigner with Greenpeace Brazil.

Temer, on the other hand, has presented plans that seem to pay no attention to the forests’ original inhabitants, Adario said. As such, he expects the new government will pose a long list of challenges for indigenous communities.

“The guys that are coming in — the white men, dressed in black — that are taking power, are very much supported by the ruralists,” Adario said. “The rural sector was the first to call for Dilma’s impeachment.”

Poirier agreed with that. Here’s how he put it:

“Temer's cabinet now is stacked with people who are anti-indigenous,” he said, “who support measures which would essentially end demarcations of indigenous territories, and not only end these demarcations, but allow for large projects to be built inside of indigenous territories.”