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Amid political upheaval, is environmental protection on the way out in Brazil?

Wednesday, 1 June 2016 10:41 GMT

In this 2013 photo, Munduruku Indians from the Amazon Basin demonstrate in front of the Ministry of Mines and Energy in Brasilia by lying on the street to symbolize the dead. The Indians are calling for the suspension of the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant on the Xingu, Teles Pires and Tapajos rivers. REUTERS/Lunae Parracho

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As Brazil flounders in political crisis, are environmental protections quietly - and catastrophically - being undermined?

In 2009, when environmentalists and human rights advocates rallied against the kick-start of the Belo Monte dam in the Amazon, Brazil’s Energy minister, Edison Lobão, reacted with indignation.

He called opposition to the dam a “demonic force” that was “holding the country back” and trying to stop Brazil from achieving “the energy security we need so much”.

As it turns out, a demonic force was indeed at play in Belo Monte: corruption. Constructors who headed the consortium that built the mega-dam were arrested by the Federal Police in the wake of Operation Car Wash (“Lava Jato”), and confessed a kickback scheme involving the President’s party, PT, and its allied party, PMDB, whose big men, Lobão among them, have controlled the Brazilian electric sector for decades.

The builders stated in plea bargains that at least $30 million from the $10 billion construction work was distributed as bribes to politicians, including Lobão, and other dam advocates, such as former economic minister Antonio Delfim Netto, who used to portray non-governmental organisations opposed to the project as mouthpieces to “foreign interests”.

Both Lobão and Delfim Netto deny any wrongdoing.

Belo Monte is just the latest product of a ruinous development model that has been operating in Brazil for decades, in which unsustainable infrastructure is deployed and funded with public money, part of which is diverted to feed political campaigns and to fill the pockets of middlemen.

The same logic applies to the oil and gas sector, which gave us both soaring carbon emissions and the Petrobras bribery scandal.  

Such well-oiled machinery operates with hardly any checks and balances, except for Brazil’s fairly advanced environmental licensing legislation, which governments often strive to bypass.

Now, however, as the country flounders in its worst political crisis in decades, some forces seem to have decided that that very legislation has to go. The consequences for forests, cities, traditional communities, natural resources, and the climate could be catastrophic.

PMDB, the party of acting Brazilian President Michel Temer, has made the “flexibilisation” of environmental licensing a touchstone of its program to revive Brazil’s failing economy. It has been trying to pass in Congress new legislation that removes projects deemed of “national interest” from the normal licensing process.

Another proposal, currently being debated at the National Environmental Council, would give businesses the prerogative to license themselves – all the government would have to do would be to check them out from time to time and see if things are okay.

Imagine how such “self-licensing” would have worked with Samarco, the mining company whose tailings dam broke up last November killing 18 people and causing what has been called Brazil’s worst environmental disaster ever.

If those weren’t enough, two senators from the agricultural caucus have presented a proposal that deals with all the subtleties above in a single pen-stroke: they want to amend the Constitution in order to ban environmental licensing altogether.

If you think they can’t be serious about this, please notice that the amendment proposal has already passed the Senate's most important committee.

Behind all these proposals is an agenda that unites nearly the whole Brazilian political class: both sides of the rift around Temer and impeached President Rousseff want to weaken Operation Car Wash and make life easier for constructors, so that money can keep flowing in.

The Federal Police operation has already jailed an acting senator and investigated dozens of other politicians, including the presidents of the Senate and the Chamber (who's been removed from office by the Supreme Court). Meanwhile, powerful construction officials are in jail and many infrastructure projects are frozen, which means a hard time for campaigns.

Brazil should seize on this somber moment to rethink everything, beginning with energy planning.

The country has made a wrong gamble in fossil fuels – today 70 percent of all energy investment for the next decade is locked in fossil fuel sources such as offshore pre-salt oil, which will largely need to stay in the ground if the world is serious about limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

Large dams are being planned with total disregard for actual energy demand and without taking into consideration worsening drought, which threatens hydropower. Coal is making a comeback. As recent severe droughts have made clear, none of those choices is giving Brazil any “energy security”.

It’s time to think big and go small: the price is right for distributed power generation – or generating power at smaller-scale, close to where it is used – which is largely impervious to corruption and to pollution.

The transport sector should be gradually electrified, and biofuels should be rescued from the oblivion they were shoved into after Brazil struck oil.

Strengthening its obligations under the Paris Agreement to tackle climate change can help the Latin American country change the tune and pace of its development.

The current model has given us environmental degradation and its sister, corruption. As Brazil looks forward to finding a way out of its political, economic, and moral crisis, getting rid of both evil twins would be a great start.

Márcio Santilli is a co-founder of Brazilian NGO Instituto Socioambiental. He is a former congressman and a former president of Funai, the federal authority for the protection of indigenous peoples. Carlos Rittl is the executive secretary of the Brazilian Climate Observatory, a coalition of 41 civil society organizations