“Unacceptable,” said the Brazilian Minister of the Environment, Joaquim Leite, commenting on the data on the 22% increase in deforestation in the Amazon, the highest in 15 years. As a result of COP26, the press conference given by Leite together with Foreign Minister Carlos França in the last week of November marked a change in the environmental discourse of the Jair Bolsonaro government, from which a single complaint on the subject had never emerged. However, weeks after declaring themselves “surprised” by the data, government officials continue to act in the same way as in the last three years. At this time, a coordinated action between the Planalto Palace, the seat of the presidency, the ruralist banks in the National Congress and the mining companies is accelerating to the maximum four bills to change the norms of environmental protection in the country.
One of the changes aims to facilitate the exploitation of mines, as generally illegal extractive mining is known, and allowing the illegal occupation of public lands. At the same time, the military arm of the Executive, this time reflected in the figure of the Minister of the Institutional Security Cabinet, General Augusto Heleno, has authorized the start of gold exploitation projects in seven areas of the most protected forest region of the country. Amazonia, known as “dog’s head”, in the northwest of the Amazon. Currently, there is no mining company in this town, which is the area with the highest indigenous density in the country – 76% of its population is made up of indigenous peoples – and deforestation in one year grew by 1%.
Non-governmental organizations and representatives of indigenous communities have issued several warnings about the attacks that have been unleashed at the end of the third year of the Bolsonaro government. The most recent came to light after a newspaper report Newspaper reveal that General Heleno authorized seven gold mining projects in the surroundings of the city of São Gabriel da Cachoeira. The permit belonged to Heleno in his capacity as executive secretary of the National Defense Council, an advisory body of the Presidency of the Republic that must rule on the occupation of this territory, located less than 150 kilometers from a border. São Gabriel da Cachoeira is in the vicinity of Colombia and Venezuela. About 45,000 indigenous people from 23 towns are concentrated in the town.
At least two more steps still need to be taken before the miners enter this territory of 12,700 hectares. The first is an authorization from the National Mining Agency. The second would be to obtain the environmental license, which should be granted by the Amazon Environmental Protection Institute (Ipaam), a state body, that is, neither federal nor national. The Brazilian Environment Institute (Ibama) only authorizes projects on indigenous lands, in environmental conservation units or on lands that are divided between two or more states, which is not the case.
The movement carried out by Heleno shows how the military acts in the Government. While Vice President Hamilton Mourão is appointed to lead the National Council of the Legal Amazon, where he reiterates the role of environmental protection, the head of the Institutional Security Cabinet (GSI) acts in a different direction. It seems an agreed game, in the opinion of those who know how the military institution works. In practice, both end up acting in a similar way. “The mentality, the vision of the Brazilian military regarding the use of indigenous lands and the protection of the environment is the same. They understand that it is necessary to occupy the zones, at any cost. And they use the false argument of national sovereignty ”, considers the Brazilian Army Reserve Colonel Marcelo Pimentel, a researcher on militarism in Brazil.
This occupation of the territory, in practice, does not take into account the social and environmental impact that mining companies have on the environment. There is consensus among professionals in the sector that mining, no matter how careful and regulated it may be, will never leave the place as it was before. It always involves some level of damage, be it to the soil, vegetation or the surrounding population. There are several reports of indigenous peoples with excess mercury – used in mining – in their bodies in exploitation areas. “Is it worth extracting gold in São Gabriel da Cachoeira than keeping the forest standing? Of course not. Mining benefits people who are not even from the Amazon and creates a culture that involves more harm than good, ”says Suely Araújo, public policy specialist at the Climate Observatory and former president of Ibama.
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The indigenous communities living in the region promise to resist and seek legal means to prevent mining exploitation. “In the 80s and 90s we managed to get rafts from miners of the Negro River. Now we will fight so that mines don’t settle here, ”Marivelton Baré, president of the Federation of Indigenous Organizations of Río Negro (FOIRN), told EL PAÍS. According to him, at least four of the seven areas authorized by the GSI border indigenous lands. In practice, all of them would end up affecting their territories, since, for mining exploitation, it is necessary to deforest and use products that degrade fauna, flora and rivers. “It does not seem that we have a general-minister, but a general-gold miner”, ironizes Baré.
FOIRN also issued a note in which it complained about the attempted mining exploitation in the area: “We repudiate authoritarian attitudes supported by antiquated ideals of economic development, which have only led to disease, death and degradation to the Amazon and its peoples.” Required by EL PAÍS, the Ministry of the Environment did not comment on the Government’s attempt to establish mines in the most protected region of the Amazon.
In recent weeks, in national territory or at events outside the country, the Government has given speeches in which the reinforcement of deforestation control is guaranteed. Along these lines, Vice President Mourão and Minister Joaquim Pereira Leite abounded. The failure to put the speech into practice has led to opposite results so far. The National Institute for Space Research has recorded that the deforestation rate in the Brazilian Legal Amazon has increased by 21.97% in one year. Between August 1, 2020 and July 31, 2021, a total of 13,235 square kilometers of forest were cleared. It is the highest figure in the last 15 years. “The performance of the vice president has been disastrous. Just look at the three consecutive increases in deforestation. The Government brought a Brazil that does not exist to the Glasgow Climate Summit. What we have actually seen is that science does not lie, ”says Greenpeace spokesperson for the Amazon, Rômulo Batista.
“Combo of death” in Congress
While the Government does little to contain the advance of environmental destruction, in the Legislature there is a process of relaxing the norms for the protection of nature. This week, the Senate Environment Committee tried to symbolically vote two bills that deal with the occupation of public lands and a third that makes environmental licenses more flexible, by allowing the self-declaration of the interested party in the initiative (within the so-called bill from land grabbing, alluding to the picaresque practice of guarding deeds with crickets to make them look old and thus authenticate illegal appropriations of public lands), instead of undertaking a strict inspection. In this case, it makes environmental licensing the rule rather than the exception. It is what NGOs have called the “combo of death.” The project on licensing has been postponed until next week.
In the case of the two proposals for the occupation of areas, they allow people who have taken possession of public lands before 2014 to remain on them, even if they have deforested them irregularly. Another is even broader and stipulates the regularization of illegal lands until 2019. As there have been some changes in the proposal, it will still be reviewed next week or at the beginning of the legislative year in February.
In the Chamber, a working group is studying the new Mining Code, which was presented last week. The main change with respect to the current legislation is that it makes mining an “activity of public utility, of national interest and essential for human life”. If approved, it could give the industry special prerogatives. “It would be the same as saying that a mine it is more important than an indigenous land, ”says Batista, from Greenpeace.
In addition, the draft of this new code foresees that the processes stopped for more than a year in the National Mining Agency will be automatically approved. If this happens, 93,272 applications for exploitation, mining and research permits would be granted by the agency, according to a survey published by the Infoamazônia portal.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.