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Stopping Bolsonaro's campaign of environmental destruction

Solicitor in the international department, Richard Thimbleby, discusses President Bolsonaro of Brazil and what hopes there are of stopping his environmental destruction.

Posted on 10 July 2020

Since coming to power in October 2018, on the back of promises to cut through environmental red tape and boost a flagging economy, President Bolsonaro of Brazil has waged war on the environment and environmental defenders in the name of mining and agri-business interests according to his critics.
His approach to business does coincide with an alarming increase in the rate of deforestation in the Amazon at a time when the climate crisis has reached a critical juncture. Brazil’s forests, and particularly the Amazon rainforest, the ‘lungs of the world’ are critical in the fight to limit the worst impacts of climate change according to scientists.
Bolsonaro has chipped away at environmental protections, amongst other measures, placing a series of pro-mining individuals in key environmental ministerial positions, slashing the budgets of IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency, and FUNAI, Brazil’s National Indian Foundation, redistributed powers to certify land to the Ministry of Agriculture, ending the ‘industry of fines’ for individuals and companies, who have illegally deforested land, and claiming Leonardo Di Caprio paid for the forest fires last year.
Now, while Brazil is suffering from one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the world, instead of stepping back, Bolsonaro has ramped up his efforts to open up land to big business.
In his targets now are Brazil’s indigenous peoples who only represent 900,000 people out of the country’s total population of 212 million, but 13 per cent of the land in Brazil. The indigenous land has long acted as a crucial barrier against deforestation. Bolsonaro has made no secret of his disdain towards the indigenous people of Brazil describing them as being less than human, and that it is a shame they have not been wiped out.
Bolsonaro is now trying to pass two critical pieces of legislation through Brazilian Congress. The first known as ‘MP910’ , or latterly ‘Bill 2633/2020’, has been labelled by environment groups  as the “land grabbers decree”.
The Bill will pave the way for farmers illegally squatting on indigenous land to obtain legal title of the land. It is already feared that the proposals of the Bill, has accelerated the deforestation of the Amazon, as illegal farmers see it as a green light to occupy indigenous land.
The second piece of legislation, ‘PL-191/2020’, is designed to open up indigenous land to mining companies and agribusiness for the first time, despite the land’s protected status under the Brazilian constitution.
The world’s largest mining companies are already circulating; Mongabay reports that Anglo American, the London headquartered company, have alone submitted nearly 300 mining applications on indigenous land.  This is a particular worry given Brazil has such a poor record of regulating the mining industry, demonstrated by a number of mining disasters, culminating in the devastating Brumadinho dam disaster, as discussed by Leigh Day solicitor Jonny Buckley in his recent blog.
What hopes are there of stopping Bolsonaro?
Bolsonaro has not had everything his own way. Currently both pieces of legislation have stalled in congress, and it remains to be seen whether his Government with its tarnished reputation will be able to get them passed.
Recourse to the domestic courts, have met with mixed success. Federal judges’ sympathy towards the environment varies widely from state to state. Cases can take years to proceed through the courts. Earlier this year, in what was deemed a landmark victory for indigenous rights, an indigenous community was awarded compensation for illegal deforestation of their land, but this took over 20 years to be resolved by the courts.
On the international level, an ambitious attempt has been made by a group of Brazilian lawyers to have Bolsonaro indicted by the international criminal court for inciting the genocide of indigenous people. While there is little chance of this case going any further, it has helped publicise Bolsonaro’s actions to the international community.
High profile actions such as these, combined with campaigning by NGOs, has met with success as international financial organisations, under public pressure from their shareholders, have been threatening to pull out of Brazil.
Recently over 40 leading UK companies, including Britain’s leading supermarkets, threatened to boycott Brazilian products if the ‘land-grabbers’ bill was passed. It is hoped that in the short term, this kind of pressure will stop the wholesale destruction of Brazil’s natural environment at the hands of big business.