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Bill approved by Chamber weakens environmental licensing and increases pressure on territories

In its current form, for example, the Bill waives authorization from bodies responsible for the administration of conservation units at federal level, such as the Chico Mendes Institute of Biodiversity Conservation (Instituto Chico Mendes de Conservação da Biodiversidade: ICMBio); National Human Rights Council (Conselho Nacional de Direitos Humanos: CNDH) recommends Senate suspend debate of General Law for Environmental Licensing.

This June, CESE is presenting information and reports about how an increase in deforestation, disrespect for laws and a lack of punishment for offenders affect the rights of traditional peoples and communities.  In this second text, we provide an analysis of National Congress activity to weaken legislation in favour of the rural caucus, mining companies and others from big business, based on alterations to the General Law for Environmental Licensing.

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On 13 May, Federal Deputy Neri Geller (Progressive Party, Mato Grosso, Partido Progressista: PP-MT), rapporteur for the General Law for Environmental Licensing, Bill (PL 3729/2004) (in Portuguese), obtained approval, by 300 votes to 122, for his text in the Chamber of Deputies, despite significant grassroots pressure.  In the Senate, the bill, which is now numbered 2159, will have rapporteurship from another agribusiness protagonist, Kátia Abreu (PP- Tocantins). The Senator’s recommendation was confirmed on Monday, 14 June.

Geller and Abreu have a lot in common: party colleagues, rural producers, businesspeople, former Ministers of Agriculture in the Dilma Rousseff government and staunch defenders of rural caucus agendas in the National Congress.  Neli Geller, Deputy and Vice-President of the Parliamentary Agricultural Front (Frente Parlamentar da Agropecuária: FPA), obtained approval for his report on the Bill without any alterations from the Chamber.   A section of the approved document is dedicated, for example, to licensing exemption for agricultural activities: the cultivation of temporary, semi-perennial and perennial species of agricultural interest, and extensive and semi-intensive livestock.

It is worth noting that Environmental Licensing has a long history, including in the social debate, since it forms part of the National Environmental Policy, Law no 6938, published on 31 August 1981 and responsible for analysing environmental impacts and the licensing of activities that potentially cause any type of pollution.  Article 225, § 1, Item IV of the 1988 Federal Constitution determines the carrying out of a prior environmental impact study for the installation of works or activities that could cause significant degradation of the environment.

Alessandra Cardoso, political advisor to the Institute for Socio-economic Studies (Instituto de Estudos Socioeconômicos: INESC) explains that the bill, known as the “mother of all cattle herds”, was so described because it “connects to the entire process of environmental deregulation, the weakening of environmental bodies and their institutional capacity to comply with environmental policies.  Now we see an “explosion of the cattle herd” in the legislative authorities – it is no coincidence that this was one of the first bills to be swiftly approved; one that essentially targets the relationship between enterprise, the State, the environment and human rights.”

The Socio-environmental Institute (Instituto Socioambiental: ISA) published a report (in Portuguese) noting that, in addition to agriculture, livestock and forestry, the Geller report waives more than 13 types of licensing activities, such as works for certain kinds of electricity distribution networks and infrastructure maintenance and improvements to pre-existing installations, such as dredging.  The report also allows states and municipalities to adopt their own procedures, which could lead to competition to have the least restrictive rules, in order to attract investment and companies.

According to an ISA survey, through the approved proposal, 297 Indigenous Lands or 41% of the total areas with ongoing demarcation proceedings at the National Indian Foundation (Fundação Nacional do Índio: FUNAI) would be disregarded for the purposes of the assessment, prevention and compensation of the socio-environmental impacts of economic enterprises.  This is because the Geller text only provides for licensing for already regulated territories, that is, where demarcation has been concluded or where use is restricted to isolated indigenous groups.  Even so, only direct impacts would be taken into consideration.

Photo: APIB / Demonstration in front of the headquarters of the National Mining Agency (Agência Nacional de Mineração: ANM) in Brasília, denouncing violations and violence caused by mining in indigenous territories.

Check out the main points of the text approved by the Chamber of Deputies below:

Highway duplication: In the environmental licensing of paving services and works for the duplication of or existing highways or for the right-of-way, a Compliance and Commitment Licence (Licença por Adesão e Compromisso: LAC) must be issued, which is also valid for the expansion or installation of transmission lines in the right-of-way.

High-risk mining: For large-scale or high-risk mining or for both, the bill determines that the rules of the National Environmental Council (Conselho Nacional do Meio Ambiente: CONAMA) be followed, until there is a specific law to deal with this issue. However, for irrigation purposes, small dams are considered to be of public utility, that is, they are exempt from licensing.

Automatic renewal: The text also allows for the automatic renewal of an environmental licence through an online declaration by the entrepreneur, in which they attest that they comply with environmental legislation, describe the characteristics and size of the enterprise and the applicable environmental conditions. Further, if the application is requested at least 120 days prior to the end of the original licence, the validity period will be automatically extended until a definitive decision is made by the licensing authority.

Conservation units: When the enterprise affects a specific conservation unit or its buffer zone, licensing will no longer require authorization from the body responsible for its administration — at the federal level this is the ICMBio.

Single Licence: The Bill also creates the Single Environmental License (Licença Ambiental Única: LAU), through which the installation, expansion and operation of an activity or enterprise, as well as its environmental conditions including its deactivation, will be analysed in a single step.

Repercussions

In the current context of health and socio-environmental crises and with support from the federal government, Congress has accelerated the approval and implementation of bills that impact directly on the lives of traditional peoples and communities, as well as on the environment itself, in favour of interests and sectors such as agribusiness, mining and large national and international corporations.

Leandro dos Santos, a quilombola leader from the Cocalinho Territory in the municipality of Parnarama in Maranhão, believes that bills such as this will further aggravate the numerous conflicts faced by these communities. “They affect and bring about the deaths of ancestral quilombola communities such as ours, and of traditional peoples.  Through this legislation, I think that the number of conflicts in our territories and in traditional communities will rise and these will have an increasingly negative impact, terrorizing and expelling quilombola communities, with more crimes and environmental consequences”.

Photo: Personal archive of the Cocalinho Quilombola Community/Leandro dos Santos, quilombola leader from the Cocalinho Territory in Parnarama, MA

In the neighbouring state of Pará, Alessandra Korap Munduruku is emphatic about demonstrating on social networks against this Bill and so many others that have an impact on the peoples: “if we have the strength to stay standing, we will protect the environment, don’t remove its right to survive”.

Photo: CIMI / Alessandra Munduruku leads a protest against Bill 490 at FUNAI in Brasília

João Marcos Rodrigues Dutra, member of the national coordination team of the Movement of People Affected by Dams (Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens: MAB) in the state of Rondônia, notes that, for a long time, business sectors, including large-scale construction companies, farmers, banks and other big business groups, have made false allegations about problems in the environmental licensing process. “With this, they have put forward false solutions and positioned the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis: IBAMA) and the Department of Public Prosecutions (Ministério Público: MP) as the villains of licensing, that hinder much vaunted ‘progress’”.

Bill 3729 threatens the forests, the Amazon, climate balance, the rivers, the peoples, life in all its forms and needs to be prevented in any way possible by Brazilians who want to live in a fair and sovereign country. João Marcos Rodrigues Dutra, member of the MAB national coordination team in the state of Rondônia and lawyer for the Human Rights Collective

Dutra believes that to address the real licensing problems in Brazil “we need an institutional strengthening policy for licensing bodies, both structurally, and to guarantee their technical independence, which has been the target of constant political intervention to guarantee economic interests”.  According to the MAB leader, it is also necessary to expand social participation and extend the application of Environmental Impact Assessments (Avaliação de Impactos Ambientais: AIA) and Strategic Environmental Assessments (Avaliação Ambiental Estratégica: AAE), instead of allowing disastrous projects and trying to remedy disasters with constraints, as occurred in Porto Velho and Altamira, following the construction of the Jirau, Santo Antônio and Belo Monte Hydroelectric Dams.

Due to the complexity of issues surrounding the bill, and criticism from the opposition in Congress and from various sectors of civil society, on 11 June, during its 21st Extraordinary Meeting, the National Human Rights Council (Conselho Nacional de Direitos Humanos: CNDH) approved a recommendation to the Senate to suspend the processing of the new General Law for Environmental Licensing. “Environmental regulation was the product of years and years of political and social consultation, including countless debates with civil society, with one highlight being the constituent process from which its various strands were constitutionalized – and is the core of environmental protection in the country”. For this reason, according to the CNDH, any legislative change must be preceded by listening to original peoples and communities, quilombolas and civil society.

For CESE, the unequal distribution of land and water is central to the expression of power relations in Brazil. Since its foundation, it has supported struggles in this field, taking account of all its diversity. We therefore note that a fundamental part of our policy for the “Right to Land, Water, and Territory” includes support for agrarian reform and the demarcation of indigenous territories, quilombolas and other traditional communities, access to urban land, land tenure regularization and biodiversity conservation.

*By Elvis Marques, with contributions from Tarcilo Santana and information from the Senate news agency (Agência Senado).