Friday, March 29, 2019

Backward policies and environmental crimes in Brazil

The last few years have been calamitous for the Brazilian nature and environmentalism. In 2015, Brazil experienced one of its vilest environmental tragedies of all times. Due to the rupture of a large dam in Mariana (Minas Gerais State), some 60M m3 of toxic mud from an iron ore mine flowed downriver into the Atlantic, severely affecting the most important river basin of the densely inhabited southeastern region. Low oxygen concentrations and high levels of mercury, arsenic, copper and zinc make the muddy water toxic to both aquatic species and humans, sorely polluting some 760,000 ha of the Atlantic forest and its coast. This tragedy has been directly linked to hazard monitoring failures, amounting to immense management recklessness. To the current day, no one has been convicted for this crime and no fines have been paid, which is an open invitation to more wrongdoing and new attacks to nature.

It is not really surprising then that less than four years since the Mariana disaster, Brazil goes once again through the same tragedy in the same region, though even more catastrophic now. This time a larger dam broke in the town of Brumadinho, generating a mudslide avalanche, severely affecting the landscape and leaving hundreds of people dead and missing. In addition to corpses and environmental destruction, both disasters share the same mining company, which raises the question of how can a company get involved in two such tragedies in such a short time? The answer lies partially in the lenience of the Brazilian government in pointing and punishing the big players responsible for these environmental crimes. However, this is only part of the story…

In the Mariana case, behind the main perpetrating enterprise (Samarco) hides the world’s largest and Brazil’s largest mining parent companies, respectively: BHP Billiton and Vale (the same of Brumadinho case).  BHP Billiton’s profits reached almost US$2 billion in 2015 alone, while Vale’s gross income in the third quarter of 2015 was around US$6 billion. Conversely, fines likely to be levied to these companies by Brazil’s environmental agency (IBAMA) was around U$65M. These penalties can easily be assimilated by the companies’ annual profits and therefore are unlikely to promote any positive changes in their corporate behavior. Even so, these companies have paid less than 7% of the fines, while they have challenged them judicially.

Propelled by economic growth, emerging tropical economies such as Brazil are clearly embarking on a perverse development trap, whereby primary industries may generate thousands of jobs and a large amount tax base, but on the other hand carry high environmental and social costs. These conditions render these countries hostage to big enterprises. This has resulted in increasingly lax licensing laws and penalties, favoring conditions in which environmental crimes clearly pay off. In Brazil, for instance, fewer than 3% of all environmental fines are settled.

These mining ‘accidents’ deserve special consideration because capital-intensive development projects in Brazil are growing at an unprecedented scale. Mining activities in Brazil are expected to grow five-fold over the next 20 years (MME 2010) and there have been repeated political efforts to explicitly downgrade environmental licensing restrictions to favor large-scale mining enterprises. This is even more worrisome in the far-right Bolsonaro's era, whose myopic plans include a rollback of environmental protections and rights of traditional communities, a reorganization of federal science programs, and an aggressive agenda of agricultural, industrial and mineral expansion.

Figure. The town of Mariana after the mining environmental crime.

The project of law PL #3729/200 is a carte blanche for new infrastructure projects and other economic activities, as it considerable reduces their environmental licenses requirements. If implemented, the Brazilian society will not have enough time to analyze the social and environmental costs (or even benefits) of implementing such large projects. To make matters worse, many other bills severely threaten indigenous and traditional communities, preventing new demarcation of Indigenous Lands (IL) and Protected Areas (PA), and allowing mining activities within IL frontiers, without the consent of the indigenous people themselves. These policy setbacks are a clear attack on the sustainable development agenda and social rights of traditional communities, going against many of the agreements that Brazil have signed in the past. There is no sign that the federal government will review and back up on its own conduct even in the aftermath of the shocking crimes of Mariana and Brumadinho.

The civil society and sustainable-development friendly policy makers are in urgent need of rethinking their pillars of development pathways, while they still have to face the herculean task of ensuring that the government base its decision on science instead of ideology and short-term profit Unfortunately, in Bolsonaro's government the future seems muddier and muddier.

By João Vitor Campos-Silva

Further readings
Dr. João Vitor Campos-Silva is a post doc in the "Programa de Pós-Graduação em Diversidade Biológica e Conservação nos Trópicos", Instituto de Ciências Biológicas e da Saúde, Universidade Federal de Alagoas, Av. Lourival Melo Mota, s/n, Tabuleiro dos Martins, CEP:57072-900, Maceió, Alagoas, Brasil.

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