BRAZIL: Environment Minister Under Fire from All Sides

  • by Fabiana Frayssinet (rio de janeiro)
  • Inter Press Service

Known for his provocative statements, Minc accused the 'ruralistas,' the name given to lawmakers who represent agribusiness interests, of being 'swindlers' after they won important modifications in their favour to a draft law to regulate land ownership in the Amazon jungle, which is now only awaiting President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s signature.

The ruralista legislators replied in the same vein. 'These Brazilians who work for Brazil, whom the gentleman has called 'swindlers,' are responsible for creating one-third of the jobs' in the country, said Senator Kátia Abreu of the rightwing Democratic Party (DEM), who is the president of the National Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock (CNA), which wants to take the minister to court.

The controversy flared up again after the Senate last week narrowly approved the contentious law that will grant farmers title to up to 1,500 hectares of land in the Amazon jungle illegally occupied since 2004.

The final version that passed the Senate is substantially different from the original draft law introduced by the left-wing Lula administration, which contained a number of requirements, such as replanting deforested areas and limits on further logging.

The original proposal set a period of 10 years for the complete regularisation of land titles, in order to verify that the requirements had been met. But the amended version reduced that period to just three years.

Another controversial modification is that regularised lands of between 400 and 1,500 hectares may be re-sold after three years, while small landowners with 100 to 400 hectares must wait 10 years to sell. Previously, the rule was 10 years for all.

Environmentalists complain that the new law may allow lands of up to 1,500 hectares to be registered in the name of companies or front men for large landowners. According to Marcio Astrini, the coordinator of Greenpeace Brazil's 'Zero Deforestation' campaign, this will open the doors to the 'privatisation' or 'internationalisation' of the Amazon.

Minc had warned that if the proposed changes to the original text were approved, an 'environmental disaster' could ensue. He added his voice to those of environmentalists and lawmakers calling on Lula not to sign the law as it now stands.

The law 'has been distorted,' and now instead of benefiting occupiers of small plots of land, it favours large companies and land speculators, Minc said at a rally Monday in front of the Rio de Janeiro state parliament, convened by SOS Mata Atlântica, Instituto Terra, Viva Rio and other environmental and small farmer organisations.

To continue along this line would be tantamount to 'giving land titles away with one hand and a chainsaw with the other,' said Minc, who has participated in previous demonstrations against the proposed modifications.

He also fears that enactment of the amended law will threaten the Amazon Fund, launched to receive international donations for protecting the Amazon rainforest.

Astrini, who together with other environmental organisations and some sectors of the governing Workers' Party (PT) is asking Lula to veto the law, also described the situation as 'an environmental disaster.'

'This law rewards the invasions and deforestation of the Amazon that have occurred in recent years,' he told IPS. The original proposal 'was bad enough, but now it's even worse,' he said.

Like other organisations, Greenpeace criticised the original government proposal for 'eliminating the public tendering process for awarding land titles,' and for failing to differentiate in favour of 'those settling on the land to produce food, for example, or simply for subsistence, as against those who just want to speculate and leave the land unproductive.'

Greenpeace said the law will enable 80 percent of illegally appropriated public land, totalling 67 million hectares, to be privatised and end up not only in the hands of farmers but also of private business interests.

'They are handing over public assets to crooks,' said Astrini, referring to the speculation to which the measure will give rise.

For her part, PT Senator Marina Silva, Minc's predecessor as environment minister, fought against the changes to the law and stressed the violence caused by 'grilhagem' (illegal land occupation).

Between 1999 and 2008 there were 5,380 land conflicts involving 2.7 million people and a toll of 253 murder victims.

'Those who defend the measure say that it will legalise the land occupations, but instead 15 years of serious work against the invasions will go by the board,' Silva said in a speech to the Senate before the law was approved.

The law rewards illegal land occupation linked to the most powerful agriculture and lumber industry interests, said Silva, who stepped down as environment minister in May 2008 after clashing with sectors within the government itself that were promoting development projects to the detriment of natural habitats.

Together with Minc and the PT, Silva is calling on Lula not to sign the amended measure into law. As environment minister, the senator faced stiff resistance, even within the governing alliance, because of her opposition to large infrastructure projects, such as hydroelectric plants or highways in the Amazon, that were backed by other ministries.

The same vested interests are now besieging Minc, who was scolded this week by Lula for publicly criticising other ministers like Alfredo Nascimento (transport), Reinhol Stephanes (agriculture) and Mangabeira Unger (strategic affairs).

Nevertheless, the minister says he is in no danger of losing his post, although he acknowledged he would not hesitate to leave if his reputation and track record as an environmentalist were at stake.

According to Astrini, if Minc were to resign it would be a 'new disaster.' 'The offensive against him is because he is upsetting' economic interests and 'those sectors are mounting a counter-offensive,' the Greenpeace activist said.

He said that Silva 'left the ministry for the same reasons, because she would not sign off on government plans for building hydroelectric dams that would have an environmental impact, and for modifications to the forestry code.

'She found herself all alone in her struggle,' he added.

The National Confederation of Agricultural Workers (CONTAG) issued a communiqué in support of Minc in the midst of the crossfire he is receiving within the government and from sectors linked to large landowners.

CONTAG's Environment Secretary, Rosicléia dos Santos, told IPS that the minister 'is sympathetic towards the model of family agriculture, which agribusiness does not like.'

In its statement, CONTAG says that Minc 'is being pummelled by economic sectors and political groups that have never been committed to achieving sustainable development on the basis of social justice and environmental preservation.'

CONTAG advocates a forestry code that differentiates between 'a property of five to 60 hectares that produces food and preserves the environment, and others that have 400,000 or 500,000 hectares of monoculture crops, which degrade and destroy the environment.'

'The alliance we have with the minister is vitally important to us, because he defends this model of family agriculture as a strategic tool for sustainable production,' dos Santos said.

Family farms produce 70 percent of the food consumed in Brazil, according to official figures.

Several environmental organisations issued a manifesto on Jun. 4 denouncing what they called the dismantling of the legal and administrative structure for environmental protection in the country, brought about by 'the unsustainability lobby.'

Among the measures contributing to this dismantling they highlighted the legislature’s passage of the new law on land regularisation in the Amazon, which they said 'clearly shows that the logic of economic growth at any price is overshadowing political commitment to construct a development model that is socially fair, environmentally appropriate and economically sustainable.'

They also criticised what they called the 'declining budget' of the Environment Ministry, which receives less than one percent of the federal budget.

'In the context of this dismantling of environmental legislation, ruralista lawmakers in Congress, with the express support of the agriculture minister, have proposed the tacit revocation of the forestry code and are pressuring for a reduction in size of protected areas in the Amazon and for an amnesty for all illegal land occupations in protected areas,' the environmental organisations complained.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service