The National Environment Council, known as Conama, voted Monday to overturn the measures that had defined the ecosystems along Brazil’s coastline as “permanent preservation areas” and restricted commercial development projects.
Environment Minister Ricardo Salles defended the move and said the changes provided greater “balance” in order to protect the environment.
“This government is concerned with the environment, with people and with sustainable economic development,” Salles told CNN affiliate CNN Brasil during an interview Monday. “You can’t create legislation that is so excessive that it asphyxiates the economic sector completely.”
Mangroves are trees and shrubs that grow along tropical coastlines. They are rooted underwater in salty sediments, thriving in conditions few other plants can withstand. They tend to have large root systems that protect coastal areas from erosion and act as a bridge between the ocean and land. They are a home to numerous species of sea birds and are considered “nursery habitats” because they provide safe haven for young fish, crabs and shrimp. Crucially, mangroves are also some of the world’s most effective carbon sinks, absorbing more carbon dioxide per area than rainforests. By removing the greenhouse gas from the atmosphere, mangroves are playing an important part in climate change mitigation.
According to the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO, mangroves, sea grasses and other marine living organisms capture more than half of the world’s biological carbon. The commission estimates that these ecosystems absorb the equivalent of more than half of the emissions from the entire global transport sector each year.
Critics said the move by Brazil would endanger an essential part of the global fight against climate change and the preservation of Brazil’s Atlantic coastline. Greenpeace said the decision was an example of “calculated environmental destruction” in Brazil.
Carlos Bocuhy, the president of the Brazilian Institute of Environmental Protection (PROAM), called it the “worst attack” carried out by the Federal Government against the environment.
“As the world witnesses the exponential burning of the Amazon and the Pantanal region, two of the world’s richest and most important biomes, in shock — Conama now opens the door to eliminate the rules that protect the mangroves and vegetation of our country’s coastline,” Bocuhy wrote in an op-ed.
Bocuhy, who had previously been a member of the National Environment Council, was removed last year when the government reduced the seats from 96 members to 23.
Bocuhy and others said the reducation was done, partially, in order for the federal government to have ultimate majority over the Council that is a key voice in the country’s environmental regulations.
The government of President Jair Bolsonaro has been widely criticized for its approach to environmental regulations.
In May, a video of a governmental meeting showed Salles, the environment minister, saying that the government should take advantage of the media’s focus on the Covid-19 pandemic to loosen the environmental restrictions. The video from April 22 was disclosed during an investigation by the Supreme Court into allegations that Bolsonaro was trying to interfere with the Federal Police.
The quote from Salles caught the media’s attention. “There is a need to have an effort on our side here, while we are at this moment of tranquility in terms of press coverage, because it only talks about Covid, and let the cattle herd run and change all the rules and simplifying standards,” he said.
Later, in an exclusive interview with CNN Brasil, Salles defended his stance saying it was aimed at reducing bureaucracy. “What I defended in the meeting were regulations that do not need to go through Congress [to be approved],” he said.
Bolsonaro has also rejected criticism of his government’s environmental policy, even as data from his own agency shows a growing problem, especially in the Amazon and the Pantanal.
In 2019, his first year in office, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) counted 126,089 fires in the Amazon — a rise of nearly 40% over the year before he took office. And despite a government ban on fires in the Amazon imposed in mid-July, INPE reported more fires in August and September than in the same period a year ago.
INPE data also showed fires raging in the Pantanal, home to alligators, jaguars and many other animals. By mid-September, it had registered 16,119 heat spots in Pantanal in 2020, the most since 1998, when the institute started keeping record.
Yet Bolsonaro has remained defiant. Addressing UN member states in a pre-recorded address last week, Bolsonaro accused foreign actors of a “brutal disinformation campaign” about the supposed degradation of the Amazon as well as Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands.