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Brazil’s battle over the Amazon’s future and Indigenous rights

Brazilian lawmakers are like babies in the playground, as they are not taking their job as seriously as they should. (Nicole Luna/YJI)

Maringá, BRAZIL – In 2012, a team of Brazilian scientists made an astonishing finding in the northwestern region of Brazil: the existence of a coral reef 124 miles (200 kilometers) away from the mouth of the Amazon River.

This was deemed impossible by experts due to the unfavorable environmental conditions.

The esteemed scientific journal Nature published an article about this discovery in 2016.

As reported by National Geographic, the mouth of the Amazon River contributes 300 million liters per second into the Atlantic Ocean.

The mouth of this river is crucial for the supply of pure water for drinking but it is also important for curbing global warming.

The Amazon River, officially deemed the biggest river in the world by Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research (INPE), is a vital source of pure water and organic material.

According to the Institute, this natural bounty flows through the mouth of the Amazon to fuel photosynthetic organisms such as algae and phytoplankton that provide most of Earth’s oxygen supply by absorbing light and carbon dioxide.

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Despite this environmental and social importance, Brazil’s state-owned oil company Petrobrás is seeking to obtain an environmental license enabling it to extract oil from a spot 310 miles (500 kilometers) away from the Amazon’s mouth. The location covers 40 kilometers (24 miles) of the coral reef system.

But authorities at Ibama, Brazil’s governmental environmental regulator, have refused to approve their request. They remain firm on their decision.

Ibama President Rodrigo Agostinho told Brazilian lawmakers at a May 31 meeting in the Chamber of Deputies that granting a license for any project must follow protocol to be successful.

“The president or anyone else in environmental engineering cannot approve it if it does not meet regulations,” Agostinho told them at the meeting, which was broadcast publicly.

Brazil’s economic recovery from the Global Recession has to be kept in mind, but so do the Earth’s limited resources. It has become apparent that change needs to be implemented as soon as possible and cannot be delayed any longer.

Mauro Pires, president of Instituto Chico Mendes de Biodiversidade, Brazil’s leading biodiversity institute, spoke at the same meeting with lawmakers. He pointed out that Brazil is obligated to keep its commitment to the Paris Treaty and address climate change seriously.

“We cannot forget the worsening of climate change,” Pires emphasized to the commission.

The oil company Petrobrásand Carlos Agenor Cabral, who is president of the Mining and Energy Ministry, defended offshore oil drilling as a solution to decentralize the explored zone in southeast Brazil while bringing welfare to the north, which is the poorest part of the country.

“This project would create $56 billion worth of investments and potentially hundreds of thousands of jobs. If we refuse to take advantage of our own domestic oil reserves, then we may become reliant on importing oil again, compromising our energy security,” said Cabral at the meeting with lawmakers.

Science argued back with powerful arguments.

“We’re observing a region called the Caribbean Sea, where heavy tropical thunderstorms and ocean currents make the scenario even more complex. We won’t be sure whether oil will spill or not, and if it does, whether it will reach the coast. We would always have to work with the worst possibility,” said Agostinho, the nation’s environmental regulator. 

Block 59, the area that Petrobrás seeks to explore, isn’t the only one that the company is running and had its license denied.

According to Suely Araújo, president of the Observatório do Clima (or Climate Observatory), Brazil has developed more than 2,000 offshore oil platforms since 2007. It has also denied many licenses since then.

“In 2018, I also denied the license for five exploration blocks, and didn’t have the same negative repercussion,” Araújo said. “Understanding that the economic model is based on oil expansion is very suspicious.”

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who also served as president from 2003 to 2011, was excited about oil exploration during his first presidency and even used it to campaign for office.

He adopted the opposite approach last year when he ran again for president, championing the environment and the rights of Indigenous people. He won a four-year term.

But the president hasn’t publicly said anything about the mouth of the Amazon since the environmental regulators raised the issue.

Despite claims by Daniele Zaneti Puelker, general environment manager of Petrobrás, that the company aims to act with a positive social and environmental impact, Agostinho said that the companyhasn’t consulted local Indigenous communities about this project.

This is not the first time that Indigenous people are being pushed aside at the negotiating table.

On the same day that the Chamber of Deputies discussed this oil drilling project, lawmakers gathered hours later to approve one of the biggest regressions for Indigenous rights.

Brazilian lawmakers meeting last month. Screenshot from official government broadcast.

On May 31, most of the deputies approved the so-called “Marco Temporal” (time frame), a proposed law that would legalize land distribution for Indigenous people after October 5th, 1988 – when Brazil’s Constitution was proclaimed – despite conflicts about their access to these areas.

This law would also allow mining, agricultural exploration and cultivation of genetically modified plants – and military occupation on Indigenous lands without their consent.

“Actions justified for national security could happen independently of consultation with Indigenous communities or the Federal Foundation for Indigenous People (Funai),” reads Article 21 of the legislation.

This polemical project divided the Chamber of Deputies and the Brazilian Senate, who debated it on June 7th, but haven’t yet voted. They’ve asked for 90 days to consider it.

Deputy Tabata Amaral of São Paulo said the project would seriously damage Brazil’s economy.

“Our world cannot tolerate this violent development that goes against human rights, which believes that especially we, Brazilians, will overcome our difficulties by destroying trees and attacking those who are more vulnerable,” said Amaral, speaking to fellow lawmakers on a public broadcast last month. 

“Indigenous people should have the autonomy to decide what can be done in their lands,” said Flávio Bolsonaro, a Brazilian senator who supports the project. He is the son of former President Jair Bolsonaro.

Senator Bolsonaro, who said he considers the project constitutional, made the statement in an interview on the Senate’s official broadcast channel.

Despite the arguments being all about Indigenous rights, lawmakers and powerful politicians are ignoring what Indigenous people want. Since 2021, thousands of Indigenous people have been protesting against the legislation in the streets, online, and in front of the Palácio do Planalto, or Presidential Palace.

But no one is listening to their dissatisfied voices.

Brazilian broadcast journalist Luciene Kaxinawá, and the first Indigenous person to host a news program, posted about it on Instagram.

“They want to silence us, erase our story, and take our lands, invading our territories as they did a long time ago. But we, Indigenous people, won’t let it happen,” Kaxinawá wrote, declaring that the proposed law “represents genocide.”

“Both Brazilian indigenous people’s lives and the environment are at risk, and these wrong decisions will bring harmful impacts,” she said on the social media platform.

Deputy Tarcísio Motta, who represents Rio de Janeiro, spoke out against the legislation in the Chamber of Deputies during the May 31 meeting.

“The colonizer’s peace has always meant the destruction of Indigenous people’s peace,” Motta said.

From a project aimed at exploring oil and gas in the mouth of the Amazon River to a law that would legitimize conflicts for land access and encourage attacks against Indigenous people, Brazil is regressing every day.

“It must be scary to live in any other country in the world and know that the survival of the Amazon, the great climate regulator, lies in the hands of men who don’t even have a basic understanding of the climate crisis,” journalist Eliane Brum wrote June 7th in Sumaúma, a Brazilian newspaper that specializes in environmental and Indigenous coverage.

In fact, it is terrifying to live in a country that doesn’t take human rights and the environment seriously.

I suppose that Brazilian politicians still believe that our planet will remain intact, even with climate change knocking on our door.

Nicole Luna is a Senior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

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