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Brazil — Congress poised to pass bill that sweeps away environmental safeguards

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A proposal to fast track environmental licensing approval for projects considered to be of strategic importance by the government could be voted through today (25/11/2015). In addition, a new Mining Code that fails to guarantee the protection of the environment and populations affected by mining activity could also be voted through in the coming weeks.

This Wednesday afternoon a committee of the Senate could vote to pass a bill that weakens the country’s environmental licensing legislation, which is the principal safeguard against environmental disasters. In the coming weeks, the Chamber of Deputies could also vote through a new Mining Code geared to promoting unprecedented growth in the mining sector but which contains no safeguards for protecting the environment and affected populations.

The two votes could take place just days after an iron ore tailings dam burst. The dam belongs to the mining company Samarco, a joint venture between the Brazilian company Vale and the Anglo-Australian company BHP Billiton. This disaster destroyed the district of Bento Rodrigues in Mariana (in the state of Minas Gerais), affected dozens of other municipalities between Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo, released a wave of mud along the Rio Doce practically destroying its ecosystems, and now it looks likely to cause serious environmental damage on the Espírito Santo coastline. It is considered to be the worst environmental tragedy the country has ever seen. It is now being argued by some that stricter terms should have been applied to the dam’s licencing approval.

Since the disaster, 12 fatalities have been registered while 11 people are still missing. The wave of mud has disrupted the water supply of at least 500,000 people across two states. The full extent of the damage remains unknown, but the reparations costs are expected to exceed billions of Brazilian reais. It is unclear whether the ecosystems along the river will ever recover.

The proposal that could be approved this Wednesday is Senate Bill no.654/2015, drafted by Senator Romero Jucá of the Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro. It creates a fast track method of obtaining environmental licencing approval by decree for projects that are considered to be of strategic importance by the Executive Government, at Federal or State level. The proposal makes it possible for a project to be authorised by a single environmental licence obtained after eight months, without the need for public hearings. Examples of projects classified as being of strategic importance could be mines, highways, airports, hydroelectric dams, ports and communication links.

Wave of mud crosses dam in Baixo Guandu in Espírito Santo state

The result is that, should the proposal go ahead, complex, high-impact infrastructure projects would get swift licensing approval. These are precisely the projects that are considered by specialists and public bodies as being in need of more careful and effective licencing processes.

The proposal has been criticised by Maurício Guetta, a lawyer from the Instituto Socioambiental, a leading Brazilian NGO: “It beggars belief that the Senate should give approval to a project that aims to reduce drastically the means of preventing socio-environmental damage of the kind that occurred after the bursting of the Samarco dam. The disaster at Mariana, one of a long line of similar cases, should serve as a lesson so that the Congress and Executive Government improve environmental licencing legislation in order to avoid irreparable damage in future. Weakening it would be harmful for everyone: the environment, affected populations, government and business people themselves.”

Senator Blairo Maggi, of the Partido da República and one of Brazil’s largest soya farmers, is in charge of overseeing the passage of the bill through Congress. The project is currently being finalised in the National Development Special Commission. If it is approved there, it will proceed directly to the Chamber of Deputies without having to be debated in the Senate. However, senators could make use of a recourse which would permit a debate in their House. The bill was presented to the Special Commission as part of “Agenda Brasil”, an initiative of the Senate President, Renan Calheiros of the Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro, who claims that it would help tackle the economic crisis.

Advisors to Delcídio Amaral, the Government leader in the Senate who comes from the Partido dos Trabalhadores, and Blairo Maggi, made it clear that parliamentarians would not be able to give interviews on the subject until the report has been completed.

The new Mining Code

The President of the Chamber of Deputies, Eduardo Cunha of the Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro, revealed a few days ago his intention to take Bill 37/2011, the new Mining Code, directly to a plenary assembly, thereby speeding up its progress. The report on the bill has not yet been officially presented to the Special Commission for discussion.

Leonardo QuintāoUnder the pretext of simplifying and liberalising the bureaucracy around mining, deputy Leonardo Quintão of the Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro, who is overseeing the bill, presented his preliminary report. If adopted, it will lead to further damage to the environment and further setbacks to the rights of indigenous and traditional communities affected by mining. According to Quintão, the report was produced with support from experts at the Ministry of Mines and Energy and has the backing of the Presidency. The legal team of the government leader in the Chamber of Deputies, José Guimarães of the Partido dos Trabalhadores, has said that he will only comment on the proposal once a final report has been presented.

Quintão has been arguing that his proposal does not strengthen environmental, social and labour rights, because these are already guaranteed by legislation already in place He also says that his preliminary report proposes grants for municipalities affected by mining projects. However, since he gives no explicit detail about the kinds of compensation and socio-environmental protection he is proposing, he offers no guarantees that the rights of affected populations will be protected.

After the Mariana disaster, Quintão did not delay the vote on his report to allow it to be re-evaluated. Instead, he has been doing all he can to get it approved as soon as possible, with only limited changes. The parliamentarian’s website states that he will include in the proposal obligatory insurance in order to cover “damage to the environment, to people, to urban infrastructure and the local economy in case of catastrophe”. He also promises to make it obligatory for mining companies to submit plans for treating iron ore tailings so they can be recycled.

For Maurício Guetta, these measures are insufficient and fail to respond to the need for action to prevent further tragedies like the one at Mariana. “For more than two years now, we have been asking Leonardo Quintão to make substantial changes to the bill, so that measures can be included to prevent mining activities causing damage and to guarantee the rights of affected populations and workers. Even after the disaster at Mariana, he continues to ignore our demands.

*This article, originally published by the Instituto Socioambiental on 24 November 2015, has been edited for publication by LAB. It was translated by Andrzej Stuart-Thompson.