Brazil Has Weakened Dozens of Environmental Laws During the Pandemic

Forest fire in the Amazon in Novo Progresso province, Brazil in August 2020.

Forest fire in the Amazon in Novo Progresso province, Brazil in August 2020. Lucas Landau / Greenpeace

Since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, Brazil has approved 57 pieces of legislation that weaken environmental laws, from relaxing forest protections to declassifying the toxicity of dozens of pesticides, according to a new analysis published in the journal Biological Conservation. Almost half of this legislation, 27 bills, was passed during the height of Brazil’s Covid-19 pandemic, from March to September 2020.

The study also found that the issuing of environmental fines for illegal deforestation dropped by more than 70 percent during the pandemic. This is despite a 9.5 percent increase in deforestation in the Amazon over the past year. The research was led by scientists in Brazil, Britain, and the United States.

“The current administration is taking advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to intensify a pattern of weakening environmental protection in Brazil,” the study authors wrote. “This has the potential to intensify ongoing loss of biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions, and the likelihood of other zoonotic disease outbreaks, and inflict substantial harm to traditional and indigenous peoples.”

The study authors used data from the Official Gazette of the Union, the legal newspaper of Brazil that publishes records of all decrees and changes in legislation. They also examined monthly deforestation data from Brazil’s National Institute for Spatial Research (INPE) and records of environmental fines from the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA).

In April 2020, Brazilian Environment Minister Ricardo Salles told other government ministers at a meeting to take advantage of how “the media attention is almost exclusively on Covid… to open the flood gates and change all the rules and simplify the norms.” In the months following Salles’ statement, Brazilian lawmakers and officials did just that. In July, 47 pesticides had their toxicity classifications either lowered or eliminated, the study found. In June, another piece of legislation made it “no longer necessary to restore all permanent environmental conservation areas, even if they are illegally deforested,” reported. The amount of biodiesel added to Brazilian diesel was decreased, from 12 to 10 percent. Laws began allowing mining permits in designated areas even before final authorization and environmental reviews were complete. And several military leaders were appointed to environmental agencies.

“The effects of such changes will likely last for decades,” the scientists wrote.