How the Political Crisis is Threatening Brazil’s Sustainable Goals

*Photo credit: Ana_Cotta | Photo Title: S.O.S Amazônia

By Rodrigo Rosa, Visiting Scholar at the Institute of Latin American Studies, Columbia University.

Since 2013, Brazil’s political turmoil has produced anxiety and drawbacks on the political and economic arenas. The instability caused by the political brawl is jeopardizing the environment and threatening the country’s long-term sustainability ambitions. Recent events are going against the commitments made in the international negotiations during the COP 21[1] in Paris in 2015 to reduce greenhouse gases emissions within next decades.

Last June, Congress approved a legislative bill to reduce 600 thousand hectares of protected areas in the Amazon and other natural preserved areas in Brazil, which is equivalent to four times the area of the city of Sao Paulo.

Environmentalists accused Parliament of responding to the interests of squatters to decriminalize illegal occupation in the region that would accelerate illegal mining, further illicit possession of the public land, timber trafficking and menace reserves areas dedicated to indigenous populations.

Former Brazilian ministers of Environment from different sides of the political spectrum openly warned about the imminent risk of this measure being approved[2],. José Sarney Filho, the current environment minister, also manifested his opposition to the passing of this law. The issue raised international attention, as global environmental organizations and activists (such as actor Leonardo DiCaprio) claimed for a repeal. President Temer eventually vetoed some of the changes proposed by the bill. To buy some time.

Since then, political tension has been escalating in Brazil. Formally accused of corruption by Federal Attorney-General, Luiz Fernando Janot, President Temer is making concessions to gather political support and remain in power. Brazilian legislation determines Congress has to authorize the indictment of the President in the Supreme Court. His bargaining power is debilitated. Pressured by landowners, on July, 14th the federal government sent another bill to Congress to reduce the protection in the Amazon in 486 thousand hectares.

Besides the legislative skirmish, efforts to protect the natural heritage are deteriorating. Since 2014 deforestation in the Amazon has been rising and reached 8 thousand square kilometers last year, according to Ipam (Amazon Institute of Environmental Research) up 30% over the previous year. It is a gloomy reversion of a trend observed in the past decade when effective georeferenced monitoring and stricter law enforcement reduced the rate of deforestation. Budget cuts, shrinking personal and recent loosening in the environmental legislation have negatively affected these efforts – at least according to Luciano Evaristo, Director of the department responsible for environmental protection at Ibama (Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources)[3] .

In a comprehensive effort to monitor Brazil’s natural biomes, the Mapbiomas[4] , a study published in April of this year by the Observatório do Clima and 18 other research centers and universities in Brazil noted that the country has lost about 190 square kilometers of protected areas from 2001 to 2015, roughly four times the area of the state of Rio de Janeiro alone. According to the study, biomes such as the Amazon (rainforest), the cerrado (the Brazilian savanna) and Pantanal (swamps) are rapidly shrinking. On a more auspicious side, Mata Atlantica, which today accounts only for 12.5% of its natural coverage, experienced some recovery in the period.

Those numbers are putting Brazil off track of the promise to reduce carbon emissions made at COP 21, which largely depends on decreasing deforestation. In the climate negotiations, Brazil committed to reducing at least 43% of greenhouse gases emissions until 2030, based on levels observed in 2005. Among actions in the pipeline, it vowed to end illegal deforestation by 2030 and to restore 12 million hectares of vegetation (an area equivalent to the territory of England). These goals are not likely to be met unless the current situation is reversed.

In response to this performance, the Norwegian government recently announced the reduction of its financial support to the Amazon Fund by half[5] . The fund was developed to finance the implementation of actions in the Amazon region to promote sustainable land use and protect indigenous reserves. The Fund currently manages three billion Reais (900 million Dollars) – an amount equivalent to the annual budget of the Ministry of the environment.

Threats to the achievement of environmental and sustainability goals are not exclusive to policies regarding the preservation of natural areas. Following the discussion about protected areas in the Amazon, an initiative to legalize irregular occupation in the urban public land was also approved in Congress. Much of that occupation is located in high standard areas and well-off communities in Brazilian large metropolitan areas.

These continuous concessions weaken law enforcement and create the “moral hazard” effect, which ends up incentivizing illicit occupations in hope for further legalizations. They also conflict with international commitments made by Brazil to promote equitability and sustainable development in urban areas, as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals[6] .

Regulating territorial occupation in urban and rural areas takes lengthy debates and demands time. The first draft of the Statute of Cities[7] , presented right after the new Constitution was in place in 88, took two decades to become a reality. As it was possible to see from the mentioned drawbacks in environmental and urban laws, tearing them down takes far less time, and can produce irreversible consequences. It will take political will, law enforcement and civic engagement to pave the way to prevent negative effects from happening, and to build a more sustainable, developed country.    


[1] The Conference of Parties (COP) is an annual United Nations Conference, is an international governing body of climate change policies agreements. Its 21st edition was held in Paris, in 2015 and parties agreed on curbing carbon emissions to avoid the risk the higher elevation of the global temperature.

[2]Open Letter to Leaders of the 21st Century. 

[3]See interview (in Portuguese)

[4]See in



[7] (Portuguese)