Brazil’s lower house of Congress has approved a bill fiercely contested by environmental groups to loosen licensing requirements for infrastructure, mining, agriculture and other projects.
The move drew criticism from conservation groups at a time when Brazil’s environmental record is under intense scrutiny as deforestation in the Amazon rainforest soars.
US President Joe Biden’s administration is in talks with Brazil to possibly fund conservation efforts, but has demanded that the country first show results in reining in destruction.
Preliminary data released last week showed that deforestation of Brazil’s Amazon in April was the highest for that month in at least five years.
The report prepared by the government’s Deter monitoring system showed that deforestation rose 43 percent over the same month in 2020, to 581 square kilometres (224 square miles).
The new licensing bill, which was approved late on Wednesday, will now pass to the Brazilian Senate for consideration.
For many types of projects, it would allow for permits to be automatically issued if the applicant meets certain filing requirements. That would include projects like repaving existing highways in the Amazon that were built by the military dictatorship and have fallen into disrepair.
Bolsonaro has pledged to repave one such road that a scientific study predicts will increase deforestation by five times through 2030, leading to the clearance of an area larger than the US state of Florida or 170,000 square kilometres (65,600 square miles).
Proponents of the bill include Brazil’s powerful agricultural caucus in the Congress. They argue that byzantine environmental permitting rules stymie investment and hinder economic growth of the natural resource-rich country.
While its backers say that the bill will do away with licensing of certain types of projects which are deemed low risk, environmentalists say it will open the floodgates to environmental degradation.
Dozens of non-governmental organisations on Wednesday signed a letter to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which Brazil hopes to join, expressing concerns about its environmental policies, including the bill.
“If approved, this will result in degradation and pollution of all kinds, including deforestation increase in the Amazon and proliferation of new environmental disasters,” the letter said.
Nine former environment ministers issued an open letter on Monday opposing the bill, acknowledging that an overhaul was needed, but citing a long list of problems with the proposal which they said would deal a “death stroke” to licensing as a tool to ensure sustainable development.
At the US-led climate summit on April 22, Brazilian President Bolsonaro shifted his tone on Amazon preservation and exhibited a willingness to step up commitment, even though many critics remain doubtful of his credibility. He also said Brazil requires outside funds to curb the deforestation of the world’s largest tropical rainforest.
Bolsonaro has previously exalted the need to tap the Amazon’s resources, cast aspersions on environmental activists who defend the rainforest and criticised European leaders who decried its destruction.
In the 12 months through mid-2020, deforestation reached its worst level in more than a decade.