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The Brazilian government has voted to revoke protection of mangrove forests, but why is this a problem?

Courts have suspended the Brazilian government's aims to repeal protections over the environment. 

Federal judge Maria Carvalho has suspended measures implemented by the Brazilian government which voted to revoke laws protecting mangrove forests, which play an important part in fighting the climate crisis.

The government aimed to repeal “permanent protection zones” created in 2002 to protect mangroves and other fragile coastal ecosystems. However, the court stated that the repeal violated the constitutional right to an ecologically balanced environment and it would cause “irretrievable damage”.

Mangroves are trees and shrubs which grow along Brazil’s coastline, covering 25,000 sq km of land. Crucially, mangroves are extremely efficient at absorbing carbon dioxide, and one acre (4,000 sq m) of mangrove forest will absorb a similar amount to an acre of the Amazon rainforest. These forests are vital in slowing down the pace of global heating. If billions of mangrove trees did not take in carbon dioxide, it would be instead released to the atmosphere, contributing to the climate crisis.

The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO estimates that, along with seagrasses and other marine living organisms, mangroves absorb the equivalent to over half of the emissions from the entire global transport sector each year.

The forests also prevent erosion of coastal areas with their vast underwater root system and are home to many species, having huge significance to local communities whose food source comes from these ecosystems. Judge Steve Winter stated: “The health of these ecosystems are vital to human and animal health.”

President Jair Bolsonaro’s right-wing government’s actions have caused widespread alarm. Since taking power in January 2019, Brazil has seen escalations in both deforestation and wildfires, as well as a drop in penalties for environmental violations. Bolsonaro has defended deforestation in protected areas, saying that more farming and mining is required to lift these regions out of poverty. In reality, the removal of the 2002 regulations will allow for property developers to destroy large areas of natural habitat for tourism; areas which are already under pressure from real-estate development.

The actions of the government have been called a “crime” by many environmental groups. When talking of the new measures, environmental group Greenpeace stated: “Even as we witness record environmental devastation and Brazil is in flames, Salles [Brazil’s environment minister] dedicates his time to promoting even more destruction,” and that the measure is “calculated environmental destruction.”

The president of the Brazilian Institute of Environmental Protection (PROAM), Carlos Bocuhy, said it was the “worst attack” carried out on the environment by the Federal Government. Bocuhy was once a part of Brazil’s National Environment Council known as Conama, who decided to repeal regulations - however, he was removed the previous year when the government reduced the seats from 96 to 23 members. This was done so the government would have a majority over the Council in environmental matters.

Environment Minister Ricardo Salles stated repealing the regulations would provide greater “balance” to protect the environment and claimed: “This government is concerned with the environment, with people and with sustainable economic development”. Salles later told CNN Brazil: “You can’t create legislation that is so excessive that it asphyxiates the economic sector completely.”

Earlier in the year, a recording of a government meeting was leaked that featured Salles saying they needed to take advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic; with the media being focused on this, he stated, the government could loosen the environmental restrictions.

The reality of the situation is that, in Bolsonaro's first year in office, Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE) reported a rise of nearly 40% of fires in the Amazon in comparison to the year before Bolsonaro took office. In 2020, INPE data showed raging fires in the Pantanal, home to animals such as alligators and jaguars, and registered 16,119 heat spots - the most since 1998 when the institute started keeping the record.

Yet Bolsonaro defends his government. In an address to UN member states, he accused foreign actors of a “brutal disinformation campaign” about the supposed degradation of Brazil’s Amazon and Pantanal wetlands. With such defence and his history of actions against the environment, it begs the question: will his measures eventually get through the Courts? If so, this would be a devastating defeat in the fight against the climate emergency we face.


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