The scandal threatening the future of Brazil's National Parks
A scandal of shocking proportions is brewing in broad daylight as a number of protected areas in Brazil risk being degazetted in the name of economic growth
Ocean, rivers and lakes have shaped the landscape in Lagoa do Peixe National Park, Southern Brazil. Over 36,000 hectares showcase a patchwork of unique landscapes; from freshwater and salt lagoons to grasslands, floodplains, marshes and sand dunes. The breeze of the Atlantic Ocean welcomes tens of thousands of migratory birds every year during their travels between North America and Patagonia.
All through spring become a natural shrimp nursery, fished in summer by a restricted number of nearby villagers, following quotas agreed with the National Park authorities. The ocean currents in winter inundate the land with saltwater, creating unique ecosystems also cherished by shorebirds such as Red Knot Calidris canutus and Buff-breasted Sandpiper Calidris subruficollis (both Near Threatened). The latter travel all the way from the tip of Siberia and Alaska to the fields surrounding Lagoa do Peixe, their favourite wintering area along with a couple others in Uruguay and Argentina. Researchers found they spend 150-200 days in the Park every year and over 60% return and stay there in following years.
Their return depends on the height of the grasslands, maintained by cattle grazing. For this reason, SAVE Brasil (BirdLife in Brazil) and collaborators have been working to protect the grasslands, surveying Buff-breasted Sandpiper populations and carrying out on-the-ground conservation actions.
Given its importance for migratory birds in the Atlantic, it comes as no surprise that this Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA), Ramsar Site, UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network Site of International Importance was declared a National Park in 1986. However, despite all the credits, why is the government now having second thoughts about whether it deserves to retain its National Park status?
Private landowners, who own 40% of the park, are suddenly pushing to turn it into a multiple-use area, which would essentially mean downgrading its protection status to virtually none. A suspicious move, given previous attempts at development projects in the area.
"Lagoa do Peixe is one of the top two most important sites for shorebirds in Brazil, and among the most important on the Atlantic coast of southern South America. It has all the pre-requisites for a National Park, according to Brazilian legislation. It is outrageous to think of lessening its protection category”, said Pedro Develey, SAVE Brasil CEO.
In the early 2000s, a plan for the implementation of a mining site south of the park was announced. Prosecutors blocked the development but the project was recently revived, and even managed to acquire the first of three environmental licenses. Simultaneously, a 19,000 ha wind power farm is also being planned, and currently undergoing the Environmental Impact Assessment process.
While for now legislation seems to be keeping those projects blocked, environmentalists fear it won’t be for long. To counteract these developments, SAVE Brasil and the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network are working on an emergency action plan to gather international support to back the Federal Environmental Institutions that have vowed to defend the area’s National Park status. A race against the clock, as industrial and economic pressure is driving political decisions in Brazil.
In the midst of an unprecedented political and economic turmoil, the Brazilian government is taking daunting steps towards weakening environmental legislation - and Lagoa do Peixe is only one of the many parks affected.
As Brazil is among the most biodiverse-rich countries in the world, there’s been a wide national outcry by national civil society organizations and indigenous peoples, against what has been interpreted as one of the largest setbacks in environment policies in the country, if not globally.
Just last month, the Brazilian government scrapped the huge National Reserve of Copper and Associates in the Amazon, a protected area larger than the size of Denmark. The motive: to allow the mining of manganese, iron, gold and other minerals by foreign companies. While the government ensures that the indigenous and environmental protections won’t be stripped away, researchers agree the ripple effect of these mining projects could be catastrophic.
And it wouldn’t be the only park threatened by mining operations, as President Michel Temer plans to water down the well-established system of protected areas and make changes in regulations to alter the financial compensation from mining activities. Bills have already passed to congress with instructions to dismantle, reduce or lessen the status of several protected areas in 5 states, affecting about 10% of the total protected area in the country – in most cases connected to illegal deforestation, mining or land invasion.
Furthermore, changes to the Environmental Impact Assessment law are also being discussed, a potential disaster at national scale since it’s this process that currently slows down or stops most environmentally harmful developments.
“A steamroller is threatening to take us back to the time where it was believed that natural resources were endless”, said Attorney General Leandro Mitidieri, following the new bill announcement.
Jamanxim National Forest - another IBA - was another one to make it to the news recently. Located in the so-called “arch of deforestation” that threatens the Amazon Forest, 57% of park’s protected area was stripped of its protected status. Bordering with nearby Jamanxim National Park, a municipality illegally authorised cassiterite (tin mineral) mining inside Altamira National Forest. Luckily, they ended up being fined by the National Environmental Agency, as it turned out they hadn’t carried out an Environmental Impact Assessment at all.
Following the downgrade of Jamanxim National Forest, the future of Lagoa do Peixe could become the next turning point, as environmentalists and scientists worry that if they manage to downgrade a National Park of such importance, it will give confidence to the federal government to go ahead with the rest of their environmental deregulation plans. SAVE Brasil and BirdLife will continue fighting to support the Federal Environmental Institutions so that Lagoa de Peixe and all the other reserves can continue protected for years to come.