Exclusive: Environment minister calls for ex-president to be held to account as she prepares to tackle illegal gold miners
Former president Jair Bolsonaro should be investigated for genocide, Brazil’s environment minister, Marina Silva, has said, as she prepares an operation to drive illegal goldminers from the site of a humanitarian disaster on Indigenous land.
In the coming days, armed police and environmental protection agents will launch the first of a series of operations by plane and helicopter to expel thousands of miners, who proliferated in Brazil’s Yanomami Indigenous territory during Bolsonaro’s administration, contaminating Amazonian rivers, wrecking the rainforest and spawning Brazil’s worst health crisis in living memory.
The president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, recently declared an emergency after photos emerged of emaciated children and elderly people in the region and the Sumaúma news platform revealed 570 Yanomami infants died from preventable diseases during Bolsonaro’s term, an increase of 29% on the previous four years.
In a wide-ranging interview, Silva said Bolsonaro should be held accountable. “I think he should be investigated for committing genocide,” she said. “The ministry of justice itself is already forwarding the action.”
The crisis is the first big test of Lula’s commitment to restore the health of the forest and its guardians. After the 8 January attempted coup in Brasília by a far-right Bolsonarist mob, it is also a chance for the new centre-left government to demonstrate its authority and willingness to defend the Amazon.
Silva served as environment minister during the first Lula administration from 2003 to 2006 and put in place policies that led to an 83% reduction in Amazon deforestation. She said Bolsonaro had “annihilated” environmental policy, which had a severe impact on forest dwellers and set back the country’s goals to conserve nature and reduce carbon emissions.
The new government, she said, would not only put the world’s most biodiverse nation back on track but pursue still more ambitious goals. Lula has promised to aim for zero deforestation by 2030, an end to the expansion of the agricultural frontier, and the protection of all of Brazil’s major biomes.
This is a historic change of direction. Since the first European invaders arrived more than 500 years ago, Brazil’s place in the global economy has been defined by resource extraction and ever-deeper encroachments by miners and farmers into biomes and Indigenous lands.
Silva said this rudimentary model of economic development was no longer viable. “This has no future … no one can be an agricultural power by competing on the bottom path. We are going to compete on the high path, creating skilled jobs and using technology.” She said better use of degraded land with advanced practices and equipment could allow Brazil’s yields to increase. “We can already triple our production without having to cut down another tree.” The government plans to offer 20, 30 or 40-year concessions for the recovery of degraded lands with native species, paid for by carbon credits.
Higher ambition reflects a greater sense of urgency. Climate scientists warn the Amazon has degraded perilously close to a point of no return, after which it will be unable to generate its own rainfall and begin to desiccate. Under past Lula governments the goal was to eradicate only deforestation that was “illegal”, but Silva said this distinction no longer made any sense. “It has no basis in reality, because we are already on the verge of no return. It doesn’t matter if it’s legal; that doesn’t change the reality for the biome.”
Born in the rainforest as one of 11 children in a family of rubber-tappers, Silva is a mix of Brazil’s three main ethnic groups: native indigenous, Portuguese settlers and enslaved African people. She worked as a maid, then entered university and became a student and union activist. She was an associate of Chico Mendes, the environmental activist murdered for his campaign to protect the Amazon, and prominent in the Workers’ party, which won power for the first time in 2002 under Lula.
As environment minister, her stringent defence of nature and forest communities infuriated agribusiness leaders, miners and construction firms, who lobbied against her. She was isolated and resigned from Lula’s cabinet before standing against him as a Green party candidate. Environmentalists celebrated her return to government and reunion with Lula as the most positive news story of 2022. This time, though, she said her job will be harder because the Brazilian economy is weaker.
The conservation vision is also more expansive. Twenty years ago, the government concentrated on the protection of the Amazon. This time, Lula and Silva have promised to protect all of Brazil’s great ecosystems – including the Cerrado savannah, the Pantanal wetlands, the Atlantic Forest, the Pampas grasslands, and the semi-arid Caatinga.
Silva urged other countries to support the transition of Brazil’s economy with technical support, investment, trade and money. Germany and Norway have committed substantial sums to the Amazon Fund, which was set up to protect the rainforest. The UK is considering whether to contribute. US president Joe Biden has promised billions of dollars for tropical rainforests, but nothing has yet been forthcoming. The EU recently enacted a law to block imports associated with deforestation. In addition, Silva called for wealthy nations to develop partnerships and promote sales of sustainable products from indigenous, riverine and smallholder communities, as well as responsible agribusiness companies. She said Bolsonaro and his supporters would return unless the government – and its trade partners overseas – were able to offer economic alternatives. “A transition agenda means solving the real problems that people are facing now.”
When companies and governments buy Brazilian commodities, she said they should not just consider the environment and health, but also ethics. “It is necessary to value human rights. When someone is consuming something, they shouldn’t have to imagine that they are doing so to the detriment of others, as we are seeing now with the Yanomami.”
The job of environment minister in Brazil involves planning operations to evict illegal miners, battles against powerful industries and the coordination of ministries to address the roots of environmental crises and punish environmental criminals. This requires a deft political touch, as the Yanomami case is proving.
The environment protection agency, Ibama, will lead operations to crack down on illegal miners, but they cannot do it alone. In previous administrations the police and military provided intelligence, armed manpower and logistical support. Today, there are questions about their ability and willingness to help. Silva said the environmental investigations arm of the federal police had been practically dismantled under Bolsonaro. “This all needs to be recovered,” she said. “It’s being recreated now so we’re having to start many things from scratch.”
There are also doubts about the loyalty of the military to the new government. Several generals held prominent positions in Bolsonaro’s cabinet and some troops in the Amazon have colluded with mining gangs. The army has so far been hesitant to help with operations, declaring that the matter needs greater study.
Rather than dwell on tensions, Silva stressed the cooperative role the military had played in past operations. “The armed forces helped us a lot,” she said. The air force, she said, would be essential to control the airspace in the region and choke supply flights of food and fuel, which is the most effective way to stop miners from returning.
Another potential dispute is over big infrastructure and resource exploration projects, which generate employment in the short-term but damage the natural health of the nation. The state-controlled oil company Petrobras has fast-tracked efforts to drill wells at the mouth of the Amazon river, which would be the first exploration in this ecologically rich coastal area. Silva points out this is a priority conservation area, according to a past decree signed by Lula. “These sensitive areas will have to be looked at in the light of that decree. There is no doubt it will be a complex case,” she said.
Higher hurdles will also be set for hydroelectric and water diversion projects. Brazil gets most of its energy from dams, but the costs are starting to outweigh the benefits, and cheaper, more efficient alternatives are now available. Silva will assess longstanding megaplans to transfer water from the São Francisco River to the arid north-east, and to build a cascade of dams on the Tapajós River. She said no big construction works would be allowed to go ahead unless they meet stringent criteria.
“This is not just about economic viability but social viability, environmental viability and cultural viability,” she said, citing the disastrous consequences of building the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in the Amazon.
Has Lula changed? His priority is still to create jobs, but Silva said it was the president’s idea to aim for zero deforestation and he has recently given speeches advocating for wind, solar and biomass as alternatives to the old big infrastructure projects of the past. “The energy transition needs to be accelerated a lot,” she said. “In Brazil we have huge potential to distribute green energy … if our energy matrix is clean, diversified and safe, we can produce green power for countries that don’t have the same facilities as we do.”
Silva acknowledged that a four-year term of office was not long for such an ambitious programme, but she said the government could build a base for the transition, in terms of practical measures and persuading the public – especially the 25 million people living in the Amazon – that there was a better way of doing things. “It is about convincing people that there is no point in having a profit for 10 years if the cost is to destroy something for the rest of our lives.”
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