Brazil’s proposed environmental laws would weaken indigenous rights, forfeit billions in economic benefits

Brazil’s two proposed bills to revive its flagging economy could have the opposite effect—degrading the environment, diminishing human rights and even hurting the economy. WRI’s Helen Ding and Rachel Biderman explain why.

Shavante Indian mother with her baby in Brazil.
Shavante Indian mother with her baby in Brazil. The country's new proposed laws would weaken indigenous people's rights to the land they inhabit. Image: United Nations Photo, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Grappling with Brazil’s longest recession since the 1930s, government officials are under enormous pressure to combat rising unemployment, address widespread corruption and control inflation. Yet two recent bills designed to solve the problem are misguided attempts that could degrade the environment, diminish human rights and hurt the economy.

The bills were not subject to public debates, hearings or deliberative sessions, either by Congress or civil society. The first proposes an overhaul of Brazil’s environmental licensing laws, regulations that require companies to undergo an environmental evaluation before they begin operations in order to minimise detrimental impacts.

The overhaul would make licensing more flexible for states, allow select corporations to provide their own licences, exempt some agricultural activities from the licensing process altogether, and exempt financial institutions from the liability of their investments, among other modifications.

The second government decree would limit Indigenous Peoples’ rights over the lands they inhabit. Supporters of the proposal believe the legislation will simplify complex federal regulations and spur economic growth. Organisations that have long fought for indigenous and other human rights claim this is the worst assault on Indigenous Peoples’ traditional land rights in Brazil’s recent history, and, if passed by the president, would almost certainly be challenged in the Supreme Court as an affront to constitutional rights.

Indigenous Peoples tend to be good protectors of forests…the average annual deforestation rates inside Brazil’s tenure-secure indigenous lands in the Amazon were 2.5 times lower than in similar untitled forests.

But beyond human rights, there are other reasons these bills should not move forward. Research shows that providing Indigenous Peoples and communities with strong legal rights over their lands can generate significant economic benefits while curbing climate change.

The economic case for secure indigenous land rights in Brazil

recent WRI report quantifies the economic value of securing land rights for the indigenous communities who live in the Amazon basin. Indigenous Peoples tend to be good protectors of forests—WRI’s research found that from 2000 to 2012, the average annual deforestation rates inside Brazil’s tenure-secure indigenous lands in the Amazon were 2.5 times lower than in similar untitled forests.

It also found that tenure-secure indigenous lands in the Brazilian Amazon are worth US$523 billion to US$1.165 trillion over the next 20 years, when factoring in global climate change mitigation benefits and other ecosystem services like clean water, soil retention, biodiversity and tourism revenue.

Supporters of the proposed legislation might ask, “What about foregone income from alternative, high-value land use, such as agriculture or cattle pastures?” WRI research finds that even when considering these missed opportunities, the total economic benefits to securing indigenous land rights in Brazil overweigh the costs of doing so.

Protecting tenure-secure lands as a cost-effective carbon mitigation strategy

Deforestation in Brazil increased by 29 per cent in 2016. The proposed legislation could push things even further in the wrong direction by undermining Brazil’s ability to meet its climate commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 37 per cent by 2025 and end illegal deforestation by 2030.

Protecting indigenous land rights is also important for meeting Brazil’s national climate goals. Tenure-secure indigenous lands in the Amazon can help Brazil avoid 31.8 to 43.2Mt CO2 per year by preventing deforestation, equivalent to taking more than 6.7 to 9.1 million passenger cars off the road each year. These carbon benefits alone are worth US$16 to US$21.8 billion to Brazil over the next 20 years.

Plus, securing indigenous forest tenure costs much less than other climate change mitigation options, ranging from just US$9 to US$12 per ton of CO2. Alternative carbon capture and storage technologies in coal- and gas-fired power plants cost between US$58 and US$85 per ton of CO2.

Economic growth and effective climate action are not mutually exclusive in Brazil. Rather than dismantle indigenous land rights and adopt weaker environmental regulations to stimulate growth, officials should strengthen legal protections for Indigenous Peoples. It is in their economic interest to do so.

Helen Ding is environmental economist at WRI and Rachel Biderman is director, WRI Brasil. This post is republished from the WRI blog.

Like this content? Join our growing community.

Your support helps to strengthen independent journalism, which is critically needed to guide business and policy development for positive impact. Unlock unlimited access to our content and members-only perks.

Most popular

Featured Events

Publish your event
leaf background pattern

Transforming Innovation for Sustainability Join the Ecosystem →