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Brazil Wavers on Environment, and Earth’s Largest Wetland Starts to Wither

Additionally, mapping data compiled by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics released earlier this month showed the country lost 9.5 percent of its forest land between 2000 and 2014.

The expansion of agriculture into areas with few environmental regulations, or lax enforcement, has coincided with a politically turbulent period in Brazil during which a powerful coalition of federal lawmakers, representing farming interests, has had its way on a number of controversial land-use policies.

Most susceptible to their lobbying, environmentalists say, is President Michel Temer, who spent much of the past year trading favors with lawmakers in a successful bid to convince Congress to spare him from standing trial on corruption charges.

“In practice, Temer has removed Brazil from the Paris agreement, just like President Trump did, with the difference that he doesn’t have the courage to assume that position publicly,” said Marina Silva, who was Brazil’s environment minister from 2003 to 2008. During that period, the country was celebrated abroad for its aggressive efforts to curb rampant Amazon deforestation.

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President Michel Temer during a press event in Pantanal. Mr. Temer is unabashed about his support for the agriculture and cattle industries. Credit Lalo de Almeida for The New York Times

“There’s a firm effort to dismantle the government apparatus created over the past decades to support policies that were consistent with the reduction of greenhouse gases,” Ms. Silva said.

Mr. Temer is unabashed about his support for the agriculture and cattle industries, calling them essential engines of economic growth.

“It is often said that I, or my government, protects farmers or cattle ranchers,” he said during a recent speech at an industry event. “It’s the contrary. It’s farmers and cattle ranchers who protect the national economy and that is the clear reality. We can’t be afraid to say that.”

Brazil’s 1988 Constitution, drafted as the country emerged from a period of military dictatorship, sought to establish a blueprint for the government to “defend and preserve the environment for present and future generations.” It labeled the country’s five main biomes, including the Pantanal, “part of the national patrimony” whose conservation would be ensured by future laws.

A law regulating the sustainable use of land in those areas, however, was passed for only one of the biomes, the Atlantic Forest. That meant that landowners in places like the Pantanal had few constraints when Brazil’s commodities boom at the turn of the century suddenly made their parcels highly profitable.

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Ovens for the production of charcoal at a farm in Pantanal. Credit Lalo de Almeida for The New York Times

Brazil’s agricultural and livestock production has soared over the past decade, yielding a harvest of some 238 million tons in the 2016-17 harvest, about double the crop in 2005-06, according to government estimates. During that same period, farmland increased by 26 percent.

The Temer government has characterized the surge in agricultural exports, mainly to China, as an important ingredient of the country’s slow recovery from a yearslong recession.

This export-led growth has generated tempting opportunities for landowners in Pantanal, a region whose swampy terrain and sweltering temperatures had previously made it unattractive for farming. That changed as new technology made it possible to turn wetlands into soybean fields.

Last year, there were 4.8 million acres of soy fields in Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, the two states that include the Pantanal — a 77 percent increase from a decade ago.

Source: NYT > World

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