Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, Brazil’s environment minister, Ricardo Salles, caused outrage for suggesting that the government take advantage of the public health emergency to dismantle environmental protections for the Amazon.
Though Salles later resigned, having been caught up in an illegal logging investigation, the same deregulatory tendency seems more pervasive than ever in Brazil’s halls of power. A new analysis by the investigative news outlet Repórter Brasil shows that two-thirds of members of the lower house of Congress have drafted and voted in favor of bills considered detrimental to the environment, to Indigenous people, and to rural workers.
Repórter Brasil used its Ruralômetro, or “Ruralometer”, tool to evaluate the legislative records of members of the Chamber of Deputies, as the lower house is known, and found at least 351 out of the total 513 members fared poorly on the socioenvironmental agenda.
Among the legislation they helped draft or voted in favor of include those with provisions that weaken environmental law enforcement, favor predatory economic activities, undermine labor protections, hamper access to social benefits, and hinder agrarian reform, among other setbacks identified by socioenvironmental organizations.
The Ruralômetro tool was used to analyzed 28 roll-call votes and 485 bills presented in the current legislature, which began its term in February 2019. Each vote and bill was classified as either “favorable” or “unfavorable” by 22 civil society groups in the social, environmental and labor spaces. The Ruralômetro then assigned a score of between 36 and 42, relating to the range of human body temperature in degrees Celsius. The worse the performance, the higher the temperature. Ratings above 37.4°C indicate “ruralist fever” — or unfavorable socioenvironmental performance.
The results indicate the rise of a “new right” in the Chamber, and also show the growing power in the capital of the Parliamentary Front for Agriculture and Livestock, better known as the Rural Caucus.
“With the Bolsonarist [Bolsonaro supporters] wave of 2018, a Congress more to the right than previous ones was elected,” said political scientist Cláudio Couto, a professor of public management at the Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV), one of the organizations that worked on the Ruralômetro.
“And we still have an anti-Indigenous and anti-environmental government, which has built a support base in the legislature with the centrão [the Bolsonaro-allied coalition] and gives institutional reinforcement to this regressive agenda,” Couto added.
Analysts say the ruralist leanings of the Chamber were already well known, but the arrival of the Jair Bolsonaro administration to power at the start of 2019 unbalanced the political landscape, particularly through the weakening of the Ministry of Environment.
Despite the long-standing presence of the Rural Caucus in the Chamber, it’s always been possible to pass legislation protecting the environment and traditional peoples, according to Suely Araújo, a former head of IBAMA, the federal environmental protection agency, and current public policy expert at the Climate Observatory, a think tank.
For this to happen, the support of the executive branch has always been important, Araújo said. Under Bolsonaro, however, “that has been lost because the Ministry of Environment is now the first to support in Congress the overturning of environmental protection,” said Araújo, who worked for 29 years in the Chamber as a legislative consultant on environmental affairs.
“It was a perfect storm against the environment, the worst legislature since redemocratization [in 1985],” said Raul Valle, director of social and environmental justice at WWF Brazil.
Among the socioenvironmental “setbacks” approved by the Chamber since 2019 are the trio of legislation known as the “destruction package”: PL 6. 299/2002, or the “Poison Bill,” which does away with regulatory approval for the use of pesticides, including those proven to be carcinogenic; PL 2633/2020, known as the “Land Grabbing Bill,” which weakens enforcement actions and makes it easier for land grabbers to legitimize their occupation of public lands; and PL 3729/2004, or the General Environmental Licensing Law, which eliminates the need for licenses in some industries, allows companies to self-license in others, and weakens the role of environmental protection agencies.
All three bills passed in the Chamber of Deputies and are currently before the Senate.
Joênia Wapichana, the first Indigenous woman elected to the Chamber of Deputies, and only the second Indigenous deputy in more than 30 years, scored a “healthy” 36.6°C in the Ruralômetro assessment. She said the strengthening of the ruralist base has forced environmentalists on the defensive, without much room to advance their own bills.
“We have done everything possible not to totally dismantle the few rights of Indigenous peoples,” she said.
Bottom of the scale
At the other end of the scale, deputies who stood out for having the most unfavorable socioenvironmental legislative records tended to be men, representing states in the Brazilian Amazon and in the country’s south, and members of the “new right.” Of the 20 with the most “feverish” Ruralômetro scores, 14 are first-term deputies, and 13 are from Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party, or PL.
Among the latter is Nelson Barbudo, who scored the worst, at 42°C. All eight bills that he introduced and that were assessed in the Ruralômetro analysis were considered harmful to the environment. This included one prohibiting law enforcement agencies from seizing or destroying equipment used in environmental violations. In another bill, Barbudo proposed slashing the maximum environmental fine that can be imposed from 50 million reais to 5,000 reais ($9.8 million to $980). If passed, this bill would personally benefit Barbudo: in 2005 he was fined 25,000 reais ($4,900) by IBAMA, the environmental protection agency, and still hasn’t paid.
Barbudo did not comment on his ranking at the very bottom of the Ruralômetro scale, but told Repórter Brasil that he defines himself as a “liberal preservationist.”
The worst-performing deputies after Barbudo are Lucio Mosquini (41.3°C), who has been in the Chamber since 2015, followed by Éder Mauro (40.9°C). Mauro touts himself as the “leader of the bullet caucus in the North,” in reference to his defense of gun rights. He has also carved out a position as a de facto spokesman for miners, having introduced legislation that aims to weaken environmental protections in favor of mining.
Neither Mauro nor Mosquini responded to interview requests from Repórter Brasil.
The Ruralômetro analysis also scored the various parties in the Chamber. The New Party (Novo), one of the newest and smallest in the legislature, fared the worst, with its eight deputies averaging a score of 39.3°C.
“I had hoped that Novo could become an ally of the environmental issue, bringing new perspectives, as the European right does,” said Valle from WWF Brazil. “But the party aligned with the government and with the view that environmental rules hinder business.”
Novo did not comment when contacted by Repórter Brasil.
Members of left-leaning parties have also not been immune to the “ruralist fever,” the analysis shows. Flávio Nogueira of the Democratic Labour Party (PDT), scored 37.9°C. In 2021, he voted in favor of the land grabbing bill. Nogueira declined to comment when contacted.
“It is surprising to note that, from right to left, there are legislators who have been poorly evaluated,” said Maria do Socorro Braga, a professor of political science at the Feeral University of São Carlos (UFSCar). “But as the parties reach the far right, the ‘ruralism’ of the deputies increases.”
Arthur Lira, the president of the Chamber, has played a key role in advancing the anti-environment agenda, according to experts. He scored 38.2°C on the Ruralômetro scale. And it was under his watch that legislation such as the “destruction package” passed. Besides dictating the pace of voting, Lira has consolidated the power of Congress with a “secret budget,” which gives allied deputies preference in allocating federal resources for their constituencies. Lira did not respond to questions from Repórter Brasil.
“The government has largely abdicated its ability to lead the legislative process in favor of the leaders of Congress,” said Couto from FGV. “In this sense, Lira has been the great architect of the implementation of this regressive agenda. The secret budget will favor the electoral disputes of these representatives [closest to the current government]. You can’t tell how much, but they have an advantageous situation.”
The Ruralômetro assessed 499 of the 513 deputies. It excluded those who participated in fewer than 10 of the selected voting sessions, as well as deputies who took office as substitutes for those who failed to complete the term, and three deputies who died since taking office.
Repórter Brasil launched the Ruralômetro in 2018. In addition to analyzing deputies’ legislative and voting records, it crosschecks data from IBAMA, the Ministry of Labor and the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) to identify deputies who have environmental or labor fines, and who have received campaign donations from environmental and labor violators.