An amendment proposed in Brazil may soon make it impossible to challenge the construction of hydroelectric dams, like this one on the Madeira River.

Pulsar Images/Alamy Stock Photo

With Brazil in political crisis, science and the environment are on the chopping block

In the midst of Brazil’s political turmoil, pro-development forces are moving ahead on a constitutional amendment that could speed approval for dams, highways, mines, and other megaprojects. The measure has alarmed scientists, environmentalists, and indigenous rights advocates, who fear it would gut the country’s environmental licensing process. It is just one of a series of actions that has the scientific community on edge after Dilma Rousseff was removed as president on 12 May. Rousseff faces an impeachment trial for illegally borrowing money from state banks to cover budget deficits.

The new interim government, led by former Vice President Michel Temer, has set out to trim government spending and boost business. Days after taking power, it merged the science ministry with the communications ministry, leaving researchers fearing for what’s left of their already diminished budgets. Meanwhile, powerful political players are attempting to remove roadblocks to development. “We are very worried about these actions that represent the demoting of science and innovation in the country,” says Luiz Davidovich, the president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences.

Now, Brazil has a three-step licensing process for infrastructure and development projects. During each phase a project can be challenged or halted by lawsuits, and delays can last for years. The amendment, known as PEC 65, would eliminate all but the first step: the submission of a preliminary environmental impact statement. After that requirement is met—and regardless of how serious the impact seems to be—a project could not be delayed or canceled for environmental reasons, barring the introduction of substantially new facts.

“If this legislation is approved, it will probably be catastrophic for the environment and the people who depend on it,” says Hani Rocha El Bizri, an ecologist at the Federal Rural University of the Amazon in Belém. Representatives of several government agencies agree. In practice, PEC 65 “proposes the end of licensing,” says Thomaz Miazaki de Toledo, the director for environmental licensing at the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources in Brasília, an arm of the Ministry of the Environment. If the amendment passes, he says, “mitigation and compensation, now required and supervised by the licensing authority, would be voluntary.”

That is particularly worrying to the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), the government agency charged with protecting indigenous peoples. Without a chance to review and challenge preliminary environment impact statements, the agency cannot ensure that mitigation strategies are in place to protect indigenous tribes, says FUNAI spokesperson Mônica Machado Carneiro—for instance, to compensate them if a dam would diminish their access to water and fish stocks. “We believe [PEC 65] is a clear setback to the fundamental right to the environment,” Carneiro says.

Supporters counter that vital infrastructure projects should not face the possibility of long and unpredictable delays. “Works fundamental to meet the needs of Brazilian society are paralyzed for a long time,” wrote Senator Acir Gurgacz in a statement justifying the amendment. He has complained to the Brazilian press about a 10-year legal battle to do maintenance on a highway that connects Porto Velho to Manaus, running through the Amazon rainforest. (The senator’s father owns a bus company that carries passengers along that route.) The amendment was also supported in the Senate by Senator Blairo Maggi, a soybean magnate who was recently named Temer’s Minister of Agriculture.

We are very worried about these actions that represent the demoting of science and innovation in the country. 

Luiz Davidovich, the president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences

PEC 65 was first proposed in 2012 but languished until 27 April, when the Senate’s Committee on the Constitution, Justice, and Citizenship quietly voted to approve it. Critics say it is no accident that PEC 65 reemerged during the height of Brazil’s political crisis. “Of course some people will pick up on [the chaos] as an opportunity to approve things that should require longer discussions and push forward changes like this one,” says Jonathan Bausch, an ecologist at the Mamiraúa Institute for Sustainable Development in Tefé.

The amendment will go to the full Congress for a vote any day. If approved, it would go back to the Senate and, finally, to the president.

“Amendments to the constitution should be considered very carefully, with lots of discussion,” Davidovich says. “We should be careful about doing them in moments of crisis.”

Meanwhile, some scientists hope the merger of the science and communications ministries can still be stopped. Conceived of as a way to reduce the number of ministries and thus cut government spending, the decision has baffled many researchers. The science ministry oversees more than a dozen research centers, while the communications ministry is responsible for managing concessions for radio, television, and internet. “We are very worried that mixing them up will be very difficult because they are so distinct,” Davidovich says.

During a hearing on Tuesday in the Senate, science advocates from across the country presented a strong case to reverse the merger, says Elibio Rech, who represented the Academy at the hearing. “There is no future for a country that is reducing investment in science, technology, and innovation,” he says, in a message he believes the senators heard loud and clear. The senators have called on the new minister, Gilberto Kassab, to appear in the Senate and defend the merger, which Rech says could happen as early as next week.

Reversing the merger may not be enough to protect science funding, however. Even before Rousseff’s ouster, the Brazilian scientific community was struggling with severe cuts; in 2015, Rousseff’s government slashed the science ministry’s budget by 25%, and support for the country’s lauded graduate fellowships has languished. Temer’s austerity plan could squeeze funds even further.

Still, only 2 weeks into Rousseff’s suspension, it’s hard to say what’s in store for science and the environment. “Usually it’s very difficult to predict the future in Brazil,” Davidovich says. Right now, “it’s almost impossible.”