Rodrigo Agostinho, the new president of the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, known as Ibama, has his work cut out. Even before he took office at the end of February, he was monitoring the crisis in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory. Now, as the head of an agency left to rot under the Bolsonaro government, he has to deal with new demands to remove illegal miners from the Indigenous territories they have invaded, undertake the herculean task of helping to stop deforestation in the Amazon, and oversee decisions in at least two extremely sensitive environmental licensing processes: the renewal of the license for the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant, where the devastation caused during seven years of operation demonstrates what can happen when Ibama’s recommendations are ignored, and [Brazil’s state-owned oil giant] Petrobras’s request for permission to drill for oil in the sea in the Foz do Amazonas (the mouth of the Amazon) basin, which would open up a “new frontier” for fossil fuel in the midst of uncertainties about the social and ecological consequences of such activity.
A lawyer and environmentalist, as well as the former mayor of the city of Bauru in the state of São Paulo, member of congress for the Brazilian Socialist Party and chairman of the Congressional Environment Commission, Agostinho speaks calmly and in great detail about such challenges. In a telephone interview, he says he intends to “reassure people” about proposed plans for the mouth of the Amazon region, and that Ibama will be “extremely careful” in its analysis and decision making, taking into account “every possible and imaginable impact.” With respect to Belo Monte’s operating license, he says “the most important thing is to guarantee the life of the river”, and that the license will only be renewed if the unfulfilled socio-environmental liabilities are resolved.
“Ibama is not irresponsible. We are in a new phase, under a new presidency, nothing will be authorized if we aren’t in possession of all the necessary requirements,” says Agostinho about plans for the mouth of the Amazon, part of the so-called equatorial margin, which comprises the entire north coast of Brazil. He avoids speculating about possible measures, but admits the recommendation of the agency’s technical specialists that a “strategic environmental assessment”, a wider study of the impacts of potential oil exploration activity in the region, is “a real possibility.”
On Belo Monte, Agostinho says the decision on whether or not to renew the license will not be taken in either the short or medium term. The biggest question, the Ibama president believes, is the definition of a new hydrograph, the regime for using water from the river in the plant’s operation, as the two hydrographs drawn up in the first licensing process failed to preserve the Xingu and the communities that depend on it. “Until a satisfactory hydrograph is defined, and compliance with the requirements to date is analyzed, no license will be issued,” he says.
Agostinho says Ibama has no immediate plans to withdraw from Yanomami land, but the consequences of mining “will last for all eternity.” In addition to areas with “washed sand and sterile soil”, which makes forest recovery difficult, there is the presence of mercury. He says Ibama has requested help from the UN Environment Program, whose technical specialists have expert knowledge with such problems. “There are important questions to be debated from this point on, such as minimizing the problem of mercury contamination, what guidelines to give people in the area on the consumption of contaminated water, and how to carry out eventual repairs of the damage caused by illegal mining,” he says.
SUMAÚMA: Ibama and Petrobras have set a tentative date of March 20 for the Pre-Operational Assessment of the oil extraction project in block 59, in the mouth of the Amazon region. At the same meeting [held on March 3], Ibama’s representative said Petrobras has been meeting all the agency’s demands to date. Does this mean the Operating License will be issued soon?
Rodrigo Agostinho: Not at all. There is a process, which sets out a series of obligations, compliance with which has been requested, and Petrobras has been urged to carry out the actions required. But that doesn’t mean the license is about to be issued, because after all such requests the technical analysis has to be carried out. As this specific case is highly sensitive, Ibama will be extremely careful in any analysis.
In the technical reports that Ibama has published on this process, the technical specialists, given the environmental and social sensitivity of the region, suggested an Environmental Assessment of the Sedimentary Area should be carried out before any licensing decision. As Ibama president, you have the power to suspend the process and request this wider assessment, especially given there are five more Petrobras controlled blocks in the process of licensing in the mouth of the Amazon region alone. Will you request this assessment? Has a decision been taken?
I haven’t been in office for long, and this topic is one of Ibama’s priorities, and all the recommendations that have been made by the team of technical specialists, the Public Prosecutor’s office, and civil society are being analyzed. We are currently assessing all these recommendations so we can make a decision, or more than one. We haven’t finished yet, but in theory it would be possible to meet all the recommendations. But I just want to reassure people, because no decision will be taken without technical analysis, without evaluating every possible and imaginable impact. The principle of prevention and precaution will come first, before any decision on the licensing of this activity.
In one of the technical reports on the process in block 59 in January, when the Environmental Assessment of the Sedimentary Area was suggested, Ibama specialists wrote that in this case “the licensing process itself is not capable of assessing the socio-environmental transformations caused by this entire venture, nor can it predict whether oil is a suitable economic vocation for the region.” As oil production is not currently carried out in most of the equatorial margin of the Brazilian coast, with the exception of Rio Grande do Norte, would this process not require such a wider assessment?
Ibama will ensure every situation is understood, and a strategic environmental assessment is always a possibility in the case of a complex scenario like this. We are talking about a vast area of the Brazilian coast that runs from Rio Grande do Norte to Amapá, a highly sensitive region, where in some areas the coastline is extremely rich in biodiversity, migratory species and corals. Any accident at the mouth of the Amazon River has a huge risk of running out of control, so this [assessment] is obviously a possibility and is under analysis by Ibama, which will analyze all these points. What I want to make clear is that no decision on the license will be issued in the next few days or even weeks, and also that we’re analyzing all the recommendations made so far before taking a decision. I can’t speculate about a decision, but an integrated environmental assessment, a strategic environmental assessment, is indeed a possibility. We aren’t just talking about an oil well, but about opening up an entire region of Brazil for oil extraction. Obviously, the strategic environmental assessment is a real possibility and is under analysis right now.
LIKE ITS NEIGHBOR OIAPOQUE IN THE STATE OF AMAPÁ, THE FRENCH COMMUNE OF SAINT-GEORGES, ON THE BORDER BETWEEN BRAZIL AND FRENCH GUIANA, HAS ITS WAY OF LIFE AND NATURAL ENVIRONMENT THREATENED BY PROPOSED FOSSIL FUEL EXTRACTION IN THE MOUTH OF THE AMAZON REGION. PHOTO: VICTOR MORIYAMA/GREENPEACE
The maritime dynamic of the region is little known, which is why Ibama decided to build a new hydrodynamic research base on the coast, and Oiapoque residents believe oil will reach the coast in the event of an accident. Are you aware of this?
We have already studied the entire process, and are analyzing all the possibilities. As I said, this licensing process is a priority for Ibama, our technical analysis is being carried out extremely rigorously, all the points raised so far are on our radar, we know the environmental sensitivity of the region, and the possible risks this type of activity brings. Ibama has requested a series of documents so that we can make a decision grounded in scientific knowledge. My guidance to technical specialists is that Ibama always works based on evidence, on scientific knowledge, which is why we request so many reports and environmental impact studies. We are now in the process of analyzing everything that has been presented so far, and there is another study being carried out this month. But that does not mean the decision will be taken immediately after this trial of a possible accident in the region. Ibama is looking at this case with great care and attention.
Petrobras expected the Operating License to be issued under the previous government. In December, the company sent a drillship to the region, which is still awaiting a Pre-Operational Assessment and license. What will you say to Petrobras if a decision is still weeks away?
I can’t talk to Petrobras through the press. Petrobras putting a ship in the region is one thing, but Ibama’s technical analysis is something else entirely. Ibama is an independent institution, part of the [Brazilian] state, which has been doing its job efficiently for 34 years. No decision that breaks the law, or is carried out hastily, will be taken, regardless of whether there is equipment in the area. Ibama will fulfill its role, but we don’t talk through the press.
The question was more in the sense that this generates an expectation in the region, of jobs and royalties, and Petrobras is rebuilding the local airport. Does this societal pressure affect your or Ibama’s work?
No. Ibama will do its job, in its own time. Ibama is independent, even more so from the point of view of environmental licensing. We don’t feel pressured by this type of situation.
The Environmental Impact Study originally carried out in the licensing process stated there would be no impact on the Oiapoque Indigenous territories. This is why Petrobras has always argued there was no need for a prior consultation. Now, after a meeting between the Indigenous peoples and the company, it has become clear that there has already been an impact, just from the flight paths of aircraft flying from Oiapoque to the drill ship. Can this issue of prior consultation stall the licensing process, or is it not linked to Ibama’s licensing requirements?
Free and informed prior consultation is an obligation under an international agreement which Brazil signed, Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization. The matter is regulated under the remit of Ibama and Funai (Brazil’s federal agency of Indigenous affairs ) under Ordinance 60, from 2015. This specific point is still being analyzed by the licensing team and, if consultation is needed, then it will be mandatory. We are still in the process of reviewing the documents. And there’s another criterion for this analysis, in that Ibama has a new president. So, before any decision on the license, I’m going to analyze all the documentation, all the studies and recommendations of the process.
According to Ibama regulations, could prior consultation be considered a requirement [of the licensing process]? Ibama has recommended that Petrobras review the Environmental Impact Study to consider the impact which has already occurred …
As I said, we are analyzing it and, if we need to request further information from Petrobras, we will. Ibama is not irresponsible. We are in a new phase, under a new presidency, nothing will be authorized if we aren’t in possession of all the necessary requirements, and one point that is always extremely important is hearings. It’s not about just carrying them out, there are rules and protocols, which often change according to the traditional populations, the Indigenous peoples. It is about gathering definitions, notes, observations made in these consultations that may actually be relevant for the institutional design of the environmental licensing. It makes no sense for us to consult for the sake of consulting, there has to be a reason and implicit obligations within it.
Another pressing issue is the renewal of the Belo Monte operating license …
This won’t be carried out in the short term. There are extremely controversial points to be debated. It isn’t a licensing process with a short or medium term forecast. There is a highly controversial starting point, a request to analyze the possibility of installing low head [small] dams to minimize the problems relating to the entire hydrographic profile that has been designed in the region. The studies relating to these low head dams have already been presented, Ibama will analyze them, and then we will look into the entire hydrological issue of the river. There isn’t a predicted date for the issuing of the license.
There is a serious environmental and humanitarian crisis in Volta Grande do Xingu, reduced numbers of fish, entire communities affected, the failure to establish a territory by river for people removed from their means of survival…
Ibama is aware of all the environmental problems resulting from the operation of the plant. Compliance with all the requirements is being analyzed, and we need to solve the problem of the operational hydrograph. The plant was licensed with hydrographs [the regime for using river water in the plant’s operation] that proved to be unsatisfactory in terms of their execution over time, and all of this is being analyzed by the teams of technical specialists. What I will say is that we have entire teams dedicated to these studies, to allow us to move forward. Until a satisfactory hydrograph is defined, and compliance with the requirements to date is analyzed, no license will be issued.
Reports indicate only 13 of the 47 original requirements have been fulfilled. Is that right??
When the plant was licensed, it was always clear that the hydrological regime of the Xingu is complex, that the life of the river depends on this complex system. The plant was licensed with two hydrographs, A and B, which over time proved to be unsatisfactory from the point of view of guaranteeing the maintenance of life on the river. These are strategic points which will be analyzed – and if they aren’t resolved, there’ll be no need to talk about environmental licensing. Licensing will seek to reconcile the different uses of the river and the maintenance of life on the river. In addition, we have the liabilities of unfulfilled requirements that have to be added to the equation.
DEAD TREES MEAN THE LANDSCAPE AROUND THE BELO MONTE HYDROELECTRIC PLANT RESERVOIR, ON THE XINGU RIVER, RESEMBLES A GRAVEYARD FOR NATURE. PHOTO: PABLO ALBARENGA/SUMAÚMA
We observed in the original licensing process that Ibama technical reports were frequently ignored. The impression is that there was a political choice which benefited Norte Energia and the contractors. Can you promise technical opinions will be respected this time?
Any technical report that is actually based on information and which can be legally supported will be taken into account. As I said, from now on Ibama’s work is based on evidence, on technical knowledge. This doesn’t mean that one or another analyst may at some stage make a suggestion that isn’t accepted. We are not bound by any or all suggestions, advice or technical reports. What is truly relevant, though, will certainly be taken into account. The case of Belo Monte is emblematic. We will have increasingly violent climate changes, with the occurrence of extreme weather events. So, today’s hydrological profile will not necessarily be the profile in the future. The Altamira region has one of the highest deforestation rates in Brazil, so there is also the problem of local climate change. All of this needs to be taken into account, and Ibama will not issue any license renewals without these analyzes.
It is expected the low head dams Petrobras wants to build will lead to more families being evicted and the environmental imbalance in the region will deteriorate. Is it possible these will be approved?
I haven’t said if I’m going to approve this or not. The main point is that we need to define a good working hydrograph for the hydrological regime of the river. The issue of low head dams was brought up in the context of the possible reduction of harm, but personally, to me it seems very ineffective. Ibama hasn’t concluded its technical analysis, but personally I think it won’t solve the issue much. And the central issue, the hydrograph, is unresolved. When the plant was licensed, everyone knew that at certain times there was a lack of water in the location. It was licensed, however, and how to solve these liabilities arising from that licensing is now the big challenge.
If the license is not renewed, will this paralyze the plant?
I can’t speculate about decisions.
It’s only a hypothetical question…
I don’t have the analysis to be able to answer this, but it isn’t desirable for an activity to take place without the proper environmental licensing, even more so in a situation where the venture is in such a sensitive area. On the other hand, with or without a license, the plant will remain in the same spot. The license doesn’t change the fact that there is a concrete barrier on the Xingu River. What I really believe in is the possibility that we can make progress on the issue of the hydrograph, because for us the most important thing is to guarantee the life of the river, to ensure that communities are not affected by the operation of the plant.
How do you see the situation in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory? The fear is the illegal miners are waiting to return when the situation cools down. How can you remain vigilant there without neglecting other regions where mining might migrate to?
We are not planning to withdraw from the Yanomami Territory anytime soon. We have barriers at the two main entry points, on the Mucajaí River and the Uraricoera River. The latter is the oldest and has been in operation since February 6. From these bases, we have been preventing the re-entry of miners and ensuring they can leave. Supplies such as fuel and food are no longer coming in by river, and this has been forcing them out. There is an air corridor open until April 6, many miners are using it to leave, and what is left is a huge trail of destruction inside the Indigenous territory. There are important questions to be debated from this point on, such as minimizing the problem of mercury contamination, what guidelines to give people in the area on the consumption of contaminated water, and how to carry out eventual repairs of the damage caused by illegal mining. Obviously, Ibama does not only have the Yanomami Territory, it has dozens of others, and in some there has been a court ruling determining the removal of intruders.
In the Munduruku and Kayapó territories, there are several Indigenous lands in which a court has ruled the invaders have to be removed, in addition to the political will of the current government. We are making an effective plan to go in over the course of this year, but the structure for all of this is quite limited. In the case of the Yanomami, we are not withdrawing anytime soon. We have the support of a large number of institutions, such as Funai, the Ministry of Defense, the National Public Security Force, the Federal Police, and the Federal Highway Police, in addition to the support of humanitarian assistance, from the Ministry of Social Development or the Ministry of Health. It’s a highly complex situation, Ibama had already planned to start in March, but we brought it forward a month because of the humanitarian crisis, and we’re going to stay there until mining is eradicated for good in that area. And, as far as possible, we will also combat illegal mining in other Indigenous lands and in support of the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation in federal conservation units.
TRADITIONAL YANOMAMI FISHING METHODS IN THE DEMINI VILLAGE. THE WOMEN ATTRACT FISH BY THROWING GROUND TIMBÓ LEAVES. PHOTO: PABLO ALBARENGA/SUMAÚMA
There is a terrible amount of destruction caused by mining in the Yanomami Territory, such as craters in the forest and contaminated rivers. Can these areas be recovered?
We can minimize the problem of craters, solve problems related to erosion, but the consequences of mining will last for all eternity. Mercury doesn’t degrade, it remains present in the water, in fish. It begins to be metabolized, turns into methylmercury, becomes part of the chain of metals. There is a pattern of contaminated fish now, and another profile will emerge in the coming years, as it circulates through the food chain. There are areas where we can carry out a restoration project, recover the area’s features, let the forest do its natural regeneration work, but within it there is a lot of accumulated garbage and residues, and springs and riparian forests that cannot be recovered. There is no soil, just washed sand and sterile, dead dirt. Ibama and the Ministry of the Environment have asked the UN Environment Program, which has a team of specialists in mercury contamination, to help properly diagnose the contamination and provide guidance on the measures that should be taken from now on. But in areas destroyed by illegal mining, recovery is very slow. The forest will try to occupy its space, but it’s slow. There are areas that were mined in the Yanomami Indigenous Land in the 1980s and 1990s that are still in a difficult situation today. In terms of going back to being a lush forest, forget it.
You have already mentioned, in other interviews, the lack of staff at Ibama. Is this affecting the licensing processes?
Not from a quality point of view. But obviously having such a reduced number of staff, like we have today, affects the speed of decisions. Today we have half an Ibama, with 2,900 employees, 53% of the workforce that was planned in the past. We have 470 ‘stay on allowance’ staff [those who are retired, but continue to work], while some of the more staff intensive areas of Ibama, such as licensing and inspection, are suffering. These are strategic areas where there is a lack of staff and equipment. There has been a process of running down the agency over the last four years, and getting over all of that will take time. It won’t be easy to resolve, at least 200 employees are expected to retire, and, unless I can carry out a concurso (an application process for the hiring of civil servants) in October or November, these vacancies won’t be filled quickly. And we also have to train and qualify people. Field experience takes time. In recent years, Ibama began to delegate a lot of its licensing requests to [Brazilian] states, especially those with greater infrastructure, and also because of the reduction in the size of the team. We are in the process of making Ibama a strong institution once again, with a structure on a par with Brazilian biodiversity, the most diverse in the world, even though it is under threat. Half of the vegetation cover in Brail is native, and despite all the degradation we have the highest percentage of green coverage in the world. We face a huge challenge, and the structure of Ibama today does not match its responsibilities. Which is not to say that the staff don’t work with a great deal of dedication.
How significant is the Amazon Fund [the environmental protection fund created from donations from Norway and Germany, which was paralyzed during the Bolsonaro government, when countries withheld around R$ 3.6 billion] from the perspective of preservation?
It is essential if we want to have different public policies for the Amazon. The government budget, or the budgets of each of the bodies that make up the National Environmental System, is one thing, but making a policy for the Amazon based on bioeconomy and job creation, which respects the largest tropical forest in the world and values ecosystem services, is something else. Tools like the Amazon Fund are essential if we want to have a different strategy for the Amazon, otherwise we’ll be left with money from the Safra Plan (a government program to support the rural economy), which will encourage the continuous transformation of the forest into areas of pasture and agricultural cultivation, which in turn will result in the absence of the Brazilian state, which will lead to land grabbing, illegal logging, hunting, fishing and illegal mining. Ibama has been receiving funds from the Amazon Fund. We have just inaugurated a PrevFogo [the National Center for the Prevention and Combat of Forest Fires] facility that was built with the fund, and we are going to put forward a project to restructure Ibama’s inspection sector. It is a guarantee of continued resources. The standing forest has to be worth more than the forest on the ground. Today, depending on the state, an area of forest is worth half as much as a deforested area. In [the state of] Pará, it is worth one tenth. To change this we need to create a wide range of solutions, which may involve payments for environmental services, forest concessions, forest management, the production of forest products for the food and pharmaceutical industry, and agroforestry. The fund is an important tool for this, and the new government has been prioritizing getting other countries to become donors.
There is a recurring complaint that forest products often don’t reward those who produce them …
That’s why we can’t have a single solution, it can’t just be extractivism [the extraction of forest products]. Extractivism is very important for some families, but I am not going to save the entire Amazon with just one strategy.
Spell check (Portuguese): Elvira Gago
Translation into Spanish: Meritxell Almarza
English translation: James Young
Photography editing: Marcelo Aguilar, Mariana Greif and Pablo Albarenga