03 August, 2009

The new power of rural interests in the US and Brazil

The agribusiness bloc has staged a multi-targeted attack on environmental legislation over the last few months in the Brazilian Congress. It has recently become far more active and is visibly gaining clout in Brazilian politics. The core focus of this new attack on environmental laws has been forest protection, and the Amazon region is its main priority. The rural lobby associated to this Congressional bloc has successfully engaged several government authorities, succeeding in persuading the president to sign a series of presidential decrees. The ministers of Agriculture, Mines and Energy, and Transportation have been working actively both on the media and within Congress to support changes on the environment license legislation, on forest cover legal reserves, and several other areas of the environmental legal framework. The minister of Agriculture has been the most outspoken in favor of agribusiness interests, but the Minister of Transportation, while defending the end of environmental licensing requirements for road-building, was also defending lifting barriers to deforestation in the Amazon. There are several road-projects in the Amazon, pending license, that directly interest the region’s soy and beef producers. The same is true of the minister of Mines and Energy attempts to lift licensing requirements for large hydroelectric power plant projects in the Amazon region.

The first important victory of this concerted anti-environmental action came when Congress turned into law a presidential decree granting land rights to thousands of illegal settlers. A sizable portion of those benefitted were acting as front to large cattle and soybean producers. The new law grants tenure rights to holdings of land illegally occupied of less than 100 ha cost free; and authorizes the land authority to sell at highly subsidized prices holdings between 100 and 400 ha. Land-tenure rights of holdings larger than 400 ha will be sold at market prices, and of those larger than 1500 ha will be auctioned. Land-rights of holdings larger than 2500 ha will depend on Congressional approval. The immediate result will be a de facto amnesty for most land-grabbers. As land-tenure rights begin to be issued, land-speculation will very likely result, increasing the value of legal land, and generating strong incentives to grabbing and clearing of new areas.

This outburst of political action by agribusiness lobbies resulted from progress of the environmental and global-warming agenda and an increasing of government raids against illegal deforestation in the Amazon. Fiercer action against deforestation, and the success of social organization initiatives, such as Greenpeace’s campaign against soybean exporters that led to a soy moratorium, recently extended until 2010, have also contributed to induce this political offensive.

Over the last years there have been some important substantive gains in terms of tools and means to protect the Amazon. Satellite monitoring of deforestation has been very much improved, and today Brazil has first-class monitoring by both the official agency, INPE (National Institute for Space Research), and the independent “think-act” organization iMazon. The National Monetary Council banned financing by official banks and agencies of activities that are not fully certified and licensed. This means that illegal deforestation had been getting official subsidized financing. Figures for monthly and annual deforestation became part of routine media coverage. Although modest and falling short of meaning a permanent and irreversible gain of Amazon forest governance this surge of environmental concern and control was perceived as a capital threat by the more retrograde sectors of Brazilian agriculture.

This case came back to my mind when reading Dan Morgan’s piece published Sunday by the Washington Post, Prodding the Liberal Agenda With a Pitchfork. He argues that climate change legislation was moving along in the US, “when it ran into a tractorcade.” He describes the mobilization of rural interests, to prevent climate legislation from going too far. Dan Morgan says that the demonstration of their remaining political clout “may come as a surprise to those who thought the ‘farm bloc’ disappeared sometime around the end of the Eisenhower administration.” He claims that “its clout has been reshaping — and in some cases halting — the ambitious agenda of President Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).”

From his story it seems that the action of the American Farm Bureau Federation, US’s largest farm organization, parallels that of the National Confederation of Agrilculture (CNA), Brazil’s largest farm organization. He says that the AFBF has vowed to kill the climate change bill in the Senate. In Brazil, the CNA has vowed to revoke all environmental laws today protecting forest cover, mandating the preservation or restoration of riparian vegetation, setting licensing rules, and many other aspects of environmental legislation, also having as an end-result crippling any serious climate change initiative. It is important to note that in Brazil by far the largest source of GHG emissions comes from land use change in general, and deforestation and forest degradation, in particular.

In Brazil, we call this new “farm-bloc” that is getting more powerful through clever political maneuvering the “ruralistas” (“ruralists”). Dan Morgan suggests “the US newly empowered farm-state lawmakers” should be called “the Agracrats.” They’re a “bloc of moderate-to-conservative rural Democrats in both houses.” The Brazilian ruralists, we could also call them Agracrats (agrocratas, in Portuguese), form a multiparty bloc, and although its core is on the opposition center-right “DEM” party it has spread even into pro-government and left-wing parties. Dan Morgan suggests that the Agracrats bloc might become influential in other than farm or climate related issues. The same is probably true for Brazilian ruralists.

Their political advantage, in both countries, also comes from the fact that they hold a tighter and more consensual view of the issues they prioritize. Those who defend climate change and environmental policies tend to have a more plural view of the issues and are often unable to consensually supporting a single position, when it comes to Legislative battles.

(Sergio Abranches)

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