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IACHR and its SRESCER express serious concerned about deforestation and fires in the Amazon

September 3, 2019

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Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and its Special Rapporteurship on Economic, Social, Cultural, and Environmental Rights (SRESCER) express their profound concern about growing deforestation and recent fires in the Amazon basin.
According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Amazon rainforest region holds the largest tropical forest in the world and contains about half of its biodiversity. For the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) the main threats identified against this natural area of high relevance to the world and the hemisphere include mining, cattle ranching, logging, dam construction, roads, expanding farmland, and various other investment projects.

In relation to the fires affecting the Brazilian Amazon during the past weeks, the State has affirmed that from August to October is the drought period, when the humidity falls drastically in the region. To this must be added the situation of huge drought in the North and Center-West of the country. Additionally, it is about the period of the year when the farmers prepare the land to plant. Therefore, it is natural that the warning systems appoint that there is an increase in fire outbreaks. However, according to the State, the majority of these lands have been used for a long time for agriculture and they do not constitute deforestation and destruction of the native Amazon rainforest. The Environment Ministry of Brazil appointed that the 10,000 hectares of area that were burned, about 3,000 are located in Chapada dos Guimarães, a protected national park. Agência Brasil, the country’s national public news agency, informed that most fires are in urban areas. The Environment Ministry stressed that the dry weather, the wind, and the heat caused the fires in the region.

According to preliminary data issued by the National Institute for Space Research (INPE, by its Portuguese acronym)—belonging to the Brazilian Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovation, and Communications—deforestation in June and July has increased considerably in comparison with the same months of 2018. The same institution registers a record of 72,843 fires this year, an increase of 80% in comparison to last year. On the other hand, scientists that use satellite of the NASA to trace the fires activity have confirmed an increase in the amount and intensity of the fires in the Brazilian Amazon in 2019, making this year the most active year of fires in the region since 2010.

In accordance to that expressed by the Chief of the Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, the fires activity in the Amazon varies considerably from one year to another and from one month to another, due to the changes in the economic conditions and the climate. In August 2019, it stands out because it has brought a notable amount of huge, intense and persistent fires along the main roads in the Central Brazilian Amazon. According to with the expert, while the drought has played an important role in the exacerbation of the fires of last year, the moment and the detections locations of the fires, at the beginning of the dry season of 2019, are the most consistent with the clearing of the land with the regional drought. The principal tool of the NASA for the detection of the fires, since 2002, has been the instrument of Moderate-resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) in the satellite Terra and Aquasa. At this point of the fire season, the active detections of fires MODIS in 2019 are the highest on the Brazilian amazon than any other year since 2010. The state of the Amazon has the last estimations of changes in the recent activities of fires. The detections MODIS are the higher in 2019 than at this moment of last year in the seven states that incorporate the Brazilian Amazon.

The IACHR expressed its concern about the registry of the NASA of a record-breaking increase of the fires in the Amazon in 2019 that might produce an irreversible effect in the deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon. In fact, the Basin Restoration Program (Prodes), that the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) is responsible for, reported that last year its records indicated that on August 2017 to July 2018 the deforestation reaches the highest level of destroyed woods in the last decade, with 7,900 square kilometers. Since 2013, Prodes shows an increase of deforestation in the Amazon. In this sense, the IACHR greets the Decree adopted by the Executive of the Brazilian State which imposes a prohibition of seventy days to the burning for agricultural purposes. Being a palliative measure of temporal character face to the alarming situation, it also its required to advance in sustainable development policies of long reach orientated to the respect and guarantee of human rights, including the right to the environment. Additionally, this measure must be accompanied by a strengthening of the bodies responsible for environmental protection. In particular, it is priority to strengthen the budget and the task force of the budget of the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA, by its Portuguese acronym), the responsible institution for the environmental supervision in Brazil. In this respect, the IACHR is particularly concerned by the announces that the authorities of the county that appointed in June that the government will be continuing reducing the amount of fines for environmental issues in farming, and denounced an alleged “fining industry.” In August, Congress passed Temporary Measure No. 881, allowing automatic deforestation when there were delays in decisions concerning environmental licenses and waiving requirements for environmental licenses for low-risk economic activities. Likewise, the IACHR and its SRESCER call upon the Brazilian State to strengthen institutionally and its budgetary aspects of the Secretary of Climate Change, which plays a fundamental role in the drought situation that will affect the Amazon precisely because of global warming.  

In this context, the IACHR and SRESCER are concerned for the development of industrial and agro-industrial projects that imply advancing in deforestation. For instance, based on publicly available reports, a group of large landholders in the south-west of the state of Pará held a “fire day” on August 10, coordinating efforts to burn pastures and areas that were being deforested. According to INPE data, the number of fires in Novo Progresso, the principal municipality of the region, had an increase of 300% that day. These burnings are destroying ecosystems, displacing wildlife and threatening the means of subsistence of millions of persons.

The Commission and its SRESCER stress that it is essential for the governments of Member States of the Organization of the American States (OAS) need to take immediate action and must devote all available resources and means to fight deforestation and protect the right to a healthy environment. These actions must be in keeping with the provisions of the various instruments in the Inter-American System, particularly Arts. 1 and 2 of the American Convention on Human Rights, in line with Art. 26 of the same Convention and Art. 11 of its Additional Protocol on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Protocol of San Salvador), linked to protecting a healthy environment.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights recently underlined, in Advisory Opinion OC–23 of 2017, that States have an obligation to prevent significant environmental damage both within and outside their territory, to act in accordance with the precautionary principle concerning potential irreparable environmental damage, and to ensure access to information, public participation, and justice regarding the environment. States should to cooperate in good faith to protect the environment from harm.  
The IACHR and its SRESCER are deeply saddened by consequences  the events described above have had and will continue to cause on the Amazon, as a vital natural region of strategic importance for the existence and conservation of a healthy environment and the protection of other human rights, such as the rights to life, personal integrity, health, and drinking water. The IACHR and its SRESCER also highlight that the right to a healthy environment has collective aspects, in that it entails a universal interest that is due to current and future generations and is, in fact, a fundamental right for the existence of humankind.

The IACHR warns that indigenous peoples who live in the Amazon are the most affected. This has led to forced displacements of several communities and loss of land used for subsistence agriculture, and it entails a serious risk of disappearance for isolated indigenous peoples like the Awas of the Arariboia indigenous territory, in the Amazonian Maranhão. In the Open Letter from Indigenous Peoples Dated August 22, 2019 (in Spanish), indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin declared a state of environmental and humanitarian emergency. They denounced that, by their acts and omissions, the Government has dismissed all environmental and social strategies to strengthen environmental governance in the Amazon. They added that “it is necessary for all social actors—whether public or private—to act together, to intervene and end this threat against life in all its forms, which has already put more than 506 indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin and thousands of species of flora and fauna who live there at risk of extinction, due to 73,843 fires that have burned more than 700,000 hectares of forest after almost 18 days of abandonment and prevention; also, according to preliminary figures, more than 100,000 indigenous persons have suffered damage.”

The fires in Brazil, given their size and duration, are not only a serious, clear, and tangible risk for various rights of nearby communities, but also threaten to become a predictable factor that increases the damage on all humanity and worsens its impact on the most vulnerable people. “The Brazilian State needs to take urgent and immediate action to mitigate the effects of these fires, to prevent greater damage to the environment. And it needs to implement a plan aimed at effectively preventing and punishing any actions that may cause this kind of disaster,” said Special Rapporteur Soledad García Muñoz.

For the IACHR and its SRESCER, the obligation to take measures to protect the Amazon—as a vital area for the right to a safe environment and for other human rights—extends, at least, to all other States who share jurisdiction over the Amazon basin, and imposes on them a duty to adequately coordinate their policies to control deforestation, protect ecosystems’ vital life cycles, and appropriately use the soil, with stronger institutions and environmental framework regulations.

The IACHR and its SRESCER highlight the role of the Brazilian State and of the international community in addressing the causes of this situation and developing cooperation-based strategies to improve the protection of the environment and the Amazon, following the applicable international standards. Consequently, the IACHR President Esmeralda, Arosemena de Troitiño, stressed that the IACHR has already noted that “the absence of regulations, [the existence of] inadequate regulations, the lack of oversight, and the promotion by States of activities which may cause serious problems for the environment may in practice lead to violations of human rights protected by the American Convention.” The IACHR President noted that any development plan or policy should be implemented considering the respect for human rights.

“Since it has jurisdiction over a vast natural asset like the Amazon, the State of Brazil is in a privileged position for its people to enjoy it, and also has a corresponding duty to design and implement policies and regulations in line with its human rights obligations, including those linked to protecting the environment,” said the IACHR’s Rapporteur for Brazil and on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Antonia Urrejola. Rapporteur Urrejola noted that both Brazil and the international community have to make an effort to recognize the rights of indigenous peoples, given their close connection with and knowledge of their territories and natural resources, and the fundamental role that human rights defenders play in these sorts of contexts.

In that context, the IACHR and its SRESCER stress that public officials need to refrain from comments that stigmatize human rights defenders or suggest that environmental organizations are acting in an inappropriate or illegal way just because they promote human rights and stand up for the defense of those rights. Governments must specifically instruct their officials to refrain from comments that stigmatize such social actors, and they must be extremely careful that their policies and public statements do not incite or suggest practices that promote deforestation and other negative effects on the Amazon.   

Finally, the IACHR and its SRESCER call on Member States of the OAS—particularly those in the Amazon basin and especially Brazil—to address this cross-border environmental tragedy in a coordinated way and to adequately investigate its roots, to punish anyone responsible for it, and to take stronger preventive action, with a human rights perspective, to prevent similar situations in the future. Further, individuals and groups who are particularly affected by these fires must be effectively protected, and they need to be granted access to reparations. Indigenous and tribal peoples present in the affected areas must be considered in a differentiated way in an emergency plan to prevent further damage to their human rights, and so the same applies to territories where peoples in voluntary isolation or initial contact are believed to be present.

The SRESCER is an office of the IACHR and was especially created to brace the Commission’s compliance with its mandate to promote and protect economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights in the Americas.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 215/19