President Jair Bolsonaro (PL) signed this Thursday (13) a decree authorizing the destruction of any type of cave for the construction of projects considered to be of public utility.
The measure maintains the maximum, high, medium and low relevance ratings of natural caves, but repeals a 1990 rule that prohibited caves with maximum relevance from suffering irreversible negative impacts.
According to the new text, they can be modified as long as there is authorization from the competent environmental agencies and environmental compensation by the entrepreneurs. In addition, the impacts will not be able to generate the extinction of the species that inhabit the impacted cavity.
In a note, the Ministry of the Environment justified the need for the change and stated that they “create the possibility of investments in fundamental structuring projects, generating employment and income, such as highways, railways, mining, transmission lines and renewable energies”.
Specialists in the area, however, criticize the decree. They say the new rules jeopardize the protection of natural cavities.
“The decision will be directly related to the eventual framing that the public power gives of public utility and there is a certain breadth of what can be considered as public utility. In federal and state works, where the environmental agency is the wolf and the lamb, there is a great chance that there will be risks of arbitrating the public utility in a wrong way”, says Murilo Valle, PhD in hydrogeology and member of the Bambuí Speleological Research Group.
The professor explains that the decree would facilitate, for example, the construction of a Heineken brewery factory in Minas Gerais, which was embargoed in September last year by ICMBio (Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation) due to the risk of damage to the archaeological site where Luzia’s skull was located, the oldest human fossil found in the Americas.
Works on highways with interference in caves may also be facilitated.
Another point of concern is the form of compensation established by the decree. The text determines that the entrepreneur adopts measures to ensure the preservation of a natural underground cavity with environmental attributes similar to the one that suffered the impact and, preferably, with a maximum degree of relevance and of the same lithology.
This, according to Valle, will not oblige the person responsible for the project to preserve another cave of maximum relevance or similar characteristics.
“This decree makes it possible to compensate for the impact of a cave of high relevance elsewhere, without really worrying whether this other cave has a compatible relevance”, he says.
The ministry argues that the possibilities of environmental compensation for projects that affect cavities with a high degree of protection have been expanded, “in order to allow a more effective application of resources destined for environmental preservation”.
The decree also allows ICMBio or the entrepreneur to request the environmental agency to change the classification of the caves’ degree of relevance, both for higher and lower levels.
Sebeq (Brazilian Society for the Study of Chiroptera) also took a stand against the changes and stated that they will generate “huge and irreparable impacts”.
“Literally thousands of cave-dwelling species, including critically endangered species and hyperendemic species (occurring in a single cave, for example) are at increased risk with the publication of Decree 10,935. Furthermore, the ecosystem services provided by these caves, such as the supply of aquifers and the containment of flood pulses, could be seriously compromised”, he said in a note.
Alexandre Lobo, who is also part of the Bambuí Speleological Research Group, points out that the decree could have an impact on the tourism sector.
“Several of these caves are outside national parks, which in my view are the only conservation units that still have some kind of security to protect natural and environmental heritage,” comments Lobo.
Also according to the decree, in 90 days a joint act by the Ministries of the Environment, Mines and Energy and Infrastructure should be published to define the methodology for classifying the degree of relevance of the cavities.