Deregulating CONAMA

Image: Telma Lessa da Fonseca


The environment is attacked and subjected to powers that become uncontrolled and mediated exclusively by the logic of large private property

Following actions to dismantle the public machinery for protecting the environment, the government, through a May 2019 decree, emptied the National Council for the Environment and turned it into a simple transmission belt of government anti-environmentalism. The intention was to affirm the disengagement of the group in power towards the defense of forests, air and water quality, and, at the same time, to undo the role of the councils, conceived to listen, even if in a minority way, to the perspective of civil society organizations regarding public policies. The weakening of Conama's composition, in particular the presence of representatives of non-business civil society, is what allowed the government to propose and vote on it, on September 28 last, with largely unconvincing allegations of "normative rationalization", the repeal of three resolutions that are decisive to protect the Atlantic Forest from the advance of predatory interests in real estate speculation. Here is an exemplary action of the government's anti-environmental intentions.

In the mid-1970s, with the spread of environmental concerns, nation states were called upon to regulate the reciprocal effects – mediated by air, water and living systems – of the different activities carried out in their territories all over the world. From then on, it was a question of governing the relationships between these activities and the ecosystems that are appropriated for different uses. In dealing with this multiplicity, several strategies were devised. Some advocated the establishment of government controls and limits on the impacts of activities; others affirmed their belief in the “environmental conversion” of companies and the market; others proposed the presence of society's organizations in defining the limits to be imposed on the environmental impacts of economic projects. In Brazil, the definition of the environment as “common use of the people”, by the 1988 Constitution, justified the adoption of a democratizing discourse that attributed to society shared responsibilities in the treatment of environmental problems.

In the formulation of government environmental policies, the creation of Conama, in 1981, and its operation started in 1984, is an example of the opening of spaces for the participation of society organizations engaged in the protection of the environment. Representatives of the authoritarian regime then disapproved of the creation of advisory councils for federal policies, claiming that they were instruments of emptying legislative power. Institutions of this type, including representations of civil society, and, in certain cases, through some type of elective process, multiplied throughout the country's redemocratization process. In opposition to what the Dictatorship thought, there was a strong expectation that the mechanisms of social participation located at the level of the parliamentary and judicial complexes would function as “institutional locks”, regulating access to communicative flows from the periphery of the political system to the decision-making centers . Although the inequality of resources for action among different actors suggested that participation expectations could be frustrated, the discourse of civil society involvement in government policies prospered from the 1990s onwards. Councils were seen as instruments for circulating messages under in the form of social demands, intrastate articulations, proposals for social pacts or governmental re-elaboration of the demands of social movements or the pressures of interest groups. In short, they would be important elements in the construction of the public sphere. It is in the latter where the different discourses in dispute for the definition of the political agenda and the construction of meaning for the notions of public interest and common good would be confronted. In the image of polis Greek, in this sphere men would recognize themselves as equals and would build a common world, multiple because it reflects the different perspectives of citizens and the same because it is shared by all.

In the field of the environment, so-called participatory institutions seemed to be able to constitute new ways of producing territorial policies, where different ecological systems or urban configurations would be associated with cultural systems and social actors whose knowledge and projects would give democratic and plural content to decision-making processes. Conama – National Council for the Environment – ​​was created, still during the Dictatorship, by Law no. 6938 of 1981 and regulated by Decree No. 88351 of 1983 as the highest body of the National Environmental System. It was up to him to advise, study and propose to the Presidency of the Republic guidelines for government policies for the environment and deliberate on norms and standards by which the environment involves social life. Conama was given the power to establish criteria for licensing activities, determine the carrying out of alternative studies for public or private projects with possible environmental consequences, decide, on appeal, on fines and penalties imposed by IBAMA, determine loss or retention of tax benefits granted by the Government, loss or suspension of participation in financing lines in official credit institutions, as well as establishing norms related to the control of the quality of the environment.

As a collegiate institution, Conama is the space where the federal administration, state environmental agencies, representatives of the business community, workers and civil society entities involved with environmental issues meet to discuss environmental policy guidelines and define standards. and standards that regulate the social use of the environment. In its initial conception, Conama reflected the will to give a decentralized and participative character to the formulation of norms and policies destined to guarantee the quality of the environment. The democratic format attributed to it, even during the authoritarian regime, reflected, in part, the lack of interest that the environmental issue then aroused in conservative political forces and representatives of economic power.

In its initial phase, between 1984 and 1986, Conama basically aimed to articulate the federal government's environmental area with other areas of government - Economy, Mines and Energy, Agriculture, etc. It was then expected that, by making the other sectors co-authors of decisions about the environment, these sectors would also assume responsibilities as their co-executors. Some weighty discussions led to the production of a number of relevant resolutions. From 1986 onwards, the debates tended to lose steam, progressively falling into what some consider a “labyrinth of norms”. From then on, an impasse emerged between the conception of the body as a space for negotiation and understanding in the environmental field, and the difficulty of it functioning as an instance of political deliberation. With the legal achievements inscribed in the chapter on the Environment in the Federal Constitution of 1988, reactions were outlined in the sense of limiting Conama's potential as a formulator of political guidelines for the environment. In 1989, at the end of the Sarney government, Conama stopped advising the Presidency of the Republic and began subsidizing a Superior Council for the Environment. Internal resistance to the expansion of Conama's powers materialized in the Nossa Natureza program, prepared by the Sarney government with the aim of restructuring the National Environmental Policy. From then on, Conama increasingly developed a normative function, applied to specific issues and delimited spaces, to the detriment of what could be its “political vocation” open to global and strategic issues related to the environmental dimension of development.

The Collor government maintained restrictions on the body's scope of action, subordinated it to a Government Council made up of State ministers, in which not even the Secretary for the Environment had a seat. Between 1990 and 1992, the Collor administration deepened the hollowing out of Conama, either because of the instability that prevailed in the body responsible for its Executive Secretariat – Ibama had eight presidents over two years – or because of the congestion of its agenda or the little expressiveness observed in some of the representations that constituted it. Conservative forces never abandoned conceptions that saw the participation of representatives of civil society as a caricature of democracy: the strangeness in the face of other orders, alien to the traditions of government technobureaucracies and the great economic interests that operate within it, could explain the construction of readings contrary to democratic participation.

Conama was created to support what some call the “dynamic conservatism” of the government’s environmental area.[I]. The setting up of this area would have resulted from a strategy of resistance to innovation characterized by the acceptance of the environmental discourse disseminated since the UN Conference in Stockholm, in 1972, and by the creation of institutional spaces devoid of political strength or sufficient human and financial resources to Act. Some attributed this fragility to the lack of horizontal articulation of the environmental issue within the federal government”. As all Ministries participate in it, Conama is the space where the Ministry of the Environment could try to strengthen itself along with the other areas of the executive branch. However, government representations were often seen as little politically expressive. In certain circumstances, the fact that states and ministries sent lower-ranking members to represent them in plenary meetings would have reflected the little expressiveness they attributed to the debate. These representations were also affected by administrative discontinuity and by the electoral cycles themselves, which led to the frequent change of representatives.

With all these limitations, the existence of a National Council for the Environment open to society's participation has also always had a symbolic role. It was, at the very least, an institutional space where society could monitor the agenda of major economic interests, identify and alert society to projects aimed at environmental predation and the deconstruction of rights, notably of small producers, residents of urban peripheries, indigenous peoples. and traditional communities. The political hollowing out of this Council, due to the decree signed in May 2019 by the anti-environmental forces installed in the federal government, also reflects the government's intention to general symbolic disqualification of public spaces for discussing government policies. The deregulation that has been affecting laws, norms and rights that were constituted to contain the advance of environmental predation is now reaching the regulatory bodies themselves. From the perspective of Paulo Nogueira Neto, special secretary for the environment who was at the origin of the creation of Conama, the idea was to seek to constitute an environment subject to the public interest. Now, this environment thought of in this way is attacked, being subjected to powers that become uncontrolled and mediated exclusively by the logic of large private property.

* Henri Acselrad is a professor at the Institute of Research and Urban and Regional Planning at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (IPPUR/UFRJ).


[I]cf. R. Guimarães, “Ecology and Politics in the Brazilian Social Formation”, in Data, v.31, nº2, 1988, RJ.

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