Brazil must improve track record on environment and human rights as a condition for OECD membership

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The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) must not grant Brazil membership before it has fully aligned its environmental and human rights laws, policies, and practices with the standards and values of the organisation. Research conducted by OECD Watch, Conectas Human Rights (Conectas), and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH, notably within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a partnership with World Organisation Against Torture, OMCT) shows that the country still has a long way to go to improve its track record on climate change and deforestation, environmental degradation, Indigenous peoples’ rights, protection of environmental and human rights defenders, and labour rights.

By analysing these five critical themes in dedicated papers released today, the civil society organisations demonstrate how diverse and widespread governance failures are jeopardising the rule of law, human rights, and the environment in Brazil. Problems relate to inadequate and ineffective laws and regulations, the underfunding of key ministries and policies, failures of enforcement and accountability, lack of transparency and public engagement, and repression of dissent. An executive summary with an overview of the reports’ findings is available.

The research, launched today in an online seminar, not only highlights the main causes of these governance gaps with illustrative case examples, but also proposes domestic reforms Brazil should undertake to close them. The papers urge the OECD to require Brazil to implement the needed reforms during the accession process.

The research is being released in advance of late March and early June meetings of the OECD Ministerial Council to discuss the principles and “roadmaps” that will guide the accession process for Brazil and other candidate countries. The release of the research also comes ahead of the 29-31 March meeting of the OECD Environment Policy Committee at Ministerial Level, which will focus on climate change, among other issues.

“The OECD has powerful leverage over Brazil during the upcoming accession process. It should use that leverage to help realise these reforms by requiring Brazil to adopt them as a firm pre-condition for membership. The OECD should also ensure that the accession process for Brazil and other countries is transparent and allows for civil society participation, especially in candidate states.”

Marian G. Ingrams, coordinator of OECD Watch

“The current Brazilian administration’s poor track record in addressing some of the world’s most pressing crises —from climate change to global pandemics— has shown its lack of commitment to protecting the environment, human rights, and the rule of law. In Brazil, the most affected populations are the most vulnerable: Indigenous peoples, rural communities, Afro-descendant communities such as the quilombola communities, human rights defenders, poor and migrant workers, women, and children. We believe the government has often demonstrated complacency, or even complicity, in allowing social and environmental governance to deteriorate in Brazil.”

Julia Mello Neiva from Conectas

“This is the last decade left to meaningfully change the course of climate change and Brazil will play a defining role in that. The OECD cannot treat Brazil’s accession as it has past processes, which have focused too narrowly on removing barriers to foreign trade and investment. We urge OECD member governments to take Brazil’s accession process —and the OECD’s own values— seriously and grant membership only if Brazil earns it.”

Maddalena Neglia, director of FIDH’s globalisation and human rights desk

Brazil has been attempting for over a decade to align itself with OECD instruments. Membership would bring Brazil enormous economic and political advantages, including improved standing among donors and increased access to trade and foreign direct investment. Brazil should not be granted these benefits while its human rights and environmental record remains so dismal.

Seminar and official launch

OECD Watch and its partners launched the research at a webinar on 22 March 2022. Following a keynote address by Fernanda Hopenhaym, member of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, Conectas moderated a panel discussion including Vice Chief Sucupira Pataxó, representative of an Indigenous group impacted by a recent dam collapse; Jandyra Uehara, national secretary for social policy and human rights at Brazil’s largest trade union CUT; Suely Araújo, senior specialist in public policies at the Brazilian NGO consortium Climate Observatory; Eric Pedersen, head of responsible investments at investor Nordea; and Daniela da Costa-Bulthuis, portfolio manager, emerging markets at investor Robeco.

 OECD Watch has published an OECD accession guide for civil society that explains how the process works for candidate countries and suggests to civil society organisations how to engage to demand important policy reforms.
 The papers are available here.

About OECD Watch, Conectas, FIDH, and the Observatory

OECD Watch is a global network with over 130 member organisations in more than 50 countries, representing the voice of civil society at the OECD Investment Committee.

Conectas Human Rights is a Brazilian organisation that has been working for 20 years to promote, implement and expand human rights from a perspective of the Global South. Conectas proposes solutions, prevents setbacks and denounces violations to produce transformations.

FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights) is an international human rights NGO uniting 192 organisations from 117 countries to collaborate on strategies promoting universal human rights standards.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (the Observatory) was created in 1997 by FIDH and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). The objective of this programme is to intervene to prevent or remedy situations of repression against human rights defenders. FIDH and OMCT are both members of, the European Union Human Rights Defenders Mechanism implemented by international civil society.

Background information

The research shows that:

Deforestation in the Amazon and other protected biomes has spiralled upwards under the current administration, reaching decade-high peaks in 2019 and 2020. Climate change-causing greenhouse gas emissions are also on the rise as forest fires rage in megadiverse natural territories. The main causes of deforestation are well-known: expansion of commercial agriculture and cattle ranching, logging, mining, land speculation, and infrastructure expansion. But as the research shows, the government is pushing economic expansion into protected lands while significantly cutting budgets and enforcement capacity at environmental agencies. The authors of the research call on the OECD to require Brazil, among other steps, to ensure the necessary capacity and authority for environmental regulators and stop support of legislation reducing protections for native lands.

Environmental destruction is a growing threat in Brazil. Toxic waste from mining activities and dam collapses pollutes natural resources; mercury poisons Indigenous populations subjected to illegal gold extraction in their territories; and pesticides - many outlawed in other OECD states, or sprayed aerially in a manner prohibited by other OECD states - poison people, ground, and water sources. Instead of taking steps to address these harms, the Brazilian government is, as the research shows, promoting legislation to extend mining in Indigenous lands and ease authorisation for pesticide use. Our organisations urge the OECD to use its leverage during the accession process to require Brazil to set an effective regime to protect its people and environment from pollution damage, sanction perpetrators of environmental crimes, and provide remedy to impacted communities.

Indigenous peoples’ rights such as to self-determination and Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) over use of their territories, are under systematic attack in Brazil. The Brazilian constitution required all Indigenous lands to be assessed and labelled for protection by 1993, but successive governments have failed at this task. Meanwhile, under the current government’s pro-industry policies, land-grabbing has sky-rocketed, rising for example from 109 cases in 2018 to 256 in 2019, impacting at least 151 Indigenous lands of 143 peoples in 23 states. Meanwhile, 277 reported cases of violence against Indigenous persons were recorded in 2019, among which almost half were assassinations and homicides. The paper authors urge the OECD to require Brazil to adequately fund the ministries that oversee Indigenous land protections, ensure accountability for violators, and curtail its own racist rhetoric against Indigenous and other traditional communities.

Environmental and human rights defenders in Brazil are under serious threat. According to data gathered by Global Witness, Brazil has remained the deadliest or one of the top four deadliest countries in the world for land and environmental defenders from 2002 to 2020. Unfortunately, the government is a key driver of this situation, facilitating extractive, infrastructure, and agriculture activities - often in legally protected territory - without ensuring consultation, consent, and human rights protections for impacted communities. When activists speak out to seek accountability for harm, they face threats and violence. Meanwhile, failures of enforcement yield impunity for perpetrators. Our organisations call on the OECD to require Brazil to adopt all measures necessary to reinforce capacity and effectiveness of human rights defender protection programmes, ensure access to justice for harm, and address the root causes of violence.

Finally, workers’ rights have undergone serious attacks in the past half-decade in Brazil, first through a major labour reform passed in 2017 by the previous administration, and continuing under President Bolsonaro’s philosophy that “fewer rights are better than no jobs.” A recent rise in informality of work, leading to more precarious work conditions, coupled with a gutting of unions and poor protections for occupational health, has led to a range of workers’ rights abuses without corresponding economic growth or decline in unemployment. Our organisations call on the OECD to require Brazil to repeal the harmful labour reform and ensure adequate labour inspection capacity, among other reforms, to address the gaps in its protections of workers’ rights.

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