University of São Paulo: By relaxing rules, government paves the way for cave destruction

ANDsubterranean ecosystems that nature took thousands of years to carve in rock could be destroyed in the blink of an eye for the construction of roads, hydroelectric plants, basic sanitation works and other undertakings considered to be of “public utility” – including mining activities –, even if geological formations or the species that exist within them are considered of “maximum relevance” for conservation. This could be the legacy — in many cases, irreversible — of the new federal decree that relaxes the rules for protecting caves in Brazil, according to experts from USP and other institutions.

Published on January 12, the new regulation ( Decree 10,935 ) creates a loophole so that even caves classified as of “maximum relevance” for conservation are subject to “irreversible negative impacts”, which was not allowed until now. According to the previous decree , in force since November 2008, only low, medium and high relevance cavities could suffer this type of impact, which can range from occasional landslides to the death of animals, contamination of aquatic habitats or the total destruction of a cave.

Scientists and environmentalists harshly criticized the decree, interpreted by many as another “cattle” passed by the current federal government to trample on the country’s environmental protection laws. The Brazilian Society of Speleology (SBE), which represents the scientific community that works with caves , classified the decree as “unconstitutional” and warned that it carries “several setbacks” in relation to current regulations.

“Federal Decree number 10,935/2022 was produced behind closed doors, without dialogue with the speleological community and clearly shows the direct interference of the State Ministries of Mines and Energy and Infrastructure in a matter that is of environmental interest. This interference aims to facilitate the licensing of works and activities that are potentially harmful to the national speleological heritage and which are generally associated with activities of high social impact”, wrote SBE, in a public note released on the 13th.

“If all this is implemented, it is a clear threat to these caves of maximum relevance,” geologist Francisco William da Cruz Junior, a professor at the USP Institute of Geosciences and specialist in paleoclimatology — the study of climates past by through geological, physical and chemical evidence that are preserved in caves. “We are really facing an unprecedented environmental setback”, he adds, noting that the most important caves were the only ones that still had some guarantee of full protection.

The new decree even has a retroactive effect, allowing entrepreneurs to request the review of licensing processes already completed based on the new rules. That is, projects that were not authorized in the past for the protection of some cave may be authorized now, or have their compensation measures eased. Previously, to cause irreversible damage to a cave of high relevance, for example, the entrepreneur needed to protect two similar caves elsewhere. Now, just one.

“These changes are extremely questionable, and will generate enormous and irreparable impacts,” said the Brazilian Society for the Study of Chiroptera ( SBEQ ), which represents researchers on bats — animals of great ecological importance and that use caves. as their main resting and breeding habitat. “Literally thousands of cave-dwelling species, including critically endangered species and hyperendemic species (occurring in a single cave, for example), are at heightened risk with the publication of Decree 10,935.”

In defense of the decree, the General Secretariat of the Presidency of the Republic published a note saying that the text “improves the legislation on cavities, allowing responsible exploration and guaranteeing environmental preservation”. “The new text opens the way for investments in fundamental structuring projects, generating employment and income, such as the construction of highways, railways, transmission lines, among others, while guaranteeing, at the same time, the protection of cavities considered relevant”, says the company. government note. President Jair Bolsonaro said on the 19th that the change was necessary for “Brazil to be able to grow”, since, according to him, the previous decree prevented the construction of roads and other infrastructure works “all over Brazil” – which is not the case. truth.

In order to be authorized, in addition to going through the licensing process and being considered of public utility, the projects will have to prove the “lack of a viable technical and locational alternative” and guarantee the preservation of another cavity “with environmental attributes similar to the one that suffered the impact. ”.

It is a requirement that makes little sense to specialists, since the condition for a cave to be considered of maximum relevance is, precisely, the fact that it contains unique attributes, which can hardly be replicated in other caves. The geological formations and paleoenvironmental and paleoclimatic information preserved in the speleothems of a cave, for example, are specific to the region and environment in which it was formed. “There is no compensatory measure for the destruction of a cave of maximum relevance”, sentences Cruz Junior.

The same can be said of archaeological and paleontological sites, which preserve traces of past human populations and biodiversity. “Anywhere in the world, the most relevant discoveries in archeology and paleontology were made in caves,” says archaeologist André Strauss, professor at the Museum of Archeology and Ethnology (MAE) and coordinator of the Laboratory of Environmental and Evolutionary Archeology and Anthropology ( LAAAE) from USP. “In Brazil it is no different”, he adds. Much of the information we have about the population of South America in the last 12 thousand years, for example, comes from archaeological sites found in caves such as those in Lagoa Santa, in Minas Gerais, where the so-called People of Luzia lived., considered the oldest in Brazil. “Basically, all of human history is documented in caves,” says Strauss. “That said, any law that goes against the preservation of this heritage is a law against humanity.”

For Strauss, the speech used by the government to justify the decree, seeking to resurrect a false dilemma of “conservation versus development” is “quite ridiculous”. “It is utter nonsense to say that you cannot build roads in Brazil because of caves”, says the archaeologist. He cites the region of Lagoa Santa, where he works, as an example: it is a region that is home to thousands of caves and, nevertheless, does not lack roads, condominiums, or even agricultural and mining ventures — because only some of these caves, considered of maximum relevance, is that they are fully protected.

underground world

Caves – also called caves, limpets, burrows, holes and other names – are underground cavities formed by natural processes, such as the dissolution of rocks by the action of rain and groundwater, over thousands or even millions of years. There are more than 20 thousand of them officially mapped in Brazil, according to the most recent Statistical Yearbook of the Brazilian Speleological Heritage , produced by the National Center for Research and Conservation of Caves (Cecav) of the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio); but researchers estimate that the “real” number may exceed 300,000, considering the huge amount of reliefs conducive to the formation of caves that have not yet been scientifically explored in the country.

The Federal Constitution of 1989 defines all “underground natural cavities” as assets of the Union.


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