Thousands gather outside Congress in capital Brasilia to protest a set of bills they say threaten Amazon rainforest by encouraging deforestation and industrial activity on protected Indigenous lands.

People hold signs during a demonstration led by Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso (out of frame) in defence of environment.
People hold signs during a demonstration led by Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso (out of frame) in defence of environment. (AFP)

Iconic Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso has led a star-studded protest against President Jair Bolsonaro's environmental policy, seeking to block a series of bills that activists say would be devastating for the Amazon rainforest and beyond.

Thousands of protesters flooded the square at the seat of power in Brasilia on Wednesday, brandishing a giant inflatable turtle, bird and other animals and urging Congress to vote down what they call the "destruction package."

The rally was due to be followed by a concert headlined by Veloso, one of Brazil's most celebrated musicians, and featuring other stars including singer Daniela Mercury, rapper Emicida and musician and actor Seu Jorge.

The Bolsonaro-backed bills would pardon illegal seizures of public land, restrict the amount of territory eligible to be designated as indigenous reservations and open existing indigenous land to mining, among other measures.

Environmentalists say the legislation would accelerate environmental destruction, especially in the Amazon, where deforestation has surged since Bolsonaro took office in 2019.

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Caetano Veloso performs during the demonstration in defence of Earth and the environment.
Caetano Veloso performs during the demonstration in defence of Earth and the environment. (AFP)

Brazil's credibility at risk

The bills "would cause irreversible damage to the country and the planet, making it harder to stop deforestation and human rights abuses and cementing Brazil's reputation as an enemy of Earth's climate," Veloso wrote in a letter on behalf of the more than 200 organisations sponsoring the protest.

Accompanied by environmentalists and indigenous leaders in traditional feather headdresses and face paint, Veloso, 79, hand-delivered the letter to Senate president Rodrigo Pacheco, telling him Brazil's credibility was being "demolished" and singing a verse of his song "Terra" (Earth).

Fellow Brazilian music great Chico Buarque, 77, who could not be present because he was recovering from surgery, addressed the meeting by video conference.

"Nobody is against agribusiness, but unfettered, limitless profiteering needs to be stopped," he said.

Farming, and especially cattle ranching, is the main driver of deforestation in agricultural powerhouse Brazil, the world's biggest exporter of beef and soy.

Pacheco responded that Brazil needed to balance environmental preservation with "economic development that guarantees profits and food security."

But he promised protesters: "We will proceed cautiously on all these bills."

Fertiliser problem

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon hit a 15-year high last year –– 13,235 square kilometres in the 12 months to July 2021, according to government figures.

"They're destroying Brazil in every possible way. I'm here for my daughters and all Brazilian children," said protester Michele Pereira, a 40-year-old nurse, who was with her two young girls.

Bolsonaro, who has long pushed to open protected Amazon lands to agribusiness and mining, has drawn international condemnation over the rise in deforestation and forest fires in the world's biggest rainforest on his watch.

The far-right president has pushed particularly hard in recent days to pass legislation allowing mining on indigenous reservations, arguing the conflict in Ukraine has made it vital for Brazil to reduce its dependence on imported fertilisers, which it notably sources from Russia.

His allies in the lower house are moving to pass the bill under special emergency provisions, bypassing committee discussions.

"We must use our reserves of potassium (a key fertiliser ingredient) and guarantee enough fertiliser for our farmers," said the administration's leader in the lower house, Ricardo Barros.

READ MORE: Brazil's Bolsonaro accused of stoking 'mass destruction' of Amazon

Brazilians take to the streets as pro-government deputies prepare to analyse controversial bills that affect indigenous lands.
Brazilians take to the streets as pro-government deputies prepare to analyse controversial bills that affect indigenous lands. (AFP)

Using Ukraine as 'excuse'

Opposition lawmaker Rodrigo Agostinho said the administration was trying to use the Ukraine crisis as an "excuse."

"This bill will damage Brazil's image, the environment and the health of those who live in the Amazon," he told the AFP news agency.

"This is about giving free rein to illegal mining, not fertilisers," he added, saying Brazil's potassium reserves were largely outside the Amazon.

Brazil imports around 80 percent of its fertilisers, and 96 percent of those using potassium.

READ MORE: Deforestation of Amazon surges to highest levels since 2006

Source: AFP