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Dismantling of Brazilian environmental protections gains pace

  • In his first 100 days in office, Jair Bolsonaro has moved fast to change personnel and reduce the authority of IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency, and ICMBio, which manages its conservation areas. His actions are seen as most benefiting ruralists — wealthy elite agribusiness and mining interests.
  • Presidential Decree No. 9,760 creates “conciliation centers” to investigate environmental fines, and provides multiple new ways for appealing fines, while also preventing funds gathered via penalties from being distributed to NGOs for environmental projects.
  • Some worry the government may use the new decree as a precedent for forgiving the hefty R$250 million (US$63.4 million) fine imposed by IBAMA on Brazil’s gigantic Vale mining company for environmental law infractions related to the Brumadinho tailings dam disaster, in which 235 people died.
  • A large number of IBAMA staff have been fired, including 21 of its 27 regional superintendents, responsible for combating deforestation. Many of Bolsonaro’s replacements within the top ranks of the Environment Ministry, IBAMA and ICMBio are coming from the military.
Deforestation perpetrated by illegal loggers in Jamanxim National Forest in Pará state, Brazil. Image courtesy of IBAMA

The speed with which environmental legislation and agencies are being dismantled has gained momentum as Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro moves beyond his first hundred days in office.

The web of laws and regulations that curb mining, agribusiness and big infrastructure project excesses, minimizing harm to the country’s ecosystems is being undone so fast that journalist Bernardo Mello Franco, who writes for Brazil’s O Globo newspaper, has called environment minister Ricardo Salles an “anti-minister, who is doing all he can to destroy what he should be protecting” and who is turning “his ministry into a playground for the ruralists” — the country’s agribusiness and mining elites.

In response, Salles said that the environmental sector needs radical restructuring because “it is not being properly managed.”

Luiz Nabhan Garcia, the Agriculture Ministry’s new Special Secretary for Land Affairs. Photo credit: Senado Federal on VisualHunt / CC BY

Relentless ruralist pressure

A sense of the political storm brewing in Brasília can be gained from a feature story published by journalist Ciro Barros on the independent website, Agência Pública. On 10 April, Barros attended a meeting in the capital city between leading members of the agriculture and environment ministries and ruralists from the Amazonian state of Pará, where the highest rates of rural violence are occurring against indigenous, traditional and landless movement communities.

Agriculture Minister Teresa Cristina began by thanking the large landowners for their political support: “You can be confident that President Bolsonaro feels especially warm affection for rural producers who were the first to support him, the first to believe in him.” Then, in a series of impassioned speeches, the ruralists responded, calling for radical change. They repeatedly demanded abolition of the government’s two leading environmental bodies — IBAMA (the Brazilian Institute of the Environment) and ICMBio (The Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation), and also the dissolving of the national indigenous agency FUNAI.

Nelci Rodrigues, president of the Association of Vale do Garça Rural Producers, also raged against the mosaic of Amazon conservation areas created in 2006 to conserve forests against the impacts of paving the BR-163 highway linking Cuiabá, the capital of Mato Grosso state to the south, with Santarém in Pará state on the Amazon River to the north. Noting that her father had moved to the Amazon in response to the military government’s appeal for southern farmers to occupy the region, Rodrigues fumed: “Now the extremists in control of IBAMA and the cancer of ICMBio are robbing a respectable woman with children of her home!” To loud applause, she demanded officials “dismantle the reserves that cursed Marina Silva, [the environment minister in 2006], created!”

Luiz Antônio Nabhan Garcia, a key member of the agriculture ministry, who heads SEAF (the Special Secretariat for Land Affairs), and is well-known for his extreme right views, found himself in the position of calling on the ruralists to tone down their demands. He pointed out that it is impossible for the government to abolish FUNAI, as its existence is enshrined in the Constitution, but said that, instead, the government can get what it wants by acting cleverly, “tightening the leash.”

He explained: “FUNAI is responsible for identifying, delimiting and demarcating indigenous land. We can’t abolish, FUNAI but we can take away from it all these tasks that do so much harm [to ruralist interests]. And the government did this on January 1, its first day in office.”

Illegal logging on the Arara Indigenous Reserve, home to the Arara and Xipaia indigenous groups. It was invaded by illegal loggers on December 30, 2018. Brazil’s new environmental fine structure will give perpetrators multiple opportunities to appeal penalties for illegal deforestation, mining and other infractions. Image courtesy of IBAMA.

Easing environmental fines

Brazil’s ruralists have long held extreme views: showing unwillingness to adhere to the country’s environmental legislation; expressing hostility toward indigenous groups, riverine hamlets and quilombolas (communities of descendants of runaway slaves); and even organizing private militias to evict traditional people from land the ruralists want to occupy, as reported by Mongabay.

What is new today, as the Brasilia meeting showed, is that the most radical ruralists now have a strong say in policy. This is demonstrated by the administration’s most recent actions.

On April 11, the day after the Brasilia meeting and the president’s 101st day in office, Bolsonaro issued Presidential Decree No. 9,760, which creates “conciliation centers” to investigate environmental fines. The decree introduces two important changes that weaken penalty provisions: the centers will be able to cancel a fine, if they judge it isn’t merited; and, if the fine is upheld, the decree introduces new forms of discount, allowing penalties to be paid in installments or converted into payment in kind for services rendered for preserving, improving and restoring the environment.

Fine discounting already existed, but the means of application is to change. In 2017, the Temer administration introduced “indirect conversion of fines,” by which a person or company found guilty of an environmental crime could get a discount of up to 60 percent, provided the remaining 40 percent was deposited with an environmental recuperation project selected by IBAMA. The logic behind this deal: IBAMA could gain an economy of scale by combining multiple fines to fund one big environmental project — many of which were administered by NGOs.

However, Bolsonaro and other members of his government have long been critical of the outsized role played by NGOs, and one of the alterations introduced by the new decree is that the discounted funds, while still amounting to 60 percent of the original fine, will go directly to the fined company or individual, eliminating NGOs.

The measure will also weaken IBAMA by reducing the amount of funds it receives.

Bolsonaro has long called for IBAMA to be brought into line, dubbing it an  “an industry of fines.” He seems to have felt personal rancor toward the agency ever since he was fined by it in 2012, when he was a federal deputy, after being caught on camera holding a fishing rod within an ecological station at a time when he claimed he was at an airport. The fine was cancelled at the end of the Temer administration, but in March of this year Bolsonaro sacked José Augusto Morelli, the IBAMA employee who imposed the fine — importantly, Morelli at the time of his firing ran the Air Operations Center responsible for environmental monitoring.

Bolsonaro justified Decree No. 9,760 by saying it will “improve” the way fines are administered and make “the system more agile.”

Brazilian environmentalists responded with a chorus of criticism. They question how efficient the new system can be, with the new centers likely employing very few people, yet needing to deal with a large number of fines — about 14,000 per year in the past.

They say, far from being more agile, the new process will be more cumbersome; if a first appeal fails, the fined person or firm will now have three further chances of appealing within IBAMA, as well as the possibility of challenging the fine in court. According to Márcio Astrini, coordinator of public policies at Greenpeace Brasil. “People caught committing environmental crimes have been given the chance of making endless appeals and never effectively being judged.”

Ironically, in practice, very little will change, as only about 5 percent of environmental fines are ever paid.

Some environmentalists believe that the real importance of the new decree is that it sends a message to ruralists, telling them that they can ignore Brazil’s environmental legislation and be confident they won’t be punished for crimes.

PROAM, the Brazilian Institute of Environmental Preservation, an NGO, said: “If Decree No. 9,760 of April 11 goes ahead, Brazil will be instituting an anti-environmental measure, which will dismantle one of the main means of preventing environmental crime in Brazil. It will especially favor those carrying out large-scale devastation, with negative impacts and risks to Brazilian biomes, intensifying the unscrupulous and predatory use of forests, affecting biodiversity, water, soil and air.”

Brazilian Minister of the Environment Ricardo Salles. Image by Gilberto Soares/MMA.

Changing penalties, laying off staff

Some worry the government may use the new presidential decree as a precedent. The administration is considering a similar approach in dealing with the hefty R$250 million (US$63.4 million) fine imposed by IBAMA on Brazil’s gigantic Vale mining company covering a variety of serious environmental law infractions in the leadup to the Brumadinho disaster, in which 235 people died. Environment Minister Ricardo Salles has said that he plans to convert the Vale fine into “investment in two national parks and five conservation units located in the state of Minas Gerais “for infrastructure, trails, activities and services that will make the area attractive for ecotourism in the future.” But the MPF (Federal Public Ministry), Brazil’s body of independent public litigators, is opposed, saying that “the proposal is a way of transforming an environmental sanction into a kind of prize.”

This is only one of several measures accomplished by Salles since January that have been strongly criticized by environmentalists. Last week, after being severely criticized, Salles denied any discount of the Vale fine and the park concessions.

He abolished the Secretariat for Climate Change and Forests, transferring its tasks to a new body, with a much smaller staff. According to O Globo, Salles said that Secretariat employees were “carrying out international tourism at the cost of the government,” citing the case of “almost 50 employees going to Poland to take part in COP-24,” the United Nations Climate Conference held in December of last year.

But environmentalist, Carlos Rittl, from Observatório do Clima, an NGO set up by 37 civil society bodies to monitor climate change in the Brazilian context, said that the Secretariat carried out important tasks, such as monitoring Brazil’s commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 37 percent by 2025, as compared to 2005, and to eliminate illegal deforestation in the Amazon.  “Who is going to be responsible [for these tasks]?” Rittl asks.

Salles is also proposing to downgrade the Brazilian Forest Service and the National Agency for Water, transferring them to other ministries.

In February, Salles sacked a large number of IBAMA staff, including 21 of its 27 regional superintendents, responsible for combating deforestation. More recently he took disciplinary action against ICMBio employees who did not attend a meeting he called with parliamentarians linked to agribusiness. In response, employees say they didn’t receive an invitation to the event. These firings were reportedly one reason why ICMBio President Adalberto Eberhard resigned in mid-April. Eberhard is also said to be opposed to the fusion of ICMBio with IBAMA, a move the government is reportedly planning for the second half of 2019.

In mid-April, Bolsonaro appeared in a video in which he strongly criticised an IBAMA operation in which it seized and burned trucks and tractors used by illegal loggers and land thieves to clear forest in a protected area of Rondonia state. Brazilian law permits such action if IBAMA can’t remove the equipment during the operation. Bolsonaro scolded: “This is not how it should be done, this is not the way they [IBAMA employees] are told to act.” He revealed that Salles would be investigating to find out which IBAMA employees had set fire to the vehicles.  He did not mention the criminals who were breaking the law by clearing the forest.

A tractor utilized by illegal loggers in the Amazon legally set afire by IBAMA agents. Image courtesy of IBAMA

Militarizing IBAMA

The Bolsonaro administration is also militarizing the government’s environmental bodies, say critics. Key positions in the Environment Ministry, IBAMA and ICMBio are now in the hands of officers from the Armed Forces and Military Police. The move is in response to a request by Bolsonaro to abolish the “ideological framework” of the sector.  On 18 April, he sacked IBAMA’s planning director, Luiz Eduardo Nunes, a professional civil servant, replacing him with Luiz Gustavo Biagoni, who had recently retired from the Military Police in São Paulo. A few days earlier, Bolsonaro appointed Colonel Homero de Giorge Cerqueira, as president of ICMBio; and Davi de Souza Silva, another military officer, to head IBAMA’s regional office in São Paulo. There are now at least 12 military officers in key positions with the Ministry of the Environment (MMA), on the boards of IBAMA and with ICMBio.

Then on 25 April, employees in the Agriculture Ministry told the Brazilian press, off the record, that Ministry Executive Secretary Ana Maria Pellini, had instructed staff to remove from the ministry database all information concerning Areas and Priority Actions for the Conservation, Sustainable Use and Sharing of  the Benefits of Biodiversity. This data is used by the government to provide technical support for the creation of protected areas.

A day earlier Marcelo Moraes, president of FMASE (the Environmental Forum of the Electric Sector), had sent a letter to Salles asking that the criteria for the creation of protected areas be revised. The letter pointed out that Brazil has already protected 30 percent of its total area, and concluded: “This reality, together with the goals for Priority Actions for Biodiversity Conservation, is very harmful for the implementation and operation of projects and activities necessary for the development of the country.”

The Agriculture Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

These many changes add up to a great weakening of Brazil’s environmental administration and legislation. But Bolsonaro rejects all criticisms repeatedly saying that Brazil “doesn’t owe anything to anybody with respect to the environment.”

Marco Astrini from Greenpeace sees things differently: “If the present direction of environmental policies is continued, it will wipe out decades of efforts to combat deforestation, endangering the health of the population and doing incalculable damage to the economy and the country’s image,” he said. “Bolsonaro wasn’t given a blank check from Brazilian society to destroy our natural resources. He should be governing for the good of all the population, not just of the groups he’s allied with.”

BANNER IMAGE: IBAMA agents approach an illegal mining operation in the Brazilian Amazon. Image courtesy of IBAMA

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