- As a result of international concern and media attention, along with pressure from within his own nation, Jair Bolsonaro decreed a 60-day ban on the setting of fires in the Brazilian Amazon on Wednesday, 28 August. The order came as experts warned that the worst fires this year may be yet to come.
- To avoid international attention, Brazil’s House of Deputies put on hold a plan to pass sweeping legislation that would abolish significant existing environmental protections for 1,514 quilombolas (communities of runaway slave descendants), 163 as yet un-demarcated indigenous territories, and 543 protected areas.
- Both the House and Senate proposed inquiries into the Amazon fires. Also, 400 IBAMA personnel signed an open letter demanding qualified professionals run the environmental agency, that past budget and staffing levels be restored, and that security squads again be deployed with IBAMA teams fighting deforestation.
- Even as South American nations organized a meeting to combat deforestation, Bolsonaro moved ahead with a plan to privatize deforestation satellite monitoring in Brazil. The new system, experts warn, could end real time monthly monitoring, needed to apprehend illegal deforesters.
The national and international furore over the fires raging in the Amazon is having an impact on the policy of the Brazilian government, at least in the short term. On 28 August President Jair Bolsonaro signed a decree banning the population from lighting fires in the Amazon, except when used by authorities to combat fires, or those being employed by traditional or indigenous communities. The presidential decree will be valid for 60 days.
The decree was announced after Tasso Azevedo, a leading forest engineer, cautioned in an article in the O Globo newspaper that the situation in the Amazon was likely to escalate. “We are at the beginning of the burning season … and the worst of the fire is still to come”, he warned.
He explained further that the vegetation that burnt over recent weeks was cut down between May and June, but that forest felled in July and August — months when a huge surge in deforestation was detected by the government’s monitoring systems — would only be set alight in September and October.
Azevedo also said that over 90 percent of the deforestation currently occurring is illegal, carried out by gangs linked to logging and land-grabbing mafias and called for “a moratorium on the use of fire in Amazonia, the Cerrado and the Pantanal [biomes], until the end of the dry season, that is, the end of October.”
The action of the armed forces, deployed to the Amazon by Bolsonaro, is also improving the government’s public image. About 3,000 military personnel, using planes and helicopters, have been actively combatting fires in the state of Rondônia in western Amazônia where some of the worst blazes have been raging. On 28 August, Admiral Ralph Dias, who heads the operation Verde Brasil, said the number of fires was falling, though it is unclear how important the military action was in achieving this goal.
The military occupation of the region does however fit in well with the dominant ideology within the government. Olavo de Carvalho, the self-educated, ultra-conservative political pundit, widely seen as Bolsonaro’s guru, said in Washington on 28 August: “No-one knows what goes on in the Amazon. It’s just too big to control. The only thing that works is what he [Bolsonaro] is doing — sending the army there. Legal measures, monitoring, none of that has any effect. It has to be occupied militarily. Amazônia is ours and we have to assert National Power there. End of story.” Carvalho believes climate change is a global hoax and is known for spinning conspiracy theories.
Brazilian Congress responds to fires
Even if the administration — through the 60-day decree and the deployment of the armed forces — manages to bring the present fires under control, many environmentalists believe that the government needs to rethink its whole Amazon strategy, if the world’s largest tropical forest is to be preserved.
As a first step, eight former environment ministers have jointly requested that the government halt all projects currently going through Congress that may aggravate the country’s environmental crisis. Such projects include the legalization of artisanal mining (garimpos) on indigenous land and the scrapping of environmental licensing for highway construction projects.
However, analysts say, the government is very unlikely to respond to this request, as the bancada ruralista agribusiness and mining lobby in Congress, which has enthusiastically supported the recent dismantling of environmental legislation carried out by the Bolsonaro government, is just too strong. What may well happen, instead, is a temporary pause in anti-environmental legislation until the Amazon fires drop out of the news cycle.
A case in point is the General Law of Environmental Licensing, a piece of legislation which should have been voted on in the Chamber of Deputies this week. The rapporteur for this law is federal deputy, Kim Kataguiri, a co-leader of the Free Brazil Movement, a group that promotes the free market and sees itself as the equivalent of the US Tea Party Movement.
Among other wide-ranging measures to weaken environmental controls, the bill seeks to remove much of the existing environmental legislation protecting the lands of 1,514 quilombolas (rural communities of the black descendants of runaway slaves); 163 indigenous territories (not yet fully recognized by FUNAI, the indigenous agency); and 543 protected areas (where sustainable activities are permitted). Many of these protected areas are located in regions already seriously impacted by recent illegal deforestation, and the stated objective of the new law is to make it easier to create new infrastructure and to promote agriculture in these areas.
Earlier this month a group of about a hundred NGOs and social movements signed a public statement in which they accused Kataguiri of making “a 180 degree lurch” and radically rewriting the bill. He had, they said, turned his back on weeks of negotiations with them, introducing changes that would “encourage deforestation” and “increase the risk of socio-environmental disasters such as happened in Mariana and Brumadinho.
On 26 August, Rodrigo Maia, the president of the Chamber of Deputies, unexpectedly decided to postpone the vote on the bill. He explained: “We want to give a clear sign from Parliament that we are all working together to preserve the Amazon region”. However, the bill has not been scrapped and will probably be voted on later this year.
The Brazilian Senate is also keen to show that it is taking the fire crisis seriously. On 27 August, it obtained enough signatures to set up a Parliamentary Enquiry into the fires. The Chamber of Deputies is also attempting to set up its own enquiry.
Other Brazilian resistance
Many environmentalists believe that, if deforestation is to be brought under control in the medium and long term, the government needs as an essential first step to rebuild the environmentalist agency Bolsonaro has been dismantling over the last eight months — IBAMA (the Brazilian Institute of the Environment, the equivalent of the US Environmental Protection Agency).
IBAMA has been combatting illegal deforestation and Amazon fires, often with a high degree of success, since 1989. But the task got far more difficult, first under President Michel Temer, and especially under Bolsonaro. Both administrations drastically slashed the agency’s budget, and now the government has refused to provide security for IBAMA teams when they travel deep into the rainforest to stop the work of illegal deforesters.
On 26 August, as the Amazon fires blazed, more than 400 IBAMA employees signed an open letter in which they note that, owing to the staff’s “capacity, dedication, competence and patriotism,” the Brazilian government was able to “reduce by 80 percent illegal deforestation in the whole of the Amazon” in the years after 2005, when deforestation last peaked.
However, in recent years, they go on to say, both IBAMA and ICMBio (The Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation, the federal national parks agency) “have been under attack”, with closure of units, huge budget cuts and political interference. This, they claim, is one of the causes of the “expressive increase” in deforestation and forest fires.
In their open letter IBAMA personnel call on the Bolsonaro administration and Congress to implement six emergency measures, including:
- A commitment from the government to only appoint qualified professionals to manage the two main environmental agencies — IBAMA and ICMBio.
- The contracting of new staff (the number of IBAMA forest protectors fell by 45 percent between 2010 and 2019, with a decline of 24 percent last year alone).
- The provision of funds to prevent and combat forest fires, resources that were urgently required after the freezing of financial transfers from the Amazon Fund.
- Logistical support for teams carrying out deforestation monitoring, including police and other law enforcement.
- Autonomy, including the restoration of IBAMA authority to destroy vehicles and equipment used by those committing environmental crimes, especially in the remote Amazon. The Bolsonaro government recently withdrew this authority.
- Authorization to bear arms, another capability Bolsonaro has taken away, leaving IBAMA officials at the mercy of often heavily armed land grabbers.
As yet, the government has not responded to the letter. But, in a move that IBAMA staff can only see as slap in the face, the Bolsonaro government announced on 26 August, with fires raging in much of the Amazon, that it would be closing down the last two IBAMA offices in Amazonas state. Until 2009 IBAMA had 19 regional offices in this state.
The last two offices to be closed are in Parintins and Humaitá. Messias Cursino, who runs the office in Parintins, said that, once he and his staff had gone, there would be no one to investigate illegal logging, which is rife in the region, and land-grabbing in the Sateré-Mawé indigenous reserve.
Bolsonaro presses forward with privatized deforestation monitoring
In the meantime, the administration is pushing ahead with its plan to replace the internationally respected Brazilian National Institute of Space Research (INPE) satellite monitoring system with a private monitoring system to detect and track Amazon deforestation. On 21 August, it issued an invitation to bid, giving companies just eight days to come up with proposals for a highly complex service. The plan is to replace DETER (Detection of Deforestation in Real Time), INPE’s monthly monitoring alert system whose warnings earlier this year that deforestation was running out of control greatly annoyed Bolsonaro, to the point he called DETER data “lies” and then sacked the INPE chief. DETER is used as a means of pinpointing ongoing deforestation in order to call in IBAMA and law enforcement to apprehend illegal loggers and land grabbers.
Many scientists and environmentalists are highly critical of the government’s privatization initiative. “This new system is unnecessary”, said Pedro Luiz Côrtes, from the Institute of Energy and the Environment at the University of São Paulo. “The system they are contracting gives images with much greater acuity. This means that you need several images just to find out if one tree has been felled … It also means the system is much more expensive and possibly much slower [than DETER]. So it’s not a system that is as useful and efficient as DETER.”
Côrtes believes that political motivations account for the change. “With the new system, the government will begin a new historic series for measuring deforestation. It will say that the new system is more complete and more sophisticated than DETER and that it’s not possible to compare the two.” So, he says, lacking an apples-to-apples historical comparison of data sets, it will not be possible to determine whether deforestation is on the rise in Brazil as compared to past years, or not.
In response to a flurry of criticisms, the Federal Public Ministry, a group of independent litigators, in Pará state opened an enquiry on 23 August to investigate why IBAMA was contracting a new satellite system for deforestation monitoring.
Latin America responds to the fires
In recent days, fires have been burning in much of the Amazon basin, not just in Brazil. As a result, President Iván Duque of Colombia and President Martin Vizcarra of Peru met in the town of Pucalipa in the Peruvian Amazon on 27 August and drew up a plan for 36 joint actions to combat deforestation in their countries. They want more collaboration throughout the basin and called on “all countries in the Amazon to meet and draw up a joint strategy”.
Bolsonaro later confirmed that the meeting would be held on 6 September in Letícia, Colombia. He said that Venezuela, seen by Bolsonaro as a “hotbed of socialism”, would not be invited. He also alleged that French President Emmanuel Macron’s “insults” to Brazil had “awoken a feeling of patriotism in Brazil and other South American nations” and that they would be developing their own, independent strategy for preserving the Amazon.
In his interview in Washington, Bolsonaro’s guru, Olavo de Carvalho, went further. “We should be grateful to Macron”, he said. “He has won Bolsonaro a lot of support. He has come out of it very badly, while Bolsonaro has come out well.”
Banner image caption: President Jair Bolsonaro (right), with Brazil Environment Minister Ricardo Salles (left) in July. Image courtesy of Palácio do Planalto from Brasilia, Brasil.
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