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Brazil’s Bolsonaro creates Amazon Council and Environmental Police force

  • Brazil has formed a new Amazon Council headed by Vice President Hamilton Mourão, a retired general and supporter of Amazon mining development. The council will oversee “the activities of all the ministries involved in the protection, defense and development and sustainable development of the Amazon.”
  • A new Environmental Police force is also being created made up of military police from state forces, which will have the potential to put thousands of agents into the field for Amazon operations.
  • Meanwhile, Bolsonaro slashed the budget for IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency, cutting it by 25% as compared to 2019. IBAMA has been recognized internationally for its key role in enforcing Brazil’s laws against illegal loggers and land grabbers, for reducing deforestation and fighting Amazon fires.
  • Critics are concerned over Bolsonaro’s militarization of Amazon environmental, development, and security administration, seeing it as a throwback to the days of Brazil’s military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985, when new highways and other infrastructure projects greatly benefited land grabbers and wealthy landowners.
Environment Minister Ricardo Salles (right), pictured in August 2019 with President Jair Bolsonaro. That same month, the Brazil government was heavily criticized for its failure to aggressively fight fires in the Amazon. Image courtesy of Palácio do Planalto.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro this week announced the creation of an Amazon Council, coordinated by Vice President Hamilton Mourão, a retired general and supporter of Amazon mining development. A new Environmental Police force, utilizing state military police, will also be created. Both actions may have been sparked by escalating international criticism and growing economic problems for the country’s agribusiness sector caused by the leader’s failure to protect the Amazon rainforest.

The new Amazon Council, whose exact functions remain vague for now, will oversee “the activities of all the ministries involved in the protection, defense and development, and sustainable development of the Amazon.” Its purview will include the Environment Ministry led by Bolsonaro appointee Ricardo Salles, who spent all of 2019 dismantling the ministry’s capacity to monitor deforestation, enforce environmental laws, and fine offenders; while replacing experienced, qualified staff with retired police officers; and blaming Greenpeace and other NGOs for environmental disasters.

Salles — via his unfounded accusations of financial irregularities among NGO recipients — also precipitated the suspension in August of the billion dollar Amazon Fund set up by Norway, Germany and other developed nations to fund firefighting brigades and sustainable projects aimed at reducing deforestation.

The new council’s creation may have been sparked by warnings to Bolsonaro before and during this month’s Davos Economic Forum: Large investment fund managers caution that they could be forced to pull out of Brazil, under pressure from shareholders increasingly worried about the climate crisis — especially if the government continues downplaying deforestation in the Amazon while also gutting environmental laws.

Brazilian producers and exporters of soy and meat are also very worried about the negative international effects of government environmental policies on their foreign markets. Public concern was especially heightened by last August’s Amazon fires, with consumers in the EU, who demand sustainability, particularly riled. Under Bolsonaro, Brazil has seen the highest Amazon deforestation rate in 11 years, while there is strong evidence that 2019’s fires were set by land grabbers and producers converting rainforest to agribusiness lands.

At Davos, Paulo Guedes, Brazil’s Finance Minister, did nothing to help Brazil’s image as he blamed “the poor” for deforestation, “because they want to eat.” He offered no evidence of this claim.

Brazil’s Finance Minister Paulo Guedes at Davos, January 2020. Image by Valter Campanato / Agencia Brasil.

Like nearly all of this government’s Amazon initiatives, the Council’s creation came from inside the presidential palace, and without consulting concerned parties, including local governments, ministries, NGOs, and scientists. As he did during the Amazon fire crisis, Bolsonaro is once again calling on the military to sort things out: Vice President Mourão’s key qualification as Council leader seems to not be knowledge of environmental issues, but his five years spent serving as army commander of the Amazon region.

The decision to resort to the military to deal with the Amazon has caused dismay among experts, including Suely Araújo, who headed IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency, until forced out by Salles last year. “[T]he solution is not in militarizing environmental policy,” she said. “[M]ilitary support for operations in critical areas might be necessary, but it should be understood that environmental monitoring has to go way beyond troops on the ground.” Meanwhile, Bolsonaro’s 2020 budget for IBAMA forest monitoring across Brazil has been slashed by 25% as compared to 2019.

Critics warn that the military-led council harks back to the command structure during Brazil’s military dictatorship from 1964-1985, when large infrastructure projects like the Transamazon Highway were built in the name of development and national security, but became vectors for deforestation that benefited land grabbers and big landowners.

Brazilian Vice President and leader of the newly announced Amazon Council Hamilton Mourão. He has no environmental credentials but served as the military commander over the Amazon region for five years. Image by Gabriel Cruz on flickr.

Mourão, critics note, is no environmentalist. He strongly supports potash mining within and immediately adjacent to the territory of the Mura indigenous people; he also sees indigenous communities as obstacles to economic development. Mourão is on record saying, “Indians are indolent.”

This view of indigenous peoples was reinforced by Bolsonaro this week when he declared that “Indians are evolving and more and more are becoming human beings like us.” The President is currently pushing a bill in Congress that would undo constitutional protections and allow industrial mining within indigenous reserves.

André Guimarães, director of IPAM, the Institute for Amazon Research, is optimistic about the new council, but emphasised the need for long term environmental commitment: “We understand the council will unite public policies; that’s important… but as people who work in the Amazon, we hope these policies will be effective and continuous, because long term action is needed.”

In addition to the council, a new national Environmental Police force is being created “for the protection of the Amazon environment,” in the words of Environment Minister Salles. It will be made up of military police personnel from state forces and has the potential to bring together thousands of agents for Amazon operations.

General Mourão says the purpose of the Amazon Council is to make the government more proactive in the region, and so help Brazil attract more investment. He expects the council to begin work in March, once it has recruited staff and organized its activities.

It will be funded with R$1 billion (US$250 million) confiscated, or paid in fines, to the Lava Jato anti-corruption operation, money the Supreme Court decided should be used in the “prevention, monitoring, and combat[ting] against deforestation, forest fires and environmental crimes in the Amazon region.” Just under half has been allocated to the nine states that make up the Amazon region, leaving the rest for the new council. Had the money been invested in IBAMA, say critics, it would have allowed the agency to carry out operations against illegal loggers and land grabbers as it did efficiently in the past. How the funds will be used by Mourão’s council remains to be seen.

Banner image caption: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Photo credit: jeso.carneiro on / CC BY-NC.

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