- The Brazilian government of President Jair Bolsonaro has fired two IBAMA, environmental agency coordinators with a history of significantly reducing deforestation in indigenous territories (TIs) in the Xingu River basin in southern Pará state.
- The Apyterewa, Trincheira Bacajá, Kayapó, and Ituna Itatá territories, where the two men were conducting operations this year, saw some of the highest levels of illegal deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon in 2019. By March 2020, the duo had reduced illegal tree loss in the Ituna Itatá reserve from 7,467 hectares in 2019, to zero.
- A protest letter from 16 IBAMA environmental inspectors characterized the firings as “retaliation” and hindering ongoing investigations. The dismissals came after a Brazilian TV report featured an IBAMA operation led by the two officials resulting in the shutting down of illegal mining and the seizure of a huge weapons cache.
- NGOs condemned the dismissals, saying they came at a time when indigenous groups need protection from intruders carrying the Covid-19 virus. Bolsonaro laid off top tier federal environmental and indigenous regulators in 2019. Now, say critics, he is sacking second and third tier officials in order to give land grabbers a free hand.
Last Thursday, April 30, Brazilian Environment Minister Ricardo Salles fired two IBAMA, environmental agency coordinators responsible for successfully combating Amazon illegal deforestation and land grabbing — Renê Luiz de Oliveira and Hugo Ferreira Loss.
Both had been leading up inspections within Indigenous Territories (TIs) in the Xingu River basin in southern Pará state, including the Apyterewa, Trincheira Bacajá, Kayapó and Ituna Itatá reserves, TIs that saw extremely high levels of illegal Amazon deforestation in 2019.
The firings occurred despite a letter opposing the dismissal published by 16 IBAMA environmental inspectors on April 21. In the letter, the inspectors said that “this process, in addition to being characterized as retaliation, is moving in the direction of hindering the regular progress of ongoing investigations.” The environmental inspectors assert that the work led by Oliveira and Loss resulted in “a significant reduction of deforestation, especially in the Ituna Itatá TI,” which saw the greatest deforestation of any Brazilian indigenous reserve last year — and went from 7,467 hectares (18,451 acres) of forest loss in 2019, reduced to zero by March 2020.
The firings were allegedly triggered by TV coverage of an IBAMA operation conducted by Oliveira and Loss, shutting down illegal mining activities in Xingu basin TIs and protecting indigenous villages there from possible Covid-19 contamination. Beginning on April 4, the operation led by the duo of IBAMA coordinators had uncovered major illegal mining activities, illicit sawmills, plus a large quantity of illegal weapons, along with trafficked animals trapped in bags found within the Apyterewa, Araweté and Trincheira Bacajá TIs.
Two days after the television broadcast, on April 14, Salles dismissed Olivaldi Azevedo, IBAMA director of environmental protection, and announced the opening of administrative proceedings for dismissal against the two coordinators. Director Azevedo was responsible for the firing of an IBAMA inspector who, in 2012, fined then Congressional Deputy, now President, Jair Bolsonaro for illegal fishing in an IBAMA administered protected area.
Azevedo, appointed by Bolsonaro himself, was sacked after leading an operation in March against illegal mining on indigenous lands in the municipality of Altamira, in Pará. That operation destroyed the miners’ heavy machinery, a legally sanctioned practice which Bolsonaro has taken a strong stance against.
Azevedo’s dismissal will be investigated by the Federal Public Ministry (MPF), a group of independent prosecutors representing each Brazilian state, at the request of the 4th Chamber of Environment and Cultural Heritage and the 6th Chamber of Indigenous Populations and Traditional Communities, both linked to the Attorney General’s Office.
Questioned by Mongabay about the reasons for the three layoffs, the Ministry of the Environment, through its communications office, limited itself to repeating an assertion it had already sent to a TV broadcaster: “It is the prerogative of the new director to form his team with capable and trusted names.”
Renê Luiz de Oliveira, who was coordinator of environmental inspection, was replaced by Leslie Tavares, who quickly returned two barges seized in illegal mining operations near remote isolated indigenous communities in the Jutaí municipality in Amazonas state, which he did in opposition to a judicial decision.
Priscilla Schwarzenholz, spokesperson for Survival International Brasil, an NGO, told Mongabay that “The decision to dismiss some of the IBAMA chiefs who led operations to evict invaders from indigenous lands is further proof of this government’s intention to steal the lands, letting the [agents of] mining and illegal exploitation act freely.”
She added: “Now with the threat of Covid-19, which already affects more than 24 indigenous peoples across the country, the expulsion of invaders is more important than ever. Indigenous people are already suffering a genocide and isolated indigenous peoples can be decimated. By penalizing IBAMA employees for doing their work of inspecting indigenous lands, Bolsonaro shows himself, once again, responsible for this extermination.”
Ricardo Abad, an analyst with the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), an NGO, noted that, in its first year, the Bolsonaro government sacked top managers holding highly responsible positions in federal socio-environmental agencies, replacing them with military personnel, apparently with the aim of reducing the policing of illegal activities. “Apparently those replacements failed to stop the inspection work at some level, but now the federal government is firing second-level and third-level employees, who work at the operational level and are on the front lines of the operations,” said Abad. “The message is clear: the government does not want to carry out policies to protect the environment.”
Ana Paula Vargas, Brazil program manager at Amazon Watch, stated: “The firing of IBAMA workers is extremely serious after successful operations to close illegal mines in indigenous territories took place, and which aimed to fight crime and protect indigenous people from a lethal virus capable of decimating their communities. The measure leaves no doubt [regarding] the Bolsonaro government’s project of institutionalized genocide of indigenous peoples.”
Vargas noted “the urgency of miners, land grabbers and loggers being removed from indigenous territories, as demanded by indigenous communities, with the support of hundreds of national and international institutions. That is not only to comply with the law, but mainly, at this time, to guarantee the protection of indigenous peoples, preventing the access of [outsiders] who can be a means of transmitting the disease.”
Banner image caption: IBAMA’s Specialized Inspection Group (GEF) carries out an operation to combat illegal gold mining in the Kayapó Indigenous Reserve, Pará state. Image by Felipe Werneck/IBAMA.
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