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Brazilian government taken to court for assault on environment, climate

  • The Bolsonaro government has waged an aggressive campaign to negate Brazil’s environmental laws and de-tooth its environmental protection agencies — even as deforestation rates have reached a ten year high and violence by land grabbers and illegal loggers against indigenous and traditional peoples has grown rapidly.
  • In an attempt to stall the systematic deregulation, defunding and firings, socio-environmental NGOs, public prosecutors and opposition political parties have launched three lawsuits, targeting actions taken by Environment Minister Ricardo Salles and Eduardo Bim, president of IBAMA, the country’s environmental agency.
  • The first suit aims to annul a recent measure signed by Bim, enabling illegally harvested Brazilian timber to be exported more easily to the U.S., EU and elsewhere. Evidence allegedly demonstrates a cozy and corrupt relationship between Bim and the forestry industry.
  • The second and third suits address Amazon deforestation (demanding reactivation of the administration of the R$1.5 billion Amazon Fund) and climate change (requiring the reinstatement of administration of the R$8.5 million Climate Fund). Both these effective programs have been derailed by the Bolsonaro government.
Illegally logged timber seized by IBAMA environmental agents from within an indigenous reserve. Raids of this sort have been greatly reduced by the Bolsonaro administration. Image by IBAMA.

Socio-environmental NGOs, public prosecutors and opposition political parties in Brazil are hoping to overturn some of the anti-environmental policies of the government of President Jair Bolsonaro with a series of lawsuits.

Since Bolsonaro took office last year, his administration has repeatedly moved to slash environmental protections, while Amazon deforestation rates and violent invasions of indigenous reserves have soared in number.

Now, as Covid-19 tears through indigenous communities, loggers, land grabbers and illegal miners continue laying waste to the rainforest amid scaled back environmental surveillance due to the pandemic.

Experts expect this year’s deforestation figures to be the worst in the last 15 years.

“We can’t change the mindset of the government,” Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of the Climate Observatory, a network of civil society groups that is responsible for the legal analysis of the lawsuits, told Mongabay. “So we must use these legal instruments to overturn these environmental setbacks.”

Last week, on World Environment Day, civil society groups and left-leaning political parties filed three separate lawsuits with the country’s federal and supreme courts that target measures taken by Bolsonaro’s environment minister Ricardo Salles and his handpicked subordinate Eduardo Bim, current president of IBAMA, the country’s environmental agency.

The first lawsuit, filed with a federal court in Amazonas state by NGOs Greenpeace Brasil and the Social Environment Institute (ISA), along with Brazil’s Environmental Prosecutors Association (ABRAMPA), against IBAMA and the Brazilian state aims to annul a recent measure signed by Bim, widely criticized for enabling illegally harvested Brazilian timber to be exported more easily.

According to case documents seen by Mongabay, in February, Bim received a telegram from a Pará state wood exporters association (AIMEX), requesting that specified IBAMA wood inspections for exports, in place since 2011, be lifted, describing them as “unnecessary” and “obsolete.”

Twenty days later, Bim signed an order eliminating the inspections and shortly after received a “thank you” note from an industrial association representing wood trading interests in Pará state.

Environmental Minister Ricardo Salles. Image found on Facebook.

Between August 2018 and July 2019, Pará accounted for the highest portion (41%) of 10,129 square kilometers (3911 square miles) of Amazon deforestation across seven Legal Amazonia states, according to latest figures released today by Brazil’s Space Institute (INPE).

A recent study by the Imazon research institute found that 70% of wood harvested in Pará between August 2017 and July 2018 was illegal.

Pará state also consistently tops the list for rural violence, much of which is driven by the illegal timber trade, notorious or invasions of indigenous and traditional communities, with at least ten land conflict killings in 2019, according to Brazil’s Pastoral Land Commission.

State officials are also prone to attack in the state. Mongabay recently reported on the case of an IBAMA agent attacked by an angry mob with a glass bottle after the agency destroyed trucks thought to belong to illegal loggers operating in an indigenous reserve.

Illegal loggers themselves are mostly poor, working at the very bottom of the highly lucrative illegal deforestation shadow economy.

According to a 2018 Greenpeace report, the rare Amazonian wood known as Ipê is often valued at up to US$2,500 per cubic meter at export ports, once it is processed into flooring or decking. The same report noted that in 2017 alone an estimated 23,000 cubic meters (30,083 cubic yards) of Amazon precious hardwood was stolen from just one Pará sustainable extractive reserve, Resex Riozinho do Anfrísio.

For Marcio Astrini, of the Climate Observatory, the first lawsuit has the most likelihood of achieving a quick success. “This is the one that could have the most immediate effect,” he said.

The second and third suits accusing the Brazilian state of “omission” were filed with Brazil’s Supreme Court by three political parties, the Workers’ Party (PT), Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB), and Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), along with Sustainability Network. The suit would force the government to reactivate two important national funds — one to fight Amazon deforestation and the other climate change, both effectively frozen since last year. Suit originators argue that under Environment Minister Salles the structure of Brazil’s Amazon Fund, which pays for projects that combat deforestation including enforcement operations by IBAMA, was sabotaged by a series of internal personnel dismissals that prevented fund from working, even as deforestation rocketed.

Currently the fund has a balance of roughly R$1.5 billion (US$300 million) that is not being used, according to the lawsuit document, seen by Mongabay. The suit also addresses Salles’ accusations made last May that contracts for projects that receive money from the fund were irregular.

The suit describes Salles’ accusations as “unfounded” and alleges that changes he made within the fund based on those accusations led to a souring in relations with the funds’ main contributors, Norway and Germany.

The climate-related suit calls for the Environment Ministry to present a two-year plan to spend down the Climate Fund within 30 days. With a balance of around R$8.5 million ($US1.7 million), the fund was stripped of its administrative capabilities when its internal committee was dissolved in April 2019.

“Civil society will do its part to guarantee environmental protection. We hope that the Judiciary will also do its part and prevent Salles from passing the cattle against the environment,” said Maurício Guetta, legal advisor at Brazil’s Social Environment Institute.

Passing the cattle” refers to a phrase used by Environment Minister Salles during a videotaped and recently broadcast Bolsonaro ministerial meeting, in which the minister appeared to suggest using Covid-19 as cover to bypass Brazil’s environmental regulations, sparking outcry.

Salles later denied any wrongdoing and said he was simply referring to red tape. In addition to the two suits, a request filed by Green Party congressman Célio Studart for Salles’ impeachment is being analyzed by the prosecutor general’s office.

Banner image: Federal agents seize a logging truck in the Cachoeira Seca Indigenous Reserve. Image courtesy of IBAMA.

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