- On June 6, federal prosecutors in Brazil filed a lawsuit seeking the dismissal of the environment minister, Ricardo Salles, alleging “countless initiatives that violate the duty to protect the environment.”
- Since he took office at the start of 2019 under President Jair Bolsonaro, Salles has worked to weaken the country’s main federal environmental agencies, IBAMA and ICMBio, including slashing the number of regional positions and offices and weakening control of protected areas.
- He has also appointed police officials to key roles in supervisory agencies, frustrating experts who say those positions should go to experts who understand the issues.
- Staff report that a gag order has been in force under Salles, and that they now work in a climate of persecution and threats, both open and veiled.
Brazilian prosecutors have called for the dismissal of the country’s environment, Ricardo Salles, accusing him of “administrative dishonesty” leading to “countless initiatives that violate the duty to protect the environment.”
The surprise lawsuit against Salles, filed June 6, comes after a year and a half of systematic strategies to undermine the work of the main environmental agencies in Brazil and pave the way for economic interests.
A lawyer and former head of the São Paulo State Environment Department, Salles took office in January 2019 as part of the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro. At that point, he had already been convicted by the São Paulo Court of Justice for his participation in illegal zoning changes in a protected area management plan, intended to benefit mining companies. Conservationists in Brazil feared that by moving from a state to a federal office, Salles would be in an even more powerful position to dismantle environmental safeguards.
It wouldn’t take long. In May 2019, Salles announced that he was going to review all conservation units in the country, which include national parks and biological reserves, and authorize railroad construction in those protected areas. He also cancelled partnerships and work agreements with NGOs; and declared that Brazil would not work to reduce carbon emissions unless it was paid to do so.
Bolsonaro and Salles have also worked to undermine the efforts of federal environmental protection agencies. In March 2019, they banned direct communication between the press and the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) and the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), both of which fall under the Ministry of Environment. Any request for information or interviews now has to go through the ministry.
A month earlier, through a presidential executive order, the administration reduced civil society’s participation in the National Environment Council (Conama) from 22 to four members, and completely removed it from the National Environment Fund (FNMA).
It also shut down the steering committee for the Amazon Fund, created in 2008. The fund, contributed mostly by the German and Norwegian governments, used to be invested in conservation projects and in combating deforestation in the region. It ended 2019 without approving any projects.
In 2020, Salles was behind the dismissal of two IBAMA heads of inspection who were responsible for operations against illegal mining in Indigenous lands in the state of Pará. He also ordered the restructuring of ICMBio, appointing several military police officers to top positions, including asthe agency’s president.
Salles went on to cut 42 positions and slashed from 11 to five the number of regional offices that managed the country’s 334 conservation units. Among career officials, ICMBio came to be known as “‘IPMBio” (from PM, the Portuguese acronym for the military police, as state police forces are known in Brazil).
“How is it possible to improve the work of overburdened regional offices by keeping the same staff and appointing people who do not have technical knowledge to manage them?” says Angela Kuczach, executive director of the Pro-Conservation Unit National Network.
According to Kuczach, in a continent-sized country like Brazil, five understaffed regional offices without sufficient infrastructure cannot manage all federal conservation units, which cover almost 10% of the country’s territory.
“What is happening is gradual destruction in such a way that our natural heritage is increasingly at risk,” she says.
General outrage among staff
Kuczach’s opinion is shared by several officials at IBAMA, ICMBio and the Brazilian Forest Service interviewed for this report. Most spoke on condition of anonymity, saying a gag order has been in force since Salles took office. They say they live in a climate of persecution and threats, both veiled and open.
“Now the attack is man to man. The idea is to prevent people from working at all. Salles came to destroy the environmental area from the inside,” says Beth Uema, executive secretary of the National Association of Environmental Experts (Ascema).
Uema, who has worked in supervision and environmental licensing at IBAMA for almost 25 years, says the agency has always been strong. Criticism and debate were allowed, regardless of the government. But everything changed 15 months ago.
“There is no more dialogue, and the gag order hinders any information flow. We used to be able to argue, but now there is no possibility of consensus. The decision process is top-down,” she says.
Officials at Brazil’s various environmental protection agencies now learn about changes and dismissals from executive orders published in the government gazette, without any prior conversation or consultation.
“Salles’s speech at the ministerial meeting is highly representative because it overtly shows society what we already knew internally,” said an anonymous official. “It’s all about ending environmental regulation, oversimplifying procedures, and removing competences from those agencies.” In an April 22 video recording, Salles openly called for taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic — citing the media’s focus on the mounting death toll in Brazil — to circumvent Congress and “run the cattle herd” by “pen strokes.”
Legitimating environmental crimes
Geographer Denis Rivas is among the officials who have taken leave because of the pressure. An analyst at ICMBio and president of Ascema, he works at Tijuca National Park in Rio de Janeiro state, and has been with the agency for 15 years. He says the challenges have always been considerable in the sector.
“The environmental field in Brazil has always been given very little importance, but we used to have multiplier effects, even with scarce funds. Previous governments have acted as protectors of natural resources. We have never had the state working against our efforts before,” he says.
According to Rivas, the rhetoric legitimizing environmental crimes is alarming. He cites a ban on inspection teams burning machinery seized from land grabbers and illegal miners in the Amazon, which culminated in the dismissal of IBAMA supervisors from their positions.
“We are facing huge losses. We are aware that the increase in deforestation is a setback to what we have been trying to preserve for years,” he says. “The result is that staff are getting ill and some are trying to resist and denounce it. It’s sad.”
The Fernando de Noronha archipelago is a clear example. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it is protected by two conservation units: Fernando de Noronha Marine National Park and Fernando de Noronha-Rocas-São Pedro e São Paulo Environmental Protection Area. In 2019, Salles visited the main island for the first time. His priority was a meeting with local businessmen, and he appointed a new local head of ICMBio. Since then, two supervisors have been dismissed, including the head of inspection, and have not yet been replaced.
Entrepreneurs interested in expanding their business on the archipelago had long complained about the strict rules that frustrated their plans, such as a prohibition on new lodgings with swimming pools, given the common shortage of water in the area. ICMBio officials had also frequently warned about the unsustainable increase in the number of visitors overwhelming Fernando de Noronha’s capacity.
Years of efforts wasted
Another ICMBio environmental analyst, who didn’t want to be named, was dismissed from her supervisory position after she found out that licenses had been granted without her consent. She was transferred to another state.
She says that when ICMBio was created in 2007, it carried out environmental management differently from IBAMA, which is focused on inspection and enforcement. ICMBio’s priority was to strengthen relations with communities impacted by the creation of conservation units so that they would become allies of conservation and benefit through sustainable management practices in those areas.
“ICMBio’s work resulted in major gains for socioenvironmental management as well as for strengthening communities and solving land conflicts. We started to see environmental crimes from another perspective. Some have major impacts, like deforestation and mining, but there are smaller ones related to social problems,” the analyst says.
“It took us a long time to establish this trust-based relationship with the communities. The work to reach these people is hard, especially in places like the Amazon and in remote towns. And the government’s effort at deconstruction is undermining what took us years to achieve,” she says.
An environmental analyst for more than 10 years, she says that since Bolsonaro took office, the agencies’ staff have been depicted as the biggest environmental management problem in the country and have been publicly demonized. “We were labeled ‘ecoshiites’ and became enemies. Then ideological cleansing began. Anyone with more social-oriented views was removed from management positions. And they have been mostly replaced by military police.”
Officials had never been prohibited from speaking to the press before, she says. They previously enjoyed complete autonomy for communication. But now, even requests for scientific information, such as studies and data on species, cannot be answered without first being cleared by the ministry’s press office.
“ICMBio is being destroyed in the most perverse way: from the inside,” she says.
With deforestation continuing to advance, the current scenario looks bleak for those who have dedicated years of their lives to curbing forest and biodiversity destruction in Brazil.
“We could try to measure the destruction in millions of square kilometers lost, but that’s a very cold fact,” Denis Rivas says. “A forest is an environment that took millions of years to grow and come into existence. And it suddenly becomes scorched earth, with ashes and pasture. Only those who have been in a deforested area and had seen that forest before, in its full splendor, are aware of the real tragedy.”
But the struggle goes on, he says: “The staff will always take sides with society when it comes to conservation of the environmental heritage as long as there is democratic rule of law.”
Banner image of IBAMA agents fighting deforestation and mining in the Tenharim do Igarapé Preto Indigenous Land, in Amazonas state, by Vinícius Mendonça/IBAMA.