- The government of President Jair Bolsonaro accelerated its agenda of environmental deregulation during the COVID-19 pandemic, issuing a slew of measures weakening existing protections and slashing the amount of fines imposed on violators.
- Bolsonaro’s environment minister, Ricardo Salles, had made the plans clear at the outset of the pandemic last April, when he suggested “running the cattle” through the regulations while the rest of the country was focused on the health crisis.
- A new study makes clear just how far the government pursued this agenda: 28 of the 57 deregulation measures passed under Bolsonaro came during the first seven months of the pandemic, 16 of them last September alone, while environmental fines during this time dropped by 70%.
- The measures saw, among other things, a reduction in citizen representation on environmental policy councils; replacement of environmental policymakers with inexperienced military and police officers, and the shuttering of several agencies.
The science journal Biological Conservation published a special issue this month with a series of reports on the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on biodiversity. Among the articles selected is one by a group of six Brazilian researchers who reveal the ways in which the federal government took advantage of the world’s largest health crisis to undo environmental preservation policies and undermine federal environmental agencies.
The findings indicate that Environment Minister Ricardo Salles made good on call, back in April 2020, to deregulate environmental protections while the rest of the country was focused on dealing with the pandemic. At a meeting with ministry officials held in Brasília, Salles said the ideal thing to do would be to take advantage of the “press that only talks about COVID” to “change laws without having to go through Congress. Just sign it!” — or, as put it, “Run the cattle through.” Despite the public furor that erupted after a video of the meeting was leaked, the government has pushed ahead with its agenda.
The study shows that since Jair Bolsonaro took office as president at the start of 2019, he has signed 57 pieces of regulations, including resolutions, ordinances, decrees and normative instructions, that weaken existing environmental regulations in some way. Nearly half of these, or 28, were signed during the first seven months of the pandemic. There was also a 70% drop in the number of fines imposed for environmental crimes between March and August 2020.
“We were startled by the numbers,” said study co-author Rita de Cássia Portela, a biology professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. “We weren’t aware how many legislative acts there had been. We had no idea how far the number of fines had fallen.”
The government passed 16 regulations in September 2020 alone, the same month Brazil’s death toll from COVID-19 passed 140,000. One of the regulations was Salles’s attempt to roll back rules that protect mangrove forests. However, this effort was overturned at the end of November by the Supreme Federal Court.
“There is no doubt that, with the media focused on the national commotion surrounding the pandemic and the pain and suffering of families and victims, there was a general weakening of environmental policy,” Portela said. “They actually carried out what was said in the ministry meeting.”
Among the other deregulatory measures passed during this time: a decree that reduces the number of seats allocated for citizens on the National Environmental Council (CONAMA) from 22 to four, resulting in the loss of representation for Indigenous and traditional populations; a reduction in the mandates of representatives to one year; and the substitution of the electoral method with a lottery to select the organizations that may be represented.
Another point cited in the study was the frequent changes in senior-level positions at government agencies like IBAMA (the federal environmental protection body), ICMBio (the Ministry of Environment’s administrative arm), and INPE, the space agency whose work includes satellite-based monitoring of deforestation. In many of these cases, experienced professionals were replaced with military or police officials with little or no technical or scientific knowledge in the field. (Read more here.)
Making its intentions clear early on
Bolsonaro had made his intentions clear even before he became president. During the 2018 election campaign, he declared he would do away with the “industry of environmental fines” and combat the “eco-Shiites.” He also called for merging the ministries of agriculture and environment, saying this would put an end to the demarcation of new Indigenous territories. He chose as his environmental secretary Ricardo Salles — a man who, just before taking federal office, had been convicted for administrative impropriety relating to his time as secretary of the environment for the state of São Paulo, and who remains the subject of various other investigations.
The Bolsonaro administration’s agenda regarding the environment over the past two years is also chronicled in a report by the Institute of Forestry and Agriculture Management and Certification (Imaflora), the Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA) and U.K.-based human rights organization Article 19.
“What we saw in the press was a drop in transparency together with the delegitimizing of the work at INPE together with centralized communication at the Ministry of the Environment,” said Bruno Vello, Imaflora’s public policy analyst. “It’s been a diffuse scenario over these two years.”
Bolosonaro was publicly critical of INPE, which has been monitoring Amazon deforestation for six decades, after it flagged a spike in forest loss in 2019. He called its data into question and fired its director, Ricardo Galvão, that year.
In addition to casting doubt on data, the administration has also tried to restrict access to it. One of the first measures taken by the administration in January 2019 was to try to increase the confidentiality of public documents. The decree was later revoked by Congress; Brazil’s Constitution recognizes access to information as a right.
In March 2020, as COVID-19 began to spread across Brazil, a provisionary measure meant government agencies no longer had to adhere to a deadline for providing information when requested. The Supreme Federal Court annulled this decision, but just a few weeks later, it was announced that neither IBAMA nor ICMBio would respond to inquiries from the press. From that point on, questions were to be channeled through the Ministry of the Environment. Employees at these agencies referred to the decision as the “muzzle law,” because it prohibited them from speaking or giving any interviews without authorization.
Imaflora’s report, based on requests filed with federal agencies for information regarding environmental policies, showed a 78% drop in the number of satisfactory responses given in 2019 as compared to the 2017-2018 period. It also found the quality of the responses had deteriorated, with an increasing proportion of incoherent responses.
Citizens’ roles restricted
Another serious issue that both the Imaflora report and the Biological Conservation study raised was how citizens are no longer allowed to sit on a number of public councils and institutions involved in environmental public policymaking. At the National Environmental Fund (FNMA), only members of the government may now participate.
“Citizens must have access to information and to spaces where environmental proposals and solutions are debated,” Vello said. “These do not appear to me to be fortuitous changes. The current scenario carries many threats.”
Of the 22 national institutions working on social and environmental policy included in the Imaflora study, four were shut down and nine were restructured, leaving less than half unchanged.
Through a single decree in April 2019, Bolsonaro eliminated the Brazilian Climate Change Forum (FBMC); the National Plan for Recuperation of Native Vegetation (Planaveg) together with its respective commission, or Conaveg; the National Biodiversity Commission (Conabio); and the National Commission of Forests (Conaflor).
In 2020, only three of the 10 federal agencies that manage databases relevant to environmental policy met their legal obligation to maintain open data plans. All 10 agencies had met that obligation in 2019.
Some of these databases include the Rural Environmental Registry (CAR), a land registry system; the National Registry of Public Forests (CNFP); the Slave Labor Blacklist; and the Environmental Licensing System, among others. Only the Ministry of the Environment and IBAMAhad their open data plans available to the public in the environmental sector last year.
Experts say open data are vital to the implementation of environmental policy by the executive branch. They are also imperative for citizen-based initiatives that uphold those policies, such as projects to control deforestation and combat forest fires.
An uncertain future for Brazilian forests
A Global Forest Watch report released last June estimated that 11.9 million hectares (29.4 million acres) of tree cover were lost in 2019, 3.8 million of which were primary tropical forests. The destruction of tropical forests in Brazil reached more than 1.3 million hectares (3.2 million acres), making the country responsible for one third of all the tropical forests devastated on the planet that year.
INPE’s numbers corroborate the international data. During Bolsonaro’s first two years in office, the annual average of deforestation in the Amazon was more than 880,000 hectares (2.18 million acres), up more than 81% compared to the average of the three years leading up to his presidency (in 2016-2018, the average was less than 485,000 hectares, or 1.2 million acres, per year).
The situation doesn’t appear set to improve in the near term. This year’s budget allocation for the Ministry of the Environment, proposed in January, is the lowest in 20 years, with cuts of more than 25% for programs to monitor the environment and fight forest fires.
Despite the global increase in tropical deforestation, no other tropical forest countries were found to have weakened their environmental regulations during the pandemic. In several African countries, monitoring was reduced, but there were no regulatory rollbacks close to what happened in Brazil.
“We are expecting the worst, a loss of biodiversity in all ecosystems,” said Portela from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. “The directors were changed out at many of the conservation units, which will probably experience more deforestation, poaching and loss of habitat. Brazilian society is scared about the pandemic, but we must pay attention to what will happen in the near future.”
Vale, M. M., Berenguer, E., Argollo de Menezes, M., Viveiros de Castro, E. B., Pugliese de Siqueira, L., & Portela, R. D. (2021). The COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to weaken environmental protection in Brazil. Biological Conservation, 255, 108994. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2021.108994
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that 11.9 million hectares (29.4 million acres) of tropical forest were lost in 2019. The number in Global Forest Watch’s report referred to tree cover and not tropical forest. The article has been updated to convey the correct numbers. We regret the error.