- In Brazil’s 2018 elections, 422 candidates running in executive and legislative races at state and federal levels across the country received donations from individuals and partners of companies linked to environmental crimes in the Amazon; 156 of them won election.
- The state of Mato Grosso led in the number of candidates bankrolled by environmental violators — 62 candidates, of whom 19 won — and in the donations made: 6 million reais ($1.5 million).
- Mauro Mendes, who would go on to win the state’s election for governor, received 1 million reais ($257,000) from environmental violators, and his track record in office to date has been marked by controversies over environmental protection and natural resource administration.
- Two federal legislators from Mato Grosso, recipients of environmental violators’ money, also appear to be aligned with their donors’ interests by sponsoring a bill that would effectively free up 10 million hectares (25 million acres) of land that can be legally deforested.
In March this year, the Brazilian Congress began deliberating a bill that would exclude the state of Mato Grosso from the country’s formally recognized Amazonian region, or the Legal Amazon.
The justification behind the bill, introduced by Congress members Juarez Costa from the Democratic Movement (MDB) party and Neri Geller from the Progressive (PP) party, is to allow a greater degree of legal deforestation by ranchers and farmers.
Rural landowners within the Legal Amazon are required to preserve 80% of their property, a portion known as the legal reserve. If the bill passes, the legal reserve for rural properties in Mato Grosso would go down to 35%, effectively freeing up an area of 10 million hectares (25 million acres) that can be legally deforested. That amounts to an area the size of the states of Espírito Santo and Rio de Janeiro combined.
Now, a new analysis shows that Costa and Geller, whose parties are both part of the ruling coalition of President Jair Bolsonaro, received significant funding in the last election from environmental violators — individuals sanctioned or fined by IBAMA, the federal environmental protection agency. In fact, more candidates were financed by environmental violators in Mato Grosso in the 2018 election than in any other state, according to the analysis, raking in 6 million reais ($1.5 million at the prevailing exchange rate) in total. It also showed that these environmental violators had racked up a combined more than 260 million reais ($67 million) as of the time of the election — more than in any other state.
The analysis was carried out by independent research institute Plataforma Cipó in partnership with data intelligence studio Lagom Data.
It highlights the relationship between environmental violators — those who have been fined or have had part of their land embargoed — and the money going to candidates for executive and legislative positions in past elections throughout the country.
Maiara Folly, co-founder and program director at Plataforma Cipó, said “the concentration of resources [donated by environmental violators] in Mato Grosso coincides, in fact, with a scenario with many rollbacks in the environmental agenda.”
Half of Mato Grosso state legislators bankrolled by violators
In total, 62 candidates for governor, state legislator, federal legislator, senator, and alternative candidates were funded by environmental violators in elections in Mato Grosso. Of these, 19 were elected to office, including the current governor, businessman Mauro Mendes (União Brasil party), who is running for reelection.
The same analysis also reveals the influence that these elected politicians have had in office. Since 2019, they’ve occupied half of the state legislature, five of Mato Grosso’s eight seats in the lower House of Congress (known as the Chamber of Deputies), and one of its two seats in the upper House, the Senate.
Mato Grosso sits at the meeting point between three of Brazil’s most important biomes: the Amazon rainforest, Cerrado savanna, and Pantanal wetlands. It also recorded the most campaign donations from environmental violators in past elections, totaling almost 6 million reais ($1.5 million) as of 2018. It was followed by the states of Rondônia, with 4.3 million reais ($1.1 million); São Paulo, with 1.6 million reais ($411,000); and Tocantins, with 1.5 million reais ($385,000).
“It is necessary that society demands not only that candidates stand in favor of and present measures to curb environmental crimes, but also to exert pressure for transparency about the socioenvironmental background of candidates for public office and their respective financial backers,” Folly said.
In the 2018 elections, 422 candidates running in executive and legislative races at state and federal levels across Brazil received donations from individuals and partners of companies linked to environmental crimes in the Amazon. Of these, 156 won election that year. Only the state of Sergipe, the smallest in the country outside the federal district of Brasília, didn’t elect any candidates financed by those fined by IBAMA.
A million reais for the governor, courtesy of deforesters
The winner of the 2018 gubernatorial election in Mato Grosso, Mauro Mendes stands out in the Plataforma Cipó analysis. It shows his campaign received more than 1 million reais ($257,000) in donations from environmental violators, a figure that exceeds the amount raised by all 18 other politicians elected in the same state by the same sources.
His biggest individual donor was his own running mate, Otaviano Pivetta (Republicanos party), the former mayor of Lucas do Rio Verde (MT). A businessman and cattle rancher, Pivetta donated 867,000 reais ($223,000) to the ticket, according to the Superior Electoral Court (TSE).
Pivetta is also linked to land where, in 2001 and 2002, IBAMA identified instances of illegal deforestation. The properties in question lie in the municipalities of Nova Mutum and Sinop, in a part of Mato Grosso that’s dominated by large cattle herds and soybean plantations.
Pivetta also founded the company that gave rise to Terra Santa Agro, one of dozens embroiled in land conflicts with Indigenous people in the state, according to De Olho nos Ruralistas. (“Keeping an Eye on Ruralists,” a watchdog group.). Terra Santo Agro is now controlled by commodities giant SLC Agrícola.
In office, Mauro Mendes’s track record is marked by controversies when it comes to environmental protection and natural resource administration. Shortly after Mendes took office, investigative journalism outlet Agência Pública revealed his links with a problematic gold mining company operating in the vicinity of Chapada dos Guimarães National Park.
The case involved a tailings dam at potential risk of collapse at the site, and a murky deal for the purchase of the mine — a transaction that was the subject of a federal court case.
There have been other controversies more recently. Mendes reportedly pressured regulators to approve a project to build small hydroelectric plants (SHPs) in one of the main rivers of the Pantanal. According to Agência Pública, Mendes has a family interest in the policy: his son would reportedly own one of the SHPs.
Key donor: Brother of the ‘soybean king’
One of the major political donors and environmental violators in Mato Grosso in 2018 was Elizeu Zulmar Maggi Scheffer, one of the top twenty donors in that election who have already been punished for environmental crimes.
A top 20 donor that year, Elizeu Scheffer was in March 2002 fined by IBAMA for illegal deforestation in the municipality of Sapezal, in Mato Grosso’s northwestern corner. President of agribusiness giant Grupo Scheffer, he is the brother of Eraí Maggi, Brazil’s “king of soy,” and cousin of Blairo Maggi, a former governor of Mato Grosso.
Elizeu Scheffer donated 470,000 reais ($120,000) to four candidates in Mato Grosso in the 2018 elections, two of them running for the Chamber of Deputies at the federal level, and two for the state legislature.
Neri Geller was one of those recipients, getting 100,000 reais ($26,000) from Scheffer, while José Medeiros, from Bolsonaro’s Liberal party, received 150,000 reais ($39,000). Both were the leading candidates of the agribusiness, or ruralist, caucus.
The transparency initiative Congresso em Foco (“Congress in Focus”) describes Medeiros as one of Bolsonaro’s staunchest allies in the Chamber. He voted in favor of the administration’s agenda 97% of times, including supporting bills considered harmful to the environment, according to experts. This includes a measure to prohibit IBAMA from destroying equipment seized from environmental violators during inspections.
For his part, Geller — the vice president of the Ruralist Caucus in the Chamber until this year, and leader of the caucus’s environmental committee between 2019 and 2020 — was central to the Chamber’s passage of the Environmental Licensing Bill, which had been stalled for more than 15 years due to opposition from environmental activists.
Geller signed the final text that was approved and sent to the Senate. Criticized for threatening Indigenous and traditional communities and conservation units, the project is now stalled in the Senate.
Champion of ‘Bolsonarism’ makes waves in Congress
Cattle rancher Nelson Barbudo (PL), also from Bolsonaro’s party, is another prominent individual in the Plataforma Cipó analysis. He received the most votes of any of Mato Grosso’s Chamber of Deputies candidates in 2018, and has since become one of the exponents of “Bolsonarism” in the agrarian and environmental agendas in Congress.
Barbudo gained notoriety for criticizing environmental authorities in online videos, which some have attributed to his being fined more than 25,000 reais (about $10,000 at the prevailing exchange rate) by IBAMA for illegal deforestation on his land in 2005.
In 2018, Barbudo’s campaign received a 1,000 reais ($230) donation from Wilson Francisco Rotta, a farmer who in 1997 had himself been fined 10,000 reais ($9,000 at the prevailing exchange rate) by IBAMA for deforestation on his land. Rotta is the founder and owner of UniSeeds, a group that sells soy and other grain seeds.
Since taking office, Barbudo has distinguished himself by racking up the worst socioenvironmental track record of any member of the Chamber of Deputies. That’s according to the Ruralômetro, a tool that rates the performance of deputies on issues such as the environment, Indigenous peoples, and rural workers.
Among the bills that Barbudo has sponsored is one that, if approved, will limit the amount of fines that IBAMA can impose on environmental violators, with a possible reduction in overall fines. Another of his bills would make it more difficult to seize and destroy equipment used in environmental crimes.
Maiara Folly from Plataforma Cipó also noted that Barbudo “introduced at least nine bills with potential negative socioenvironmental impact and no bills with positive potential” in the past three years.
Folly said her organization’s findings about the 2018 candidates bankrolled by environmental violators show that “it is very important to increase transparency and further investigate the parliamentary performance in the socioenvironmental area of elected candidates who received funding from environmental violators.”
Mongabay contacted all the candidates named in this article, but none responded. This article will be updated to include their comments if they do respond.
Banner image: Flagrant deforestation and illegal logging in Mato Grosso. Image courtesy of Alan Assis/Semas.
This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and published here on our Brazil site on Sept. 15, 2022.