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Lula’s deforestation goals threatened by frustrated environmental agents

Brazilian environmental specialists have been on strike since early January, demanding better salaries, a risk bonus and a new public tender for the category.

Brazilian environmental specialists have been on strike since early January, demanding better salaries, a risk bonus and a new public tender for the category. Image courtesy of ASCEMA Nacional.

  • Brazilian environmental agents worked hard in 2023 to control the Amazon deforestation, with impressive results that President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has used to promote himself in the international arena.
  • But since early January, these public servants went on strike, claiming their salaries do not make up for their risky and highly-qualified work, in a threat to Lula’s zero deforestation target.
  • The workers’ movement has provoked a sharp decrease in environmental fines, besides affecting the licensing of infrastructure works and the importing of vehicles.

Right after winning Brazil’s 2022 election, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva caught the international spotlight at Glasgow’s COP27 by promising to achieve zero deforestation in the Amazon by 2030. The newly elected president chose acclaimed environmentalist Marina Silva to head the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, a move seen as a strong indication of his determination to reverse the destructive policies left by his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro. The results came quickly: 2023, Lula’s first year as president, ended up with a 62% decrease in Amazon deforestation.

To keep up with his ambitious targets, Lula needs the engagement of thousands of public servants. But, since early January, officials from three different environmental agencies (IBAMA, the federal environmental agency; ICMBio, which manages national protected areas; and the Brazilian Forest Service, which watches forests’ concessions), went on strike, claiming better salaries and work conditions.

“To achieve zero deforestation by 2030 you need people to work, and the people who will deliver this result will be the civil servants who are currently paralyzed,” Wallace Lopes, an IBAMA federal agent and director at the association that represents the environmental specialists, ASCEMA, told Mongabay in a video call.

The employees have restricted their activities to internal services, significantly impacting field inspection. According to ASCEMA, the number of infraction notices issued in the Amazon states during the first 45 days of the year dropped by 86.2% in 2024 compared with 2023, from 933 to 129. When considering only deforestation infractions, the decrease was 91.2%. In January, 75 planned operations were suspended by IBAMA, according to the Brazilian news outlet Agência Pública.

Brazilian environmental specialists have been on strike since early January, demanding better salaries, a risk bonus and a new public tender for the category.
Brazilian environmental specialists have been on strike since early January, demanding better salaries, a risk bonus and a new public tender for the category. Image courtesy of ASCEMA Nacional.

The environmental specialists category underwent four gloomy years under Bolsonaro, who openly criticized the agents and encouraged land grabbers and illegal miners, especially in the Amazon. Once Lula took office, they watched other public servants receiving priority in negotiations, while the president used the achievements obtained from their work to promote himself abroad.

“It’s a huge contradiction that, while the government is in these forums defending a position of environmental protection and preservation, it doesn’t look at the civil servants who have the role of enforcing all these promises,” Lopes said .

One of the category’s central claims is the opening of a new public tender to recompose the workforce. IBAMA, which once had 6,000 employees, now has 2,954 , and 1,000 of them may retire by the end of 2025, according to ASCEMA.

“It needs people, a lot,” Suely Araújo, who headed IBAMA from 2016-19, during Michel Temer’s government, told Mongabay in a video call. Araújo said that advancing technology, which allows the issuance of deforestation fines by combining satellite images with public land registries, does not replace fieldwork. “Who are you going to fine remotely for illegal mining on Indigenous land? You must go there to remove the mining with armed men used to these dangerous situations.”

When it comes to inspectors fighting environmental crimes on the ground, there are around 700 covering the country’s six biomes. “If you divide this by the Brazilian territory plus the territorial sea, we’ll have one inspector for an area the size of Denmark. It’s a very insane reality,” Lopes said . According to ASCEMA, the personal deficit for the whole environmental specialist category, which includes the environment ministry, IBAMA and ICMBio, is 4,256 employees — which means the workforce should be doubled.

Negotiations between President Lula's government and the workers' representatives have been harsh
Negotiations between President Lula’s government and the workers’ representatives have been harsh, and there is no sign of an agreement to put an end to the strike. Image by André Corrêa/MGI.

Despite Marina Silva’s public support for the workers’ claims, the negotiations with Lula’s government have been harsh. Three meetings took place in February and early March, but there is no sign of agreement so far. According to Lopes, their demands were ignored by the Ministry of Management and Innovation in Public Services (MGI), which is ahead of the negotiations. “On certain points, the government’s proposal makes the current situation worse. Judging by the counterproposals that have been made, we are a long way from solving this,” he said .

In an email to Mongabay, MGI stated it “does not comment on negotiation processes within the sectoral and specific tables.”

The longer the strike, the higher the risk of Lula’s achievements in the Amazon going down in flames. So far, deforestation is under control. But it may change in the following months once the rainy season ends — reopening the slash-and-burn season — and the land-grabbers and illegal miners realize the environmental agents are not coming back.

“It could be a kind of . When it comes to peak deforestation, this could have a huge influence on the numbers,” Araújo said , adding that President Lula should step up and indicate that the negotiations with the category should be a priority. “The government has to negotiate before these figures start to reverse.”

“Speeches without effective action, without the presence of the state in the field, will result in an increase in deforestation. This is unavoidable,” Lopes added .

A dangerous and low-paid job

Environmental inspectors are far from welcome in many parts of Brazil, especially in some Amazon villages where the whole economy revolves around illegal activities like land-grabbing, deforestation and illegal mining. Riots and threats against these professionals are commonplace, so they are trained to use a gun and wear bulletproof vests.

Even so, cases of violence against environmental agents are not rare. According to IBAMA’s president, Rodrigo Agostinho, organized crime has infiltrated the Amazon and is now associated with environmental crimes. “The inspectors have been received with shots during their operations,” he said in an interview with the Brazilian magazine Veja.

Last year, there were 10 attacks against IBAMA officials only in Yanomami territory, on the border of Amazonas and Roraima states, where the federal government set up a task force to fight illegal miners. In 2017, three agents died after their airplane fell, also in the Yanomami land — according to Agência Pública, the sole survivor had 40% of his body burned.

“It’s really worrying when you leave home and don’t know if you’re going to make it back. The family gets worried,” said Lopes, adding that the danger remains even when they are off-duty. “Because these people who are against our work end up monitoring our steps, the hotel we stay in, where we eat, where we sleep. All the time, servants are startled.”

IBAMA's inspectors are under constant danger in the Amazon, where they are not welcomed by deforesters, land-grabbers and illegal miners.
IBAMA’s inspectors are under constant danger in the Amazon, where they are not welcomed by deforesters, land-grabbers and illegal miners. Image courtesy of IBAMA.

The circumstances grew worse in the past decade, when the environmental servants didn’t get any raises — it is no surprise that many employees abandoned the job. According to ASCEMA, one out of six employees approved in the last public tender in 2022 had already left their positions in search of better conditions.

That is why the workers claim a new risk bonus for agents exposed to dangerous situations. “It doesn’t make any sense to give the civil servant exposed to these risks the same treatment as a civil servant who lives in Brasília [the federal capital] working exclusively with bureaucracy,” Lopes argued .

The risk bonus was instituted by Araújo through an when she was ahead of IBAMA, in 2018, but was suspended by Bolsonaro. It returned under Lula, but now the category wants it to become a permanent benefit, “so we are not subjected to the mood of the IBAMA president on duty,” Lopes said .

For Araújo, currently a senior public policy adviser at the civil society coalition Climate Observatory, the payment of the benefit is a legal obligation: “If you put a gun in people’s hands and tell them to do surveillance work, there’s no way of saying that it doesn’t fall under the rules for hazard pay. There’s no discussion.”

The employees also demand the payment of a bonus for agents located in remote areas. “There are conservation units with only one or two ICMBio employees. Sometimes there aren’t any,” Lopes explained . “We don’t have a policy for retaining these people. The restructuring of the career we are asking for brings proposals to solve these problems that affect civil servants, but which are also institutional problems.”

Invisible job

In late February, Brazilian newspapers headlined that thousands of imported cars were stopped at the borders. The reason was the strike at IBAMA, whose servants had to assess the vehicles’ environmental standards.

Currently, around 700 of IBAMA’s 2,954 employees are field inspectors. The rest work on other activities, ranging from administrative duties, such as assuring the buying of fuel for an on-the-ground operation, to very specialized tasks, such as analyzing a new pesticide’s molecule.

That is why public tenders such as the one made in 2022 by Bolsonaro, which prioritized middle-level professionals, didn’t solve IBAMA’s problems. “IBAMA is generally staffed by professionals with some connection to environmental issues, but there are people from different areas: biologists, veterinarians, engineers, lawyers. … The greatest demand is for people with more sophisticated training,” Araújo said .

Belo Monte dam.
IBAMA’s employees are responsible for licensing major infrastructure works, like the Belo Monte hydro dam, and also for following these enterprises to ensure the environmental safeguards are being fulfilled. Image by Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

One of the most specialized of these works is environmental licensing, which gives the green or red light to the country’s most significant infrastructure projects. Due to the strike, the number of licenses issued by IBAMA dropped 67% in the first 45 days of 2024 compared with 2023, falling from 76 to 25, according to ASCEMA.

“And the demand for licensing is growing all the time,” Araújo state d, explaining that even after an enterprise is licensed, the environmental body has to keep following it for decades to ensure the safeguards are being followed. “Post-licensing problems, for example, lead to tragedies such as Mariana and Brumadinho,” she recalled, referring to two major mining dam collapses in Minas Gerais state (in both cases, the licenses were issued by the state government).

Another invisible but crucial part of the environmental specialist’s job is the assessment of environmental infractions in administrative procedures that start to run after a fine is issued. “There will be a defense, an appeal, and sometimes the fine stays there for years. It’s a very small team [judging the procedures] and, if it doesn’t work well, you lose all the power of enforcement because the offenders know that the fine will lapse,” Araújo said .

In late January, Marina Silva defended opening a new public tender for IBAMA. However, the ministry didn’t respond to Mongabay’s questions about if and when it would be launched.

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