The environment as an obstacle
The declared war and the veiled war between the Bolsonaro government and the forces resisting deforestationBernardo Esteves
Translated by Christopher Peterson
versão em português (para assinantes)
I had an appointment in mid-March for a luncheon meeting in Brasília with an employee of the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment at a restaurant in the Pilot Plan. As soon as he arrived, he said the place was not secluded enough and suggested we sit at a table in the back. Several times during our meal he would glance around, looking worried, to see if anyone was watching us. This government employee told about how discouraged his colleagues were, in their departments with work schedules at a virtual standstill and a pervasive cloud of intimidation hanging over the Ministry. He told me how he checked the Federal Register (Diário Oficial da União) daily to see who had been nominated to (or fired from) positions in the Ministry. He asked not to be quoted by name in my story. As we parted, he recommended that I only contact him via an app that erases messages immediately after reading them.
The Ministry’s staff is worried about what they share and like on the social networks. They fear being monitored by Minister Ricardo Salles’ inner circle. I heard reports of telephones tapped, WhatsApp chats leaked, and spies infiltrated in staff meetings. The cloud of surveillance perceived by some was reinforced by a memorandum signed in late March by the Minister’s chief-of-cabinet, Army Colonel Antônio Roque Pedreira Junior. The memo ordered Ministry teams to work with the curtains open in their offices, under the pretext that the lighting was “one of the most important features in the workplace, to ensure the entire staff’s wellbeing and productivity,” the document added.
On a Saturday in April, Minister Ricardo Salles visited the Lagoa do Peixe National Park, a protected area on the coast of Brazil’s southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul. He was accompanied by the leader of the Congressional agribusiness caucus, Deputy Alceu Moreira, representing the MDB party (Brazilian Democratic Movement) in that state. Speaking at the microphone, the Minister of the Environment asked whether the audience included any employees of the ICMBio (the Chico Mendes Institute for Conservation of Biodiversity), responsible for administering that Park and other protected areas. Since there were no ICMBio employees present (it was a weekend), Salles ordered a disciplinary administrative inquiry into the Institute’s staff’s whereabouts. But they had not been informed of the event, which was held outside of their normal work hours. ASCEMA, the association representing public employees in the area, later described Salles’ attitude as “underhanded, deceitful, and rude to the civil servants”. After the event, the president of ICMBio and three board members resigned from their positions in protest.
Since he has taken office, Salles has rushed a reexamination of old administrative proceedings that has led to firing of civil servants, curtailed the participation of Ministry employees in international events and canceled authorizations to take work leave for graduate studies, and ordered that the Ministry conduct prior review of requests by the media addressed to the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) and ICMBio, both of which are affiliated with (but not subordinated to) the Ministry, a move that was seen as a gag order. “The Minister criticizes us, and we cannot reply,” an environmental inspector from IBAMA told me, also on condition of anonymity.
I interviewed 58 people for this story, of whom 29 were current or former federal employees. The majority preferred to remain anonymous. Their argument, with minor variations, was always the same: fear of reprisals. One of the few who was willing to speak on record was José Olímpio Augusto Morelli, the IBAMA inspector who in 2012 caught Jair Bolsonaro red-handed fishing in a protected marine area in Angra dos Reis Bay on the coast of Rio de Janeiro state. Then-Federal Deputy Bolsonaro never paid the fine of BRL 10 thousand (USD 2,600). Instead, he submitted a bill to Congress that proposed to disarm the environmental inspectors, even though he defends loosening gun control in general. Last December, the case of the fishing fine was bumped back to ground zero at IBAMA at the recommendation of the Federal Attorney General’s Office (AGU), who ruled that the accused had not been given his full right to defense. Late this March, Morelli was fired from his position as head of IBAMA’s aerial operations division.
Morelli saw his firing as a retaliation. “I was punished for having done my duty,” he told me at the time. President Bolsonaro recently expressed his plans to authorize, by decree, spearfishing in the ecological reserve where he was fined, and that he intends to turn the area into a “Brazilian Cancún”, even though it is subject to mandatory environmental protection, since it is adjacent to Brazil’s nuclear reactor plants.
Morelli is a 56-year-old agronomist from the state of Minas Gerais who specialized in environmental law. He joined IBAMA – an agency with environmental police powers at the federal level – in 2002 through a public admissions process. The agency has environmental police powers at the federal level. Weeks after he was fired, in a meeting with me in Brasília, he told me that the current government is sacking civil servants in management positions that had been named by previous administrations. “They are technical experts with no partisan political ties who were doing good work,” he said. “Since President Sarney [1985-1990], all the presidents had named technically capable people to IBAMA, and with little political interference.” Morelli sees the current situation as “an attempt to dismantle a successful experience in fighting environmental crimes in Brazil, developed painstakingly by trial and error”. When I asked him if he was not afraid of putting his name on the line, the inspector replied that he had been studying Law no. 8112/90, which regulates Brazil’s federal public service, and that he saw no disciplinary misconduct in his attitude. “I’m not speaking in the name of IBAMA, and I’m not attacking my institution. I’m commenting on public policies practiced by administrators.”
In late April, the Ministry of the Environment’s website excluded data on priority areas and activities for conservation of Brazil’s biodiversity. The data had been prepared for more than a year by a technical team from the Ministry and were supposed to be used as the basis for licensing projects, creating protected areas, and establishing public environmental measures and policies. Ricardo Salles claimed that the information had been removed temporarily to correct mistakes, but he failed to say when it would be uploaded again. As of this edition’s closing date, the information was still not back on the website. But it can be accessed from several sites, thanks to the enterprising spirit of several staffers who had stored the information on their own personal hard disks.
Several gestures of institutional resistance have also appeared in other areas. Staffers have leaked documents to the press outlining measures planned by the government, such as the draft version of a decree providing for a revision of the environmental fines system and a request for the Ministry to repeal a ban on fishing threatened marine species. The public employees’ trade unions in the environmental area are mobilizing to challenge the government’s measures in court, and one such union plans to hire a media agency to produce material to mobilize the social networks. I met one employee who said he is trying to keep the projects in his department alive by avoiding such expressions as “climate change” or “indigenous peoples”, which are frowned on by the new government.
In the midst of this war, sometimes openly declared, other times veiled, between Salles and the career civil servants in the Ministry, an apparent typo in the Federal Register (Diário Oficial da União) sounded more like a Freudian slip, in the Ruling (“Portaria” in Portuguese) that named government auctioneers to head divisions in IBAMA in the state of Bahia. The site claimed: “This Porcaria [sic – Bullshit] enters into force on the date of its publication.” The ruling (portaria) that was misspelled as “bullshit” (porcaria) was eventually corrected.
One of Jair Bolsonaro’s campaign promises was to extinguish the Ministry of the Environment entirely and turn Brazil’s environmental management over to a department of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fishing, and Supply. The proposal subordinated environmental conservation interests to those of agricultural and livestock production and sparked criticism not only from environmentalists, but also from some agribusiness sectors. Bolsonaro eventually reconsidered and maintained the Ministry of the Environment, but entrusted it to a representative of big agribusiness: Ricardo de Aquino Salles, a 44-year-old attorney from São Paulo, who had been legal director of the Brazilian Ruralist Society and founded the movement “Endireita Brasil”, or “Get Brazil Right” (sic).
Defending liberal ideas, Salles had run for city councilman and state and federal deputy in São Paulo, but had never been elected (last year he won 36.6 thousand votes, running for a seat in the Chamber of Deputies on the Partido Novo or “New Party” ticket). He had been private secretary to then-Governor Geraldo Alckmin and had spent a year heading the State Environmental Department under the PSDB (Brazilian Social Democratic Party) administration in São Paulo. Many aspects of his administration provided a preview of what he would later do at the federal level, with measures favoring large agricultural interests, corporations, and mining companies and curtailing the space for NGOs in the São Paulo government.
Salles was the last cabinet Minister named by Bolsonaro (speculation in the press on possible ministerial candidates even mentioned actress Maitê Proença). Ten days after Salles was nominated, he was convicted for administrative malfeasance during his term as Secretary of the Environment in São Paulo. The Office of the Public Prosecutor had accused him of benefitting mining companies by forging maps and altering the draft of a decree laying out the zoning plan for the Rio Tietê floodplain, an environmental protection area. Salles was fined BRL 200 thousand (USD 52,000) and had his political rights suspended for three years. Since the ruling was issued by a lower court, he can still appeal the conviction with the sentence suspended.
In mid-May, Edson Duarte, Minister of the Environment at the end of Michel Temer’s Administration, spoke out for the first time on the transition between the Presidential election to Bolsonaro’s swearing-in. He said his team had prepared a detailed report on the Ministry and the agencies affiliated with it, including strategic information on the prevailing programs and partnerships. According to Duarte, the incoming team refused to visit the Ministry and simply brushed the dossier aside. “The material we prepared was left on the table. They never even went to pick it up,” he said during a press conference. “There was no transition, and that’s a serious matter.”
The structural reform in the federal government launched on January 2 eliminated several responsibilities under the Ministry of the Environment’s jurisdiction until last year. The National Water Agency, previously connected to the Ministry of the Environment, was transferred to the Ministry of Regional Development. The Brazilian Forestry Service (SFB), responsible for managing the country’s public forests, now answers to the Ministry of Agriculture. The Brazilian Forestry Service also administers the Rural Environmental Registry, a database on Brazil’s agricultural properties and their plant cover. Created by the Forestry Code of 2012, the Registry allows monitoring compliance by farm properties with the prevailing environmental legislation. Environmentalists have criticized the fact that this oversight and inspection agency has been been turned over to a Ministry headed by agribusiness interests. To head the Brazilian Forestry Service, Minister of Agriculture Tereza Cristina named former Federal Deputy Valdir Colatto, an agribusiness representative from the MDB party in Santa Catarina state. In 2016, he penned a bill to repeal the law on environmental crimes and eliminate all restrictions on hunting in Brazil.
The Division of Climate Change and Forests, which included the Department of Forests and Prevention of Deforestation, was replaced by the Division of Forests and Sustainable Development. The Ministry of the Environment now no longer includes specific divisions for the control and prevention of deforestation and climate change. Two issues that had been central to the Ministry’s action thus officially disappeared and had their content erased.
Deforestation and climate change are two inseparable problems in Brazil. The felling of native forest cover in the Amazon and Cerrado emits greenhouse gases twice: first, when it removes the plant cover, releasing carbon stored in the soil, and then when it replaces the native vegetation with crops and pastures, which emit carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases. Together, deforestation and the agricultural and livestock sector account for 70% of greenhouse gas emissions in Brazil. That’s why Brazil’s main proposal to reduce its emissions is to eliminate illegal deforestation.
Since the launch of an inter-Ministries plan in 2004 during the first government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil had achieved an 84% reduction in deforestation in the Amazon from 2004 to 2012. But the rate has increased again since then. From August 2017 to July 2018, during the Temer government, 7,900 square kilometers of forest were cut down, the highest annual rate in the last ten years.
Part of the success in reducing deforestation can be credited to monitoring of the Amazon with satellite images made by INPE, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. The images allow to identify deforestation as it occurs and to orient IBAMA’s inspection activities. Yet this is just one part of the inter-Ministries plan, which is still in force, in its fourth phase. The previous strategy also Included measures such as the creation of protected areas, initiatives in land tenure regularization, and stimulus for the development of sustainable economic alternatives for the population subsisting on illegal exploitation of the forest.
The deforestation problem is too complex for the Ministry of the Environment to solve alone, so the plan involves nine other Ministries. The plan was initially coordinated by the Office of the Chief of Staff, but this role was transferred to the Ministry of the Environment in 2013. By watering down the issue in his Ministry, Salles has signaled that the orchestra will have to play without its conductor.
The Ministry of the Environment is also responsible for executing the National Policy on Climate Change, within the scope of an inter-Ministries committee that has not met even once this year. I asked a functionary in the new government who would be in charge of this agenda now that the Ministry of the Environment has apparently removed its team from the field. “Nobody’s playing this ball now,” he replied.
Ricardo Salles is a tall, blue-eyed fellow sporting round, red-tinted glasses. The Minister granted two interviews for this story, lasting a total of an hour and twenty minutes. The first was at the IBAMA office in São Paulo, where he occasionally puts in hours, and the second was at a bakery in the Barra da Tijuca neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, near where he had just delivered a lecture on environmental licensing at an event held by the Brazilian construction industry.
The Minister denied that deforestation has lost importance under his administration. He said he intends to focus efforts on the factors that contribute to illegal forestation rather than prioritizing inspection activities. The focus of his intended strategy will be to attack the roots of encroachment on protected areas and indigenous lands, whether by illegal lumber companies, miners, or landgrabbers. “The idea is to dry the economic well at the source rather than to tackle deforestation in the field,” Salles said. “If our plan works, we can solve the problem without occupying the front line ourselves.”
The Minister has not presented this strategy formally, and there is nothing about it on the Ministry of the Environment’s website. I asked him for more details about when he plan would be implemented. “It’s going to start soon,” Salles replied. In the meantime, the previous model of combatting deforestation is still underway. “There was no interruption.”
However, what Salles intends to do has already been done in the plan to fight deforestation, whose activities were laid out to attack the factors at the root of the problem. “Brazil has a history of success in fighting deforestation, especially from 2004 to 2012, based on an understanding of the problems we had and how to attack each of them, innovating year by year,” said forestry engineer Tasso Azevedo, who headed the Brazilian Forestry Service when the strategy was first implemented. “It’s not out of lack of recognition of the problem’s roots that we fail to attack it.”
In late April, Ricardo Salles posted a photo of himself on social networks, standing next to five uniformed military men that he had just named to head departments in the ICMBio. They were all officers in the São Paulo Environmental Military Police, the same home institution of the ICMBio’s new president, Colonel Homero Cerqueira (there are representatives of the Armed Forces in various echelons of the Ministry of the Environment and the autarchies). Career civil servants filed for a court injunction to cancel three nominations, claiming that the military officers lacked any training or experience in the areas they were supposed to be heading. A joke circulated on social media that the institution would now be called the IPMBio (a play on words with “PM”, the Portuguese acronym for the Military Police).
The Division of Forests and Sustainable Development, in charge of conducting the plan against deforestation, has no director since mid-March. As of late May, seven of its ten management-level positions remained vacant. For the Division of Biodiversity, Salles only named a director in early May (there were eight other vacant management-level positions as of late this month, according to the Ministry of the Environment’s website). For the Division of Ecotourism, established by the Bolsonaro government, Salles named Gilson Machado Guimarães Neto, who in 2016 received an environmental fine from ICMBio due to an irregularity in the lodge he owns on the coast of Alagoas state.
Minister Salles fired 21 of IBAMA’s 27 regional directors, responsible for heading environmental inspection activities in the states; only four of the state-level management positions had been filled as of late May. Roberto Cabral Borges, who coordinated IBAMA’s inspection operations, was also fired in April. As the commander of IBAMA’s elite troop, an armed group of agents trained for special operations, Borges even took a bullet himself during an inspection in Maranhão in 2015. When news of his dismissal appeared on Facebook, it was celebrated by followers of the rightwing Direita Progresso group.
The vacancies in the management positions are reflected in day-to-day administration. Career civil servants have been placed at the disposal of the human resources department and say they have nothing to do during work hours. Institutional partners have complained of the lack of dialogue with the Ministry. Staffers fear for the future of the Ministry’s cooperative projects with foreign partners, responsible for contributing funds that exceed the Ministry’s own budget.
When I asked Minister Salles about the dismissals and unfilled positions, he simply brushed off the matter. Without going into details, he said the agendas are being carried out by the substitutes. However, the impression is entirely different among the career civil servants. “A process of dehydrating the Ministry is under way,” I was told by biologist Alexandre Bahia Gontijo, president of ASIBAMA, the association of civil servants in environmental management in the Federal District. “The environmental agenda being starved to death.” I heard the argument several times that if this was the process, it would have been better to extinguish the Ministry of the Environment entirely. “Salles left the Ministry standing, but he’s eating away at it from within,” one career civil servant told me. “He’s like termites.”
Salles’ administration in the Ministry of the Environment has been the object of critical editorials in such mainstream press vehicles as Folha de S.Paulo, Valor Econômico, and Estado de S. Paulo. Opinion articles have referred to Salles as an anti-Minister, comparing him to Mephistopheles and accusing him of practicing “environmental Stalinism”.
In late April, an association of state public prosecutors published a letter with a list of measures by the Bolsonaro government which they said undermined the legal framework for environmental protection in Brazil. In the same week, 602 researchers published a plea in Science for the European Union to condition its trade negotiations with Brazil on the reduction of deforestation, respect for indigenous peoples’ rights, and environmental protection.
When I mentioned the criticisms levied against his administration, Minister Salles replied that there is no environmental backsliding happening. “What exists is a change of behavior in response to what Brazilian society demanded at the ballot boxes,” he claimed. Salles said that the ICMBio had been destroyed by his predecessors. “I didn’t receive a well-organized Ministry that was then dismantled,” he claimed. “I received an absolutely chaotic Ministry with abundant resources channeled to the Third Sector. That’s what all the hue and cry is about.”
I asked the Minister if he saw himself in a confrontational mode with the Ministry’s staff. “Not at all, quite to the contrary. I do a lot of things with the employees,” he replied. So much so that he was scheduled to participate in a field operation with IBAMA in the Amazon, as he claimed, but without going into details. “But somebody has to put the brakes on a minority that’s always going overboard.”
The manifestation with the greatest weight against Salles’ conduct was a joint declaration by eight of the nine living former Ministers of the Environment, who were responsible for heading the Ministry in the last 26 years. “Brazil’s socioenvironmental governance is being dismantled, in an affront to the Constitution,” they declared in unison: Rubens Ricupero (Itamar Franco government); Gustavo Krause and José Carlos Carvalho (Fernando Henrique Cardoso); Marina Silva and Carlos Minc (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva); Izabella Teixeira (Lula and Dilma Rousseff); José Sarney Filho (Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Michel Temer); and Edson Duarte (Temer). Convening at the University of São Paulo (except for Krause, who was unable to attend in person for health reasons), the former Ministers warned of the risk of increasingly unbridled deforestation and recalled Brazil’s leadership role in the fight against climate change. “Brazil cannot abandon the world now in the 21st century,” they stated.
In his press note in reply to the former Ministers’ communiqué, Salles affirmed his commitment to fighting illegal deforestation and said the country was not failing to comply with its prior commitments. He cited recent operations by IBAMA and the Federal Police in which dozens of persons had been arrested, including two former IBAMA regional directors whom he had fired, accused of involvement in frauds in illegal logging in the Amazon. He claimed he was the target of “a defamation campaign orchestrated by NGOs and supposed specialists” and attributed the persecution to ideological prejudice or to an “undisguisable resistance to the moralizing measures against the orgy of cooperative agreements, never-ending studies, transferred funds, travel grants, and seminars and lectures”. Once again, he evoked problems with the budget, infrastructure, and personnel that he had inherited from previous administrations.
Salles’ nomination broke the relative equilibrium between agribusiness and environmentalists’ demands in the design of Brazil’s public policies. The Forestry Code passed in 2012 illustrates this equilibrium: the fact that neither side had been very satisfied with the final wording is indicative of the concessions made by the stakeholders. Bolsonaro’s electoral victory completely changed this correlation of forces. Minister of Agriculture Tereza Cristina had been leader of the Agricultural Congressional Front (FPA), the institutional arm of the agribusiness caucus in Congress, with 32 senators and 225 federal deputies. In addition to Tereza Cristina, the FPA is represented at the head of two other Ministries (Luiz Henrique Mandetta, Health, and Osmar Terra, Citizenship, are members of the Front) and in other high-echelon positions. “This group has always acted with economic or political power inside Congress, and now it has been transferred into the Office of the President,” said Marcio Astrini, coordinator of public policies for Greenpeace Brazil. “It no longer negotiates with the government. It is the government.”
In late January, a committee from the FPA visited the Ministry of the Environment with a document listing several demands for Ricardo Salles. Organized in thirteen topics, the list of demands included flexibilization of licensing for agricultural and livestock projects, revision of environmental fines and protected areas, and restructuring of CONAMA, the National Council for the Environment, which includes representatives from government, companies, and NGOs and sets environmental standards for the market.
Salles visited the Amazon for the first time ever in February this year, after having received the agribusiness caucus in Brasília. His destination was the Utiariti Indigenous Land in Mato Grosso, where he inspected mechanized soybean crops cultivated by the Pareci Indians. The Minister posted a photo on social media in which he appeared in full indigenous headdress in front of a line of Parecis and extolled the Indians’ agricultural skills in the text accompanying the picture. He was also photographed onboard a huge harvester, next to Minister Tereza Cristina and Nabhan Garcia, Secretary of Land Affairs of the Ministry of Agriculture and former president of the Agricultural Democratic Union (UDR). The Minister praised the Parecis and said they are promoting a revolution in agriculture.
However, it was actually an illegal plantation. A law from 2007 bans the cultivation of transgenic crops, like the soybeans planted there, on indigenous lands. Due to these and other irregularities, last year IBAMA embargoed an area of 22 thousand hectares on that indigenous land and levied fines in excess of BRL 140 million (USD36 million), most of which against white renters of the fields.
When I asked Salles what had motivated the choice of the destination for his first visit to the Amazon, he replied that he had intended to verify whether the land embargo was valid, concluding that it was not. “The area had already been producing for years in those exacts terms, with the same farming practices, and suddenly the embargo came,” he said. “Nothing had changed to justify an embargo. The situation was already consolidated.” The Minister said nothing about the illegality of planting transgenic crops on indigenous lands. The embargo issued by IBAMA is still in force.
Climate change is a sensitive issue in the government of Jair Bolsonaro, who is the father of climate sceptics: his sons Carlos and Eduardo have already questioned the existence of global warming on social media. During the campaign, Bolsonaro threatened to remove Brazil from the Paris Agreement, following Donald Trump, with whom the Brazilian President is closely aligned. Pressured by agribusiness sectors who feared their exports would be jeopardized, Bolsonaro eventually reconsidered. On the other hand, his choice for Minister of Foreign Affairs was Ambassador Ernesto Araújo, for whom climate change (which he prefers to call “climatism”) is a leftist-inspired ideology.
Ricardo Salles considers global warming a secondary issue for his Ministry and has said that he will prioritize more tangible problems. “Just consider the poor Brazilian living in the neighborhood of ‘Tacopenoesgoto’ [‘Footsinthesewage’], who’s not worried about the latest meeting of the Climate Agreement in a five-star hotel in Hungary, or the latest dinner of environmentalists at the Plaza Athénée in Paris. He’s worried about the open-air sewage he has to trod through, or the diesel smoke from trucks he breathes through the nose at his bus stop,” said the Minister in an interview on the Jovem Pan radio station, two days before a rainstorm with landslides that killed seven people in Rio de Janeiro.
However, the Minister ignores the umbilical connection between global warming and urban environmental problems, according to attorney Fabio Feldmann, one of the environmentalists respected by Salles (as the Minister revealed during an interview on the Roda Viva TV program). As Feldmann told me, “It’s a mistake to care for the urban agenda and not care for the climate,” recalling that one of the main impacts of global warming is the change in the hydrological cycles, as seen in the heavy rains with casualties in Rio and São Paulo.
When I mentioned the criticisms, Salles said he agrees with Feldmann about the concern for preparing ourselves for the impacts of climate change. “The big difference is the way one prepares and the way one chooses the priorities for investment and action.” The Minister has launched programs to fight garbage in the ocean and to eliminate municipal garbage dumps. But the Ministry of the Environment has a lean budget that is divided mainly between IBAMA and ICMBio, and limited attributions for enforcing Salles’ agenda. In Brazil, the management of basic sanitation and garbage collection is up to the states and municipalities and other agencies in the federal administration.
“The Ministry of the Environment does not have a single cent to advance this agenda,” said Federal Deputy Rodrigo Agostinho of the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) in São Paulo and chairman of the Committee for Environment and Sustainable Development of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Brazilian Congress. “The Administration Is dismantling the structure for conservation of biodiversity, facilitating deforestation and oil prospecting in protected areas, while failing to invest in any kind of urban agenda.”
I asked Salles what points are within his administration’s reach on the urban environmental agenda. “It is not the Ministry’s role to execute sanitation projects, but to provide resources to point the way and identify opportunities to improve the environment and people’s quality of life,” he replied. “The Ministry of the Environment has never been a Ministry primarily for budgetary outlay, but for formulating public policies and fomenting discussions and positions by government.”
In early May, Salles was dealing with a crucial decision for air quality in large cities. CONAMA, the National Council for the Environment, was preparing to vote on emissions standards for new motorcycles. One point in the discussion was the durability of catalysts, which act as filters for these emissions. At the end of their lifespan, the equipment loses its filtering capacity and begins to pollute the air. For motorcycles that can travel up to 130 kilometers an hour (the main kind used in deliveries in cities), a manufacturers’ association requested that the lifespan of 35 thousand kilometers, originally proposed for the device, should be lowered to 20 thousand kilometers. They argued that the more durable catalysts would make their products more expensive and would threaten their competitiveness on the foreign market. The industry’s position was defended by Salles and other representatives of the Bolsonaro government in the Council (but not the Ministry of Health). With votes by the Ministry of the Environment and IBAMA, the resolution supported by Minister Salles carried the vote in CONAMA by one vote, 36 to 35.
I asked Salles if defending the more durable catalysts would not have been more consistent with his agenda of urban environmental quality. The Minister said it had not been his decision. “CONAMA felt that it was not a case of issuing a ruling that disregarded what the manufacturers thought was possible, since it had not been demonstrated that the 35 thousand-kilometer solution is feasible from the industrial point of view.” He also said that, one way or another, motorcycles used for deliveries and similar activities would tend to run up either 20 thousand or 35 thousand kilometers in no time. “That’s not going to make a difference.”
In late May, a presidential decree altered the composition of CONAMA as Salles had already suggested in previous public statements. The Council was downsized from a hundred to just 23 members. Civil society had its participation reduced, while the federal government gained more weight. The decree also removed from CONAMA the chamber that had served as the final word on environmental fines levied by IBAMA.
Jair Bolsonaro’s campaign promises featured the end of environmental fines, shrinking protected areas, and a crackdown on nongovernmental organizations. In his live broadcast on social media the night he won the first round of the elections, the candidate promised to “take government off the backs of those who produce” and “put an end to all the activisms in Brazil”. In the countryside, the speech was seen as a free rein for deforestation. In November, the month after Bolsonaro’s victory in the ballot boxes, deforestation in the Amazon increased by 406% compared to the same month the year before, according to calculations performed by the NGO IMAZON, the Amazon Institute of People and the Environment.
Environmental inspectors said their operations had encountered people that appeared to be acting under the certainty of impunity, as if environmental violations were no longer considered crimes. “You see my car?” a ranch owner asked an inspector from IBAMA, showing the pickup truck plastered with Bolsonaro stickers. The encounter took place in Poconé, in Mato Grosso, between the two rounds in the election. The rancher said to the inspector: “On January 1st I’ll be waiting for you and your crew, and this time I’ll have a gun. The farm is mine, and I cut down trees whenever I please.”
The threats against inspectors talked of cutting their hands off, burning their homes and cars, and killing their families. The memory of illegal miners torching IBAMA and ICMBio buildings in the Amazon countryside in 2017 haunts the career civil servants to this day. For some, it is only a matter of time until one of their coworkers succumbs to such violence. “They’re fueling a war in the countryside,” one inspector told me.
On April 6, officials from IBAMA, ICMBio, and the Environmental Police Battalion in Rondônia were deployed to investigate a complaint of illegal logging in the Jamari National Forest, a protected area in the north of the state. The team found a base camp used by the criminals and seized two tractors, two trucks, two chain saws, and an old rifle, in addition to 47 felled tree trunks. Four men were arrested in the act. According to an IBAMA inspector that participated in the operation, the men were felling trees in various areas of the National Forest, including areas under legal concession to a private company, Amata, that conducts logging with authorization by the Brazilian Forestry Service.
The detainees accepted the offer by the inspectors to allow them to drive the vehicles used in the environmental crime to the protected area’s headquarters. The trucks were in terrible condition, with no license plates or numbers on the chassis. It was night and pitch dark when, in the midst of this hapless journey through the forest, one of the dilapidated trucks broke down entirely. Given this unexpected turn of events, the officers decided to destroy it to avoid it from being used again in illegal logging, a solution authorized by a ruling from 2008. Fire is the inspectors’ method of choice in such situations. To burn the truck, they first emptied the fuel tank and soaked the tires and trailer with diesel to facilitate the combustion. Half and an hour and later, with the flames already under control, the group continued on its way.
They only reached the protected area’s headquarters the following morning. From there they continued on to the Regional Division of the Federal Police in Porto Velho, about 100 kilometers away, where the other four criminals were in custody. The inquiry by the Federal Police documenting the case includes fines of BRL 5,000 (USD 1,300) levied on each of the criminals. According to their testimony to the police, they were self-employed, working for local sawmills that paid BRL 500-1,800 (USD 130-470) per truckload of logs.
The police inquiry also registered death threats against the officer that headed the operation, overheard by the inspectors when they tuned to a two-way radio used by the criminals. “The people were all worked up, saying they had elected a government to eliminate IBAMA and that they were going to shoot the inspector,” the career civil servant told me.
Several days after the raid, Jair Bolsonaro, in a video recorded next to Senator Marcos Rogério (of the DEM party in Rondônia), disallowed the public employees that participated in the operation. In the video, the Senator says to the President that IBAMA has been burning trucks and tractors in Cujubim, where the Jamari National Forest is located, and Espigão d’Oeste. Bolsonaro then claims that the Minister of the Environment, Ricardo Salles, will be launching an administrative inquiry to determine what happened: “They’re not supposed to burn anything, no machines, no trucks, no tractors. That’s not the procedure. Those are not our instructions.”
Bolsonaro did not explain (and perhaps even he did not know) that he was supporting criminals who were acting against businesses that were legally exploring the forest’s resources. “The President empowers people that are working illegally and encourages acts of violence against public agencies that are fighting environmental crime,” an IBAMA inspector told me.
Rondônia is one of the states of Brazil most impacted by deforestation. It lost a third of its forest cover from 1985 to 2017, according to Mapbiomas, a platform produced by a network of NGOs, universities, and companies to describe the occupation of Brazil’s territory. As in the rest of the Amazon, the deforested area was occupied mainly by low-yield extensive cattle-raising. The pasture areas increased six-fold in three decades. The series of maps of the occupation show the cattle encroaching on the green area, which previously covered nearly 90% of the state’s territory. Only the protected areas like the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau Indigenous Land in the western part of the state and the adjoining national forests in the north, Jacundá and Jamari, remained relatively intact.
Created in 1984, the Jamari National Forest covers 222 thousand hectares in the municipalities of Itapuã do Oeste, Cujubim, and Candeias do Jamari. It was the first national forest offered up to private enterprise on a concession basis. Logging in the forest has already yielded BRL 14 million (USD 3.6 million) to the public coffers since it was implemented in 2010 (there are also concessions for mining, plant extraction, ecotourism, and recreational fishing).
Amata, one of the two companies operating in the Jamari National Forest, signed a 40-year contract for an area of 46 thousand hectares. The land is divided into 25 plots, and each year one of them is logged, so that the forest has time to regrow, and on the 26th year the cycle begins again. The company can log 22.5 cubic meters of timber per hectare, the equivalent of extracting three medium-sized trees from an area the size of a football field. Amata fells 3 to 3.5 thousand trees a year, as I heard via a videoconference with the forestry engineer Patrick Reydams, the company’s operations manager. Amata works in a segmented market of clients willing to pay the price of certified lumber and exports more than 90% of what it produces. During the harvest seasons it has up to 70 direct employees.
In recent years the Jamari National Forest has become the target of invasions for clandestine logging. The pressure is heaviest on the southern edge of the park, next to the town of Cujubim. That is where the Amata concession is located, and the company decided to concentrate its activities to the north in order to guarantee its employees’ physical integrity. “If the invasions don’t stop, it’ll be hard for us to complete the 25 cycles,” Reydams said.
Environmental inspectors were revolted by the video in which Bolsonaro disallowed burning the illegally used equipment. “A sawmill that steals timber and pays nothing to the government has an advantage over the legalized lumber companies,” said one of them in an audio message that circulated in WhatsApp groups. “IBAMA is not just defending nature, we’re defending appropriate and fair trade with Brazil’s assets.”
The preemptive destruction of equipment used in environmental crimes is the environmental inspectors’ prerogative. It is authorized if the equipment might otherwise be used again in environmental crimes or in case of a safety risk to the population and the inspectors. It is an extreme measure, only taken as a last resort by inspectors: only 2% of IBAMA’s operations involve the destruction of machinery. According to the Ministry of the Environment, in the last two years IBAMA issued just eleven orders to destroy or disable equipment used in environmental crimes. “This is one of the few reasonably effective mechanisms we have today to fight environmental crime in the country, because it involves an immediate economic loss for the offender,” said Federal Attorney Daniel Azeredo, who works in the environmental field.
I asked Ricardo Salles if he endorsed Jair Bolsonaro’s criticism of the burning of equipment in Rondônia. Salles replied that the President’s remarks were intended to contain excesses committed by a minority of IBAMA employees, and that he planned to improve IBAMA’s rules for destroying equipment. Asked whether the environmental agents had gone too far in the episode in the Jamari National Forest, Salles declined to comment before the case had been analyzed. I pointed out that the criminals’ activity had been harming a private logging company exploring a legal concession to a piece of the forest. “There is no doubt that any illegality has to be combatted. What we’re questioning is the extent of the sanctions,” said Salles. “The extreme position of destroying [equipment] can only happen in exceptional cases, and it has to be justified.”
In a note published on its website in late May, IBAMA announced that it was planning inspections on indigenous lands and protected areas in southwest Pará. The atypical gesture sparked ironic reactions on the internet: until then the agency had always kept the site of its operations a secret.
IBAMA follows an annual inspections plan approved the previous December, but it will have to make do with a 24% cut in its non-mandatory budget expenditures: Minister Ricardo Salles decided to concentrate in the agency the majority of the budget constraints imposed on his Ministry by the Ministry of the Economy. The squeeze will be felt in an institution that already suffers from a chronic shortage of personnel and with no prospects for new public admissions. Last year IBAMA had 780 inspectors, a 40% cutback from the workforce of 1,311 in 2010 according to the Ministry of the Environment’s own data.
According to attorney Suely Araújo, who headed IBAMA until January, in 2018 the agency conditionally allocated BRL 341 million (USD 89 million) in non-mandatory expenses, BRL 62 million (USD 16 million) more than the budget available for this year. “If the budget cut is confirmed and these funds aren’t released in the future, the situation is going to be really complicated in the second half of 2019,” she predicts.
According to statistics sent to piauí by the press office of the Ministry of the Environment, inspections fell by 39% in comparison to 2018: from January 1 to May 13 this year, there had been 3,314 inspections, compared to 5,466 in the same period last year. And the number of fines fell by 34% compared to 2018, considering the period from January 1 to May 15, the lowest rate for this period in the last eleven years, according to a survey by the Climate Observatory. The fines levied by ICMBio, which conducted zero inspections in April, fell by half in the same period.
From 2012 to 2018, IBAMA issued an average of 15.8 thousand notices of environmental violations per year, for a total of BRL 3.5 billion (USD 920 million) in fines, according to data tabulations on the agency’s website. More than half of the fines went unpaid, but the revenues actually paid represent only 2.1% of the total charged. This means that the lowest fines tend to be paid, while the highest ones are appealed or evaded. Only 2.9% of the fines levied during the period were actually canceled.
The fining process at IBAMA is slow in all its stages, starting with the initial proceedings: in one out of five fines, the offender had still not been notified, according to a report published in April by the Federal Comptroller’s Office. The main bottleneck is assessment of the fines: as of late 2017 there were 126 thousand cases under review that had been filed since 2008, mostly involving fines greater than BRL 100 thousand (USD 26 thousand), which can only be reviewed by management-level personnel.
A person who receives an environmental fine in Brazil has the right to appeal to the agency itself, and if the violation is upheld, he can challenge it in court. As of October 2019, the offender will also have the option of negotiating the fine with an environmental reconciliation body, according to an Executive Order issued this April 11, in the main move by the Bolsonaro government against the so-called “industry of fines”. Mirroring a similar mechanism implemented in São Paulo in 2014, the order provides for a reconciliation hearing – face-to-face or online – between the offender and this new body, which will include a staffer from the agency that issued the fine. At the end of the hearing, the body will have the power to reverse the violation if any irregularity is detected in the case proceedings.
Salles wagers on this measure as a way to streamline the fining process – In São Paulo, two-thirds of the 25 thousand reconciliation hearings held last year ended in signed agreements, according to a news story in Valor Econômico. Environmentalists and inspectors from IBAMA see the measure as a mechanism to undermine the notices of violations and encourage impunity. The Minister disagrees. “Reconciliation is easier when the fined party and the fining agency meet and present their, like the exhibits of both parties’ reasons and points of view,” he argued.
To head IBAMA, Salles named attorney Eduardo Bim, a prosecutor from the Federal Attorney General’s Office assigned to that environmental agency. In early April, Bim rejected the recommendation in a report by a technical team from IBAMA. The analysts proposed to exclude seven blocks from the 16th round of bids for offshore oil drilling on the southern coast of Bahia State. The analysts concluded that any oil spills could pollute the reefs at Abrolhos, the largest such formation in the South Atlantic. Bim ignored the warning and authorized letting the blocks go up for auction, in a heavily criticized ruling. “It is shocking that the Brazilian government would abdicate its own tools for managing risks to the environment, productive activities, and people’s lives,” stated a note of repudiation by the NGO Oceana.
I asked Salles if accepting the experts’ recommendation would not have been more in line with IBAMA’s mission. The Minister replied that the decision was not the same as releasing those areas for oil drilling, and that whoever eventually acquired the blocks would have to go through the licensing process.
It remains to be seen If anyone will be interested in the blocks. In a telephone conversation, Adriano Pires, an oil and gas consultant, said that the companies would take into account the risk of spills and international mobilization before participating in the auction. “To risk the stakes out there, you have to believe there really is a lot of oil.” Pires went on to say that the oil companies are worried about environmental damage. “I believe more in Exxon’s, Shell’s, or Total’s concern for the environment than I do in IBAMA’s.”
The Brazilian Constitution enacted in 1988 has an entire article dedicated to environmental protection, namely article 225. “Everyone has the right to an ecologically balanced environment, a common good of the people and essential for healthy quality of life, which implies the duty of government and the community to defend and preserve it for present and future generations,” says the Constitution. This principle is further elaborated in a series of the state’ duties which include protection of the flora and fauna and their diversity, creation of protected areas, and control of activities that can harm the environment. The environmental theme cuts across all chapters of Brazil’s 1988 Constitution. For example, article 170 defines defense of the environment as one of the economic order’s underlying principles. Consequently, economic activities, including agricultural and livestock projects, that threaten the environment are failing to fulfill their social role.
Although the Brazilian Constitution is considered robust in the environmental area, when it was drafted not everyone agreed that it should address the theme. “The conservatives thought that it was not appropriate to deal with the environment as a Constitutional issue, but with specific legislation,” I was told by Fabio Feldmann, who had been a member of the Constitutional Congress and one of the drafters of article 225. The former federal deputy recalled that the world has changed considerably since the Constitution was drafted. “In 1988 there were still no transgenics or words like biodiversity, and the main concern was pesticides,” said Feldmann, who considers the document “good enough”. “With all the polarization today, it would be very hard to pass it now.”
Feldmann, who served three terms as federal deputy and was Secretary of the Environment for the State of São Paulo, said that the 1988 Constitution benefited from the headwinds favoring the environmental cause at that historical moment. Scientists were beginning to warn politicians of the risks of global warming, and the world’s eyes were on the Amazon, where the INPE began to calculate the deforestation rate in 1988 (rubber-tapper and trade unionist Chico Mendes was assassinated in Acre in December that year). “That changed the issue’s level in the world and in Brazil,” Feldman said.
The world’s awakening to the problem had other spinoffs in Brazil. Four years after the Constitution was enacted, the country hosted Rio-92, the largest environmental summit ever held by the United Nations. The conference launched important conventions in which the countries committed to fight the threats of climate change, loss of biodiversity, and desertification. In the wake of the Constitution, Brazil enacted a series of laws on environmental crimes, water resources, protected areas, and related issues.
The official concern over the environment even predates the 1988 Constitution. Since 1973, Brazil had a special environmental division nested in the Ministry of the Interior (an exclusive ministry for the environment was only created in 1992, by the Itamar Franco government). The first head of the division was the attorney and naturalist Paulo Nogueira-Neto, a historic figure in Brazilian environmentalism, who occupied this position until the end of the military government and died in February 2019. Nogueira-Neto encouraged the creation of protected areas and organized for the law in 1981 that established the National Environment Policy.
Fabio Feldmann recalled that all of this was done under the military regime, when CONAMA was also created as the council with society’s participation that sets environmental standards. “It is utter nonsense to claim that the environment is a leftist thing,” said the former deputy, former affiliated with the MDB and PSDB and now a member of the Green Party (PV). Feldmann recalled that in the United States, the Republican Party, during the Nixon Administration from 1969 to 1974, played a key role in introducing environmental assessment, and that Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, was the first statesperson to understand climate changes, since she was a chemist by training. “Environmentalists need to attract to their front congressional people that are not on the left,” he stated. “The issue has to be nonpartisan.”
Some of the Bolsonaro government’s measures are subject to Congressional approval. Senator Fabiano Contarato of Espírito Santo, Chairman of the Senate Environmental Committee, nearly ran out of breath when listing all of the current government’s measures that he considered harmful to environmental equilibrium, during an interview in early May. “It’s such huge damage in so little time, and it scares me,” he told me. “My job is to resist and reject every bill that violates the fundamental right to the environment.”
The equivalent committee in the Chamber of Deputies is chaired by Rodrigo Agostinho of the PSB in São Paulo. “It is not natural for a Minister of the Environment to fail to defend the environment, especially in a country that has the world’s largest biological diversity and a major part of the world’s tropical forests and freshwater,” said the deputy. “Congress can give visibility for these issues, but I don’t think we’ll be successful on everything.”
Challenges to the Bolsonaro government’s measures in the environmental area have also come from the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, whose role is to protect citizens’ rights and oversee enforcement of the law. Members of the Prosecutor’s Office have already requested explanations on acts and declarations by Ricardo Salles, such as manifesting his intent to convert into environmental services the fines totaling BRL 250 million (USD 65 million) levied on Vale for the mining dam collapse in Brumadinho (the Minister ended up reconsidering).
Federal Prosecutor Daniel Azeredo, who works in the Chamber on the Environment and Cultural Heritage of the Attorney General’s Office, stated that after five months of the Bolsonaro administration, it is still too early to identify the environmental impact of the new government’s acts. Azeredo also recalled that it is important to distinguish between outright illegalities and legitimate acts by a democratically elected government with its agenda. “But the difference is not always very clear,” he said. “The Federal Prosecutor’s Office has a limit, which is the Constitution.”
At ABRAMPA, the association that published a letter denouncing the setbacks to environmental management in Brazil, the public prosecutors and attorneys are mobilized in a crisis committee, analyzing the effects of some of the government’s measures. It already has a list of priorities, a table with decrees, executive orders, and normative instructions to be impugned. “The prosecutors are prepared to confront the measures that threaten the environment in the states,” said the association’s president, Luis Fernando Cabral Barreto Junior, who works in the State Prosecutor’s Office in Maranhão.
During a conversation with Oscar Graça Couto, an attorney working with the environment in Rio de Janeiro, I asked if the Brazilian Constitution and legislation are resilient to measures that undermine environmental protection. Couto replied that the country has a rigorous legal system in environmental matters and that the higher courts have acted to benefit the environment, applying principles of prevention, precaution, and prohibition of setbacks, an interpretation of the Constitution that excludes any backstepping with previously guaranteed fundamental rights. Couto concluded his reasoning by saying that the set of environmental norms, as they have been interpreted by the country’s higher courts, are in fact resilient. “But that doesn’t mean that enormous damage will not be done.”
Brazil is a major-league player in global climate diplomacy, whose principal arena is the conferences that convene the nearly 200 signatories of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change late every year. The Brazilian negotiators get along well with their foreign counterparts and played an important role in crafting the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, the two main international treaties aimed at curbing global warming.
In January, Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs lost its Climate Change Division, and the theme disappeared from the Ministry’s structure, just as had occurred in the Ministry of the Environment. At Jair Bolsonaro’s request, Brazil would no longer host the Climate Change Conference this year, transferred to Santiago, Chile. It Is still not known what Brazil’s game plan is for the conference.
In the climate talks, it is not unusual for negotiators and cabinet ministers to work all through the night to unravel diplomatic knots between countries. The last conference was held in Katowice, Poland’s coalmining hub, during a severe winter, in a convention center that smelled of coal according to one participant in the Brazilian delegation. “This isn’t a clubhouse meeting, it’s the search for consensus among 195 countries, but it’s being treated [by Minister Ricardo Salles] as if it were a night out on a foreign town,” said Izabella Teixeira, who headed the Brazilian delegation at the conference where the Paris Agreement was signed. “This is an unprecedented affront to Brazilian diplomacy.”
At the rhetorical level, the Bolsonaro government tries to sell itself to the foreign public as a champion of conservation. President Bolsonaro emphasized his concern for the environment when addressing the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in his first international speech. “We are the country that most preserves the environment,” he declared. “No other country in the world has as many forests as we do.” He got his message wrong twice, repeating a common false claim used by agribusiness lobbyists that support his government: Russia is far and away the country with the largest forest cover, and Brazil is the country of the world that most deforests, besides ranking 69th in overall environmental performance according to a ranking made by two American universities. The next major multilateral commitment for Bolsonaro will be the G20 summit in Japan this month.
Brazil is vying for a seat in the OECD, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which convenes 36 of the countries with the world’s highest GDP. The OECD aims to promote progress and trade between countries, but it defends public policies that strengthen conservation. According to Izabella Teixeira, unfavorable environmental indicators can jeopardize Brazil’s candidacy. “If Brazil lacks structured public policies with transparency, verification, and compliance, it may face restrictions on its entry to the OECD.”
Brazil’s foreign trade partners, especially those that purchase commodities produced in the Amazon, are worried about avoiding what they have called “imported deforestation” and have increasingly demanded guarantees that the goods they buy are produced in compliance with environmentally respectful standards. One example is the New York Declaration on Forests, which was signed in 2014 and convenes dozens of governments, NGOs, indigenous peoples, and multinationals like Cargill, Danone, McDonald’s, and Nestlé in commitments to curb deforestation.
I spoke on Skype in mid-May with Nathalie Walker, director for tropical forests and agriculture of the National Wildlife Federation. This American conservationist NGO provides consultancy to international retail companies with policies to fight imported deforestation. “The companies want to buy more from Brazil, but governments and consumers have concerns about climate change and the environment,” she said. “Brazil is a lucky country and doesn’t have to choose between agriculture and the environment in order to be an agriculture powerhouse decades into the future.”
The financial market is also worried about the losses it may incur from global warming. In a recent article in a publication by the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank, a bank executive stated that extreme climate events could trigger a scenario of serial bankruptcies, disrupting the credit system and global trade, leading to an economic crisis. The risk, he concluded, poses a threat to the entire financial system.
“In the next ten years, banks and major financial institutions will have to begin to think about how climate change can affect their portfolios,” said Sérgio Rial, CEO of Banco Santander for South America. Rial stated that this demand is coming from the market itself. “Investors from the major European pension funds are already taking a much closer look at companies’ commitment to their sustainability agendas,” he continued. “This is no longer just a policy issue. It has become an issue for the companies’ own capital structure.” I asked Rial if it was in the Brazilian economy’s best interests to keep the Amazon standing. “It is absolutely strategic for Brazil to maintain and promote its biodiversity,” the banker replied, adding that it is not just in the Amazon Forest, but also in the Cerrado, in the Atlantic Forest, and in other biomes. “Brazil’s agricultural production has to continue to be done with the idea of preservation.”
Some sectors of Brazil’s agribusiness have gotten the message and are wagering on more sustainable production models, since they do not want to see their products associated with illegal deforestation. They were the ones that pressured Bolsonaro to maintain the Ministry of the Environment and remain in the Paris Agreement. “Sustainability is not a fad or passing idea. It’s an essential condition for global competitiveness,” said agronomist and farmer Roberto Rodrigues, who served as Minister of Agriculture under Lula.
In 2006, farmers, NGOs, and the government signed a moratorium on soybeans, committing not to plant the crop on deforested areas of the Amazon. The area planted to soybeans has quadrupled since then, but only 1.4% of the 2017-2018 crop occupied deforested areas: soybean’s expansion was mainly on previously cleared areas that were occupied by pastures. The statistics are from ABIOVE, the Brazilian Association of Vegetable Oil Industries, which represents the soybean oil industry .
In a telephone interview, ABIOVE president André Nassar said that the government has never been fully capable of fighting illegal deforestation, and that is why the farmers mobilized. “Agriculture had to establish the moratorium to guarantee that there would be no deforestation in the soybean chain.” Nassar said that his buyers want to know whether the soybeans come from deforested areas. “Illegal deforestation, failing to comply with the Forestry Code, is a problem for us.” He went on to say that the soybean industry is aligned with the climate agenda, but defends farmers’ financial compensation for the conservation. He considers the Paris Agreement positive for Brazil and does not see it as a threat to the country’s sovereignty. “It’s in our interest to comply with it.”
This discourse echoes with the thinking of Luiz Cornacchioni, director of the Brazilian Agribusiness Association and one of the leaders of the Brazil Coalition for Climate, Forests, and Agriculture, an organization with representatives of farmers, companies, NGOs, and academia. Cornacchioni said that farm production and conservation are mutually compatible. “You have technologies that allow doing this harmoniously,” he said. “You gain market presence with this, both abroad and here at home.” He went on to say that deforestation hurts the image of both the agricultural sector and the country. “Illegal deforestation is unthinkable. We should not even be talking about it.”
There are also voices in Brazilian cattle-raising that are aligned with environmental protection as provided in law. Cattle-raising plays a preponderant role in deforestation. Sixty percent of the deforested areas in the Amazon are covered with pastures, mostly for low-density livestock production: there are 0.9 head of cattle per hectare in the region, or fewer than one steer per football field.
Farmer Caio Penido, president of the Working Group on Sustainable Cattle-Raising, which includes cattle-raisers, suppliers, industry, and other stakeholders, said that Brazilian cattle-raisers want to reconcile production with conservation, but defends mechanisms for compensation of ranch owners committed to the environment. The Brazilian Forestry Code provides that farmers maintain the native vegetation on part of their property: this legal reserve is 35% of the area in the Cerrado and 80% in the Amazon. Penido argued that farmers have to shoulder the cost of maintaining these reserves, an expense that foreign competitors don’t have. “We need to turn this asset into wealth,” he contended. “If this is important for the world’s environmental balance, it needs to be assigned a value.”
Yet not all Brazilian farmers view the environmental issue from the same angle. At the other end of the spectrum, there are farmers supporting Bolsonaro who demand the end of protected areas, an overhaul of the Forestry Code, and the extinction of IBAMA and ICMBio. On an April afternoon, farmers from the state of Pará travelled to Brasília to present such demands in a closed meeting at the Ministry of Agriculture that included Minister Tereza Cristina, Nabhan Garcia, and IBAMA president Eduardo Bim, according to a news story by the Agência Pública de Jornalismo.
The government’s representatives claimed that many of those demands were outside President Bolsonaro’s jurisdiction, rather depending on Congress. The president of IBAMA, which some people at the event were calling the “Brazilian Institute of Armed Robbery” (a play on words with the agency’s acronym in Portuguese), reaffirmed the institute’s respect for farmers. “We’re trying to change a mindset that used to exist, that persecuted the people who produce in this country,” said Bim, quoted in the news story. He said later, “It takes time to change an agency’s culture, but we’re struggling for these changes to happen.”
I asked João Adrien Fernandes, special advisor to the Ministry of Agriculture on socioenvironmental matters, how it was possible reconcile the conflicting agricultural interests in the Ministry. Fernandes spoke mainly of the more progressive farming sector. “There is a class of farmers and organizations that realize the need to integrate production and conservation, especially through enforcement of the Forestry Code.” He also said that Minister Tereza Cristina was supported by this group and wants to work to make sustainability an asset for Brazil’s agribusiness. “It’ll be our competitive advantage.”
Contrary to trends in the Ministries of the Environment and Foreign Relations, global warming has gained importance in the flowchart of the Ministry of Agriculture, which created a specific division on climate change. “We view the climate issue as related mainly to the risks for crop and livestock production,” said Fernandes. The Ministry’s priorities include zoning measures and the incorporation of technologies that favor resilience and adaptation by farmers. The special advisor feels that the Paris Agreement can create competitive advantages for Brazil by stimulating intensive agriculture, with modern technologies and integration with cattle-raising. “If our agriculture adopts this, it’ll retain carbon and help meet the Paris targets,” he said.
On April 16, Senators Flavio Bolsonaro of the Liberal Social Party (PSL) in Rio de Janeiro and Marcio Bittar of the MDB in Acre submitted a bill that would eliminate the mandatory environmental reserve on farm properties, the section by which farmers are required to maintain a percentage of native vegetation on their farm properties, as stipulated by the Forestry Code. As grounds for the bill, the senators insisted on the unfounded argument that Brazil (the country of the world that deforested the most in 2018) is in their words “one of those that most preserves its vegetation”.
If the bill passes, overnight it would legalize the felling of 156 million hectares, the equivalent of six times the state of São Paulo. If this entire area is deforested, it will release the equivalent of nearly 65 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, an amount that Brazil would take 27 years to emit if the current conditions were maintained, according to calculations by forestry engineer Tasso Azevedo.
Brazil’s case highlights that there is no intrinsic contradiction between environmental conservation and production. Brazil is the country of the world with the second largest forest cover and the third largest area used in agriculture and livestock. During the years when deforestation was reduced, from 2004 to 2012, Brazil’s soybean crop and cattle herd both grew in the Amazon. In the municipalities (counties) targeted with priority measures in the government plan to curb deforestation, the number of head of cattle per hectare increased by up to 36%, as shown in a study published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics.
To eliminate the mandatory reserves on farms may be a shot in the foot for farmers themselves, as explained to me by biologist Braulio Ferreira de Souza Dias of the University of Brasília during an interview at a café in the national capital. In order to adapt to climate change, said the professor, the farm sector depends on water and genetic resources, pollinators that guarantee crop reproduction, worms to recycle soil nutrients, and biological control agents that fight pests. “If we destroy the environment, we’ll be left with none of these,” warned the biologist, who headed the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity until 2016. The brunt of the harm will be borne by farmers themselves and other taxpayers. “This reveals an inability to think in the long term.”
Dias stated that starting at a certain threshold of deforestation, the Amazon may lose the capacity to regenerate itself, running a serious risk of turning into a kind of savannah. Different computational models point to this scenario, but differ as to when the breaking point will come, which may be when the forest has lost 20% to 40% of its original cover (it has already lost 18%). “It’ll be bad for maintenance of the wealth of the Amazon Forest and terrible for agriculture in the Cerrado and in São Paulo,” according to the biologist. If the forest fails to regenerate, rainfall will decrease in the South. “More than 90% of the rain that maintains agriculture in the South of Brazil comes from the Amazon, from the rainforest’s evapotranspiration.”
The bill that aims to extinguish mandatory reserves on farm properties is now in its initial stage of review. The bill is a reincarnation of a proposal with the same intent that was submitted previously by Marcio Bittar, assigned to Senator Fabiano Contarato as rapporteur. Bittar withdrew his own bill and submitted the new version, coauthored with President Bolsonaro’s son. Roberto Rocha of the PSDB in Maranhão was assigned as the rapporteur for the new bill, which Contarato considered a “spurious maneuver” to remove him. Contarato will recommend that the bill be rejected by the Senate Committee for Constitution, Justice, and Citizenship. “The impacts of repealing the legal reserves are huge, irreparable, and unjustifiable,” he said.
The bill has not been the only attempt to alter parts of the Forestry Code. A series of amendments to Executive Order 867, issued by President Michel Temer last year, introduced measures that undermine environmental protection. The Executive Order initially proposed to extend the deadline for farmers to adhere to the program for environmental regularization, by which farm owners would recover areas that had been deforested beyond the limits allowed by the Forestry Code. But the draft bill received various add-ons with no relationship to the original subject matter. One of them proposed an amnesty for farmers who had deforested the mandatory reserve on their properties – they would be dispensed from recovering up to 5 million hectares, an area larger than Denmark, according to calculations by the Forestry Code Observatory. On May 29, the Chamber of Deputies passed Executive Order 867 with its add-ons, but as of this edition’s closing, the Senate had not voted on the measure, which would expire if it were not passed by June 3.
The Forestry Code was discussed for eleven years before it was approved and had its Constitutionality upheld by the Supreme Court. “This is nonsense,” bemoaned Luiz Cornacchioni of the Brazilian Coalition for Climate, Forests, and Agriculture when I mentioned the proposals to change the law. “It doesn’t make the slightest sense to contradict the Forestry Code.” Cornacchioni said that the law from 2012 is imperfect, but modern when compared to equivalent laws from other countries. He recalled that Brazil’s international commitments are based on the Code’s enforcement. “Changing the rules in the middle of the game sends a very bad signal to the market.”
The annual deforestation rate In the Amazon, to be published by the Ministry of the Environment in the second half of this year, will be the main indicator to verify whether or not the problem has become worse. Preliminary estimates indicate that the rate will increase: according to the IMAZON monitoring system, deforestation increased by 20% from August last year, the baseline for the calendar that calculates deforestation, and April this year, when compared to the period the year before.
Ricardo Salles is already blaming the previous Administration for any potential negative result. “Deforestation has increased uninterruptedly since 2012,” the Minister claimed, a falsehood that he reiterated even after I challenged it (despite the upward trend, the annual rate dropped twice since 2012 – in 2014 and again in 2017). “If there is any questioning to be done,” Salles continued, “it’s because despite the discussion others have raised on this issue, deforestation continues to increase.”
Since 2009, Brazil has had a National Policy on Climate Change written into law, by which the country commits to reduce, by 2020, the annual deforestation rate in the Amazon to 3,925 square kilometers, or half of the area felled between August 2017 and July 2018. There Is another target for ten years later: in the scope of the Paris Agreement, Brazil assumed the voluntary commitment to zero illegal deforestation by 2030, among other measures to curb global warming.
When I asked if Brazil would meet the target for next year, Minister Salles replied that it was not an “exact science”, and that he could not say whether the target would be met or not. As for the target of the Paris Agreement for 2030, Salles said that it was on track. “All the commitments Brazil assumed for climate change adaptation and mitigation have been maintained and are being met.”
In an article published in 2018 in Nature Climate Change, ten Brazilian researchers studied how the country’s future environmental public policies could affect its targets in the Paris Agreement. The researchers voiced projections for three scenarios in which the intensity of environmental governance varied. In the scenario with weak governance, the control of deforestation is interrupted, predatory agricultural and cattle-raising activities are encouraged, and loss of the forest returns to historical peaks.
Researcher Raoni Rajão, a professor of environmental management at UFMG and one of the study’s authors, said that the group had already noted a tendency toward gradual increase in deforestation due to the environmental setbacks in the Temer government. “But we now see the probable increase in deforestation as a consequence of explicit dismantlement of control policies, indicated by the scenario of weak governance in the study,” said Rajão. If this scenario is confirmed, he continued, we may reach a level of greenhouse gas emissions in which Brazil would have to purchase carbon credits from other countries – the bill for this could reach 5 trillion dollars by 2050 in the more pessimistic scenario, according to the researchers – otherwise the country would fail to meet its commitments and suffer trade retaliations as a result. “In both cases, we will be creating a major loss to the economy in exchange for deforestation in the name of low-yield cattle-raising,” said the researcher.