Bolsonaro weakens Brazil's environmental agency while fires increase

As the world sees how fires devastate the Amazon rainforest of Brazil, the government is weakening the agency responsible for protecting the tropical forest, according to interviews with ten employees and former workers, public records and a review of government reports.

President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro

President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro. / Via AP Photo

Reuters | Jake Spring y Stephen Eisenhammer

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Leer en español: Las incongruencias de Bolsonaro con la protección ambiental

President Jair Bolsonaro has not hidden his disdain for the public body, known as Ibama, which he has publicly criticized as an obstacle to the country's development.

Since taking office on January 1, Ibama's budget has been reduced by 25% as part of the entire government's belt adjustment, according to internal government data compiled by the PSOL opposition party and shared with Reuters. Among the cuts: funding for forest fire prevention and control was reduced by 23%.

Ibama's new leadership has also made it difficult for the agency to take strong measures against illegal logging, agriculture, and mining, which have destroyed nearly 12,000 square kilometers in the Amazon this year, all employees and former employees told Reuters.

For example, the ability of field agents to destroy heavy equipment at the scene of environmental crimes, an old tactic to curb land grabbers, said five people.

In addition, an elite body of Ibama forest police has not seen action in the Amazon this year, for the first time since the heavily armed and highly trained unit was created five years ago, according to four of the people familiar with the matter.

Also read: Why are the Amazon fires sparking a crisis for Brazil and the world?

Special agents have been largely limited to desk work, sources said, or were assigned field tasks away from hot spots in the rainforest.

The punishment of environmental criminals has dropped significantly during the Bolsonaro government. Until August 23, the number of Ibama's fines fell 29% compared to the same period last year, while the collective value of those sanctions dropped 43%, according to government statistics.

(Chart on environmental fines: https://tmsnrt.rs/2ZpzoeB)

Ibama employees sent a letter on August 26 to Eduardo Bim, president of the agency, expressing "our immense concern about how environmental policy is being carried out in Brazil."

The letter, which was accessed by Reuters and digitally signed by more than 400 employees on Wednesday, listed six changes that employees said they need Ibama and other environmental agencies, including new hires, enough money for compliance work and autonomy.

The Brazilian Ministry of Environment, which supervises Ibama, rejected repeated requests for comments on budget cuts and other changes in the agency.

A spokesman had told Reuters on August 14 that previous governments were to blame for Ibama's difficulties that, according to him, included poor quality equipment and poorly maintained field offices.

The spokesman said that Ibama remains an important actor in the government's plans to fight fires in the Amazon. The ministry has previously said that it takes its role in the protection of the rainforest seriously and that illegal deforestation is still treated as a criminal activity.

Bolsonaro's environmental policies have been subject to intense scrutiny in recent days, as images of fire in the Amazon have generated international outrage and concern over the consequences of global warming.

Environmentalists accuse that Brazilian farmers are intentionally lighting the edge of the jungle to expand their operations illegally, emboldened by Bolsonaro's pro-development and anti-regulation message. Reuters could not confirm the claims.

"Beyond inciting, he (Bolsonaro) has systematically dismantled all state bodies that enforce environmental protection," said Alfredo Sirkis, executive director of the Climate Center of Brazil and co-founder of the country's Green Party.

Read also: An island without fish? Cuba seeks to face problem with law overhaul

Bolsonaro Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, at a real estate event on Monday, said deforestation drivers, such as illegal mining, have existed for decades and did not start with the current government.

"Poverty is the big problem of the environment," said Salles, who did not respond to a request for comments from Reuters.

Ibama employs approximately 780 surveillance agents, one for every 11,000 square kilometers of the territory of Brazil that must be monitored, according to the figures. Almost a quarter of them can be taken to retirement at any time, according to the report.

Meanwhile, Brazil is losing the equivalent of a rainforest soccer field and a half every minute in the Amazon.

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