Meanwhile, more than nearly 700 civil servants working in the environment sector have been fired or dismissed since 2018, according to data from the Ministry of Economy. Last year, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon reached a 15-year high.
But last week the far-right leader appeared to backtrack by signing an environmental decree that sets higher fines for deforestation, illegal logging, burning, fishing and hunting.
It also introduces stiffer fines for repeat offenders and changes the rules for ‘reconciliation’ hearings between offenders and environmental agencies by placing a time limit on an offender’s ability to engage in the process before proceeding. at a court hearing.
The government celebrated the initiative in a statement, calling it an “important step in environmental legislation”, which is “fundamental to ensure that Brazil continues to meet the commitments made, internally and externally”. .
But some experts view the measure with skepticism – pointing out that these mostly procedural changes could be just another way for Bolsonaro to brag to the international community that he is taking positive steps, ahead of his re-election campaign for the October 2022 presidential election.
Raoni Rajao, a social studies professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, told CNN he thinks the government is trying to rebrand itself as green, despite its track record.
“Although even conservatives recognize that the environmental issue is important, the government manages to convince them (conservative voters) that Brazil is doing a great job in the region,” Rajao said.
Those who criticize Bolsonaro’s policies, he said, are seen as “unpatriotic” in the eyes of the government, which says “international criticism (tries) to hinder the development of the country”.
Brazil’s environment ministry told CNN the decree is “a normative improvement in the fight against illicit environmental activities.” He pointed out that the decree significantly increases fines and defended environmental reconciliation hearings as helping to ensure “more efficiency” in their collection.
Since 2019, Bolsonaro has advocated the practice of reconciliation hearings to speed up the beautiful process. Prior to the new executive order, the environmental agency had to wait to hear from the offender to find out if they wanted a hearing to decide whether to take the case to court – or just agree to pay the fine . This process could take months or even longer and create a massive backlog. Offenders now have up to 20 days to make a decision, failing which the legal proceedings will proceed without the reconciliation hearing.
But conservationists say the option of reconciliation should not exist at all. Experts believe it was created by the Bolsonaro government to give the offender a voice and slow down the legal process.
Raul Valle, director of WWF-Brazil’s social and environmental justice program, said in a statement that the hearings achieved the opposite of the proposed goal – and instead all but paralyzed the process. He noted the huge backlog of cases that the reconciliation process has created.
“This only increases the feeling of impunity in the Amazon, which, in turn, is an incentive for those who deforest,” he said.
From October 2019 to May 2021, almost all (98%) of the 1,154 environmental violation notices issued in the Amazon by Brazilian environmental agencies had not yet been resolved, according to a report by the Climate Policy Initiative and the WWF, citing data from the federal government.
Meanwhile, an internal document from Ibama, the government’s environment agency, obtained by data reporters from the independent public data agency Fiquem Sabendo, shows there are more than 37,000 fines for violations. outstanding environmental debts that expire by 2024, of which 5,000 are due to expire. by the end of the year.
“Over time, violators notice that the risk of punishment is low and therefore worthy of continuing to use environmental resources without permission,” the Ibama document states.
And, in fact, fewer fines are issued, said Anne Aimes, scientific director of the Institute for Environmental Research of the Amazon (IPAM).
From 2018 – the year Bolsonaro was elected – to 2021, the number of fines issued by Brazil’s environmental agency Ibama fell by 40% – from 4,253 to 2,534.
“Maybe they’re trying to show something overseas, but what we’re seeing on the pitch is the opposite,” Aimes said of the executive order. Bolsonaro is expected to meet US President Joe Biden at this month’s Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles for their first official talks.
She added that the government should take a different route if it wants to take environmental crime seriously, calling the decree a “window dressing”.
“It is not enough to set a time limit on the (re)conciliation mechanism or heavier fines,” she said.
Instead, “increased command and control operations on the ground, the strengthening of environmental agencies and the support of state agents” are needed.
While environmental agencies remain understaffed, there has been positive progress in the sector since last June, under new environment minister Joaquim Leite, with environmental agencies slowly regaining their independence.
But Bolsonaro appears to be working against such moves, at least in his rhetoric among supporters.
Just a few months ago, at an agribusiness event in January, Bolsonaro criticized environmental fines, even praising their reduction.
“We stopped having big problems with the environmental issue, especially concerning the fine(s). Does that have to exist? Yes. But we discussed and we reduced the fines on the ground by more than 80%,” he said.