Meanwhile, according to data from the Ministry of Economic Affairs, more than nearly 700 civil servants in the environmental sector have been laid off or fired from their positions since 2018. Last year, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon reached a 15-year record high.
But last week, the far-right leader appeared to be making a change by signing an environmental decree imposing higher fines for deforestation, illegal logging, fires, fishing and hunting.
It also introduces higher fines for repeat offenders and changes the rules for “reconciliation” hearings between offenders and environmental authorities by putting a time limit on an offender’s ability to participate in the trial before proceeding with a judicial hearing.
The government celebrated the initiative in a statement, calling it “an important step in the environmental law”, which is “fundamental to ensure Brazil continues to deliver on the commitments made, both at home and abroad”.
But some experts view the move with skepticism — noting that these mainly procedural changes may be another way Bolsonaro can boast to the international community that he is taking positive steps ahead of his reelection campaign for the October 2022 presidential election.
Raoni Rajao, a professor of social studies at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, told CNN he believes the government is working to rebrand itself as environmentally friendly, despite its track record.
“While 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 area,” Rajao said.
Those who criticize Bolsonaro’s policies, he said, are seen as “unpatriotic” in the eyes of the government, which says “international criticism is (trying to) hinder the development of the country”.
Brazil’s Environment Ministry told CNN that the decree is “a normative improvement in the fight against illegal environmental activities.” It stressed that the decree significantly increases fines, defending hearings on environmental reconciliation as a tool to ensure “greater efficiency” in collecting them.
Since 2019, Bolsonaro has advocated the practice of conciliation hearings to speed up the fine process. Prior to the new decree, the environmental agency would have to wait to hear from the violator if they wanted a hearing to decide whether to take their case to court — or agree to simply pay the fine. That process can take months – or even longer – and created a huge backlog. Now offenders have been given a time limit of up to 20 days to decide, otherwise the legal proceedings will be conducted without the conciliation hearing.
But environmentalists say the option for reconciliation shouldn’t exist at all. Experts believe it was created by the Bolsonaro government to give the perpetrator a voice and delay the judicial process.
Raul Valle, director of WWF-Brazil’s Social and Environmental Justice program, said in a statement that the hearings achieved the opposite of their proposed goal — practically paralyzing the process instead. He pointed to the enormous backlog of cases caused by the reconciliation process.
“This only increases the sense of impunity in the Amazon, which in turn is an incentive for those who are deforesting,” he said.
From October 2019 to May 2021, according to a report by the Climate Policy Initiative and WWF, nearly all (98%) of the 1,154 environmental violation notifications filed by Brazilian environmental agencies in the Amazon region are being dealt with. federal government.
Meanwhile, an internal document from Ibama, the government’s environmental agency, obtained by data journalists from independent public data agency Fiquem Sabendo, shows that more than 37,000 unpaid environmental fines will expire by 2024, of which 5,000 will expire at the end of the year. this year.
“As time goes on, offenders find that the penalty risk is low and so it is worth continuing to use environmental resources without permission,” the Ibama document said.
And, in fact, fewer fines are being handed out overall, said Anne Aimes, scientific director of the Environmental Research Institute of the Amazon (IPAM).
From 2018 – the year Bolsonaro was elected – to 2021, the number of fines handed out by the Brazilian environmental agency Ibama fell by 40% – from 4,253 to 2,534.
“Maybe they are trying to show something abroad, but what we see on the ground is the opposite,” Aimes said of the decree. Bolsonaro is expected to meet with US President Joe Biden at this month’s Summit of Americas in Los Angeles for their first formal talks.
She added that the government needs to move in a different direction if it wants to take environmental crime seriously, calling the decree a “facade.”
“It is not enough to put a time limit on the reconciliation mechanism or heavier fines,” she said.
Instead, “an increase in command and control operations on the ground, reinforcement of environmental agencies and support of state agents” is needed.
While environmental agencies remain understaffed, there has been some positive progress in the sector since June last year, led by newly appointed Environment Minister Joaquim Leite, with environmental agencies slowly regaining their independence.
But Bolsonaro seems to be working against such initiatives, at least in his rhetoric among supporters.
Just a few months ago, at an agribusiness event in January, Bolsonaro criticized environmental fines — and even praised their reduction.
“We didn’t have any major issues with the environmental issue, especially regarding the fine(s). Should it exist? Yes. But we’ve talked and we’ve reduced fines in the field by more than 80%,” he said.