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Concentration of power on the military undermines policies for the Amazon, opens way for more deforestation and fires

Gradual dismantling of state policies, with dismissal of experienced technicians and lower transparency, encourages actions by sectors that keep devastating the forest illegally and expect pardon and profits

Environmental inspection teams in the Amazon have decades of experience, which helped to reduce deforested and burned areas from 2005 to 2015. Now they are being supplanted, as technicians and public servants are replaced – along with all their knowledge – by a military command concentrated in the Ministry of Defense, often without any expertise in environmental inspection or the biome. This process has created obstacles for agencies such as Ibama and ICMBio, undermining state environmental policies and aggravating the cycle of deforestation and burnings in the Amazon rainforest.

Satellite alerts showed an increase of 34.5% of area of deforestation in Brazilian Amazon during last year (from August of 2019 to July of 2020), compared to the year before (August of 2018 to July 2019). The extension of loss reached 9.204,58 km² vis-á-vis 6.843,91 km², according National Institution of Space Research (INPE)´s Real Time Deforestation Detection (DETER) system. 

Under strong criticism, decision power about the so-called ‘command and control’ operations and actions in the Amazon was regulated in May by a decree on Guarantee of Law and Order (GLO), authorizing the use of the Armed Forces in Operation Green Brazil 2. A paragraph was added to a similar GLO decree from 2019, establishing that federal environmental agencies “will be coordinated” by military commands reporting to the Ministry of Defense, in charge of “allocating available resources.”

“GLO is often presented as an environmental protection action, but it means even more humiliation to the Ministry of the Environment/Ibama, which, despite their experience, now have to follow orders from the military,” says researcher Antonio Oviedo from Instituto Socioambiental (ISA). In the state of Mato Grosso, Oviedo says, Ibama issued deforestation alerts in areas that were ignored by Operation Green Brazil 2, whose outdated, ineffective, and expensive strategies were criticized. “This shows their mistake. Agencies such as Ibama and ICMBio (Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation) – however limited their actions may be – work with information and planning using monitoring systems and territorial management teams.”

Since May, Brazil’s Armed Forces have been in charge of Operation Green Brazil 2, which runs ‘command and control’ actions in the Amazon and has been criticized for using ineffective and costly strategies (Photo: Brazilian Army)

Brazil’s Vice President Hamilton Mourão is the head of the National Council for the Legal Amazon. He minimized the importance of this accumulation of power, saying that the Armed Forces just provide logistical and security support to inspections because the relevant agencies “have lost their operational capacity.” To Repórter Brasil, the Ministry of Defense informed that “all actions are decided by the Integrated Group for Protection of the Amazon (Gipam),” which gathers public security bodies and environmental agencies such as Ibama, ICMBio, National Institute for Space Research (Inpe), and the Brazilian Forest Service (SFB) – the latter has been transferred from the Ministry of the Environment to the Minister of Agriculture early in this administration.

A matter of concern is that, in addition to military intervention in leadership positions, the very ‘representation’ of federal environmental agencies in Gipam ends up being harmed and questioned. The current supervisors who seat in Ibama’s Environmental Protection Board have no expertise in the area. Officials speaking for Ibama and the Ministry of Defense – which communicates the government’s views on the subject, did not tell Repórter Brasil who represents the agencies in Gipam.

Former Ibama president Suely Araújo points out that several ministries are needed in the fight against deforestation. That had been the prevention and control policy for the region since 2004. She says that the agency’s role in defining priority areas also included Inpe, the Amazon Protection System’s (Censipam) Management and Operational Center, and the Brazilian Intelligence System (Sisbin). “In practice, the coordinating role played by the Ministry of the Environment in environmental inspection has been gradually deflated.”

“Banks look at Ibama’s list to provide rural credit. They may be providing loans to those who should not be receiving it,” says former Ibama president Suely Araújo

She also criticizes one-off inspections involving large staff, since violations are resumed as soon as they leave the sites. “With or without military support, inspectors have to go to the right places where they will solve the problems: these environmental violations are usually connected. It involves land grabbing, and its money fuels illegal mining, illegal deforestation: it’s all connected and must be solved together.”

In July, almost a year after the agency’s inspectors sent an open letter to Ibama saying they were “highly concerned about the way environmental policy is being conducted in Brazil” and presenting proposals, they released a new document stressing how serious the situation has become and warning about the “collapse of federal environmental management.” Two days after the document was publicized, the agency’s president, Eduardo Bin, dismissed two experienced employees who headed the Coordination of Inspection Control and Logistics and the Air Operations Center, and replaced them with an unexperienced public servant and a Navy officer.

Problems with fines and lack of transparency

Experts criticize the lack of experience of government environmental agencies’ new supervisors in combating deforestation, as is the case with the head of Ibama’s Environmental Protection Board (Photo: Felipe Werneck/Ibama)

Environmental policies have also suffered other restrictions besides the conflict between military views and the less hierarchical and more specialized environment of civilian-based public management. Flows and procedures related to environmental fines are being limited and inspections became less transparent, with restricted contacts and relations with the press.

In January, Joint Normative Instruction 2/2020 created conciliation hearings to be held after notices of violation are issued. Although Ibama has not confirmed the number of hearings held since then – which were affected and aggravated by failures in the integration of electronic systems – they are estimated to be quite low. As for disclosure of interdicted areas, files available on Ibama’s Open Data Portal point to 400 new entries from early January to July 15, 2020 (including some that appear on internal lists but are no longer in the consultation system). Between 2012 and 2018, 16,000 fines were imposed per year on average. Even though they dropped to 9.700 in 2019, with a lower number of operations as well, the number of new entries raises red flags.

“It’s important to note that the current government promotes the idea that deforestation has always been out of control. And that’s a lie,” researcher José Augusto Pádua says.

“Delays in updating information on interdictions have practical consequences. Banks all over Brazil look at Ibama’s list to provide rural credit. They may be providing loans to those who should not be receiving it,” says Suely Araújo, who is now a member of Observatório do Clima’s Board. From mid-May to mid-July, military personnel working in Operation Green Brazil 2 claim to have carried out more than 14,000 inspections with over 1,200 notices of violation, resulting in BRL 407 million in fines. Depending on the pace of conciliation hearings and updates on the interdiction list (Ibama would not comment on it), it will take a long time before these notices of violation can be specified and publicized.

In March, Ibama set new restrictions to contacts between the agency’s staff and journalists. “The relationship with the press has changed completely. Ibama used to disclosure environmental crimes to the press, which helped to prevent other crimes,” Araújo says. “Today, the press does not follow inspections or receive details of reports on these operations”. Under the protection of anonymity, Ibama´s agents reported to El País that illegal mining activities, considered priorities by environmental agencies’ experts, were excluded from the operations of Green Brazil 2 by the military command.

‘Total freedom’

“Throughout history, [farmers involved in environmental violations] have been pardoned by political decisions, showing that ignoring or failing to comply with past environmental regulations ‘pays off,’” says Alex Marega, deputy secretary of the Mato Grosso State Environment Department, on the pardon of environmental violations committed until 2008 by the 2012 flexibilization of Brazil’s Forest Code. “People think: ‘I’ve got to do it now because if there’s pardon in the future, I’ll have already guaranteed my share.’”

For Ibama’s former president, the agency’s problems started worsening during Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign, whose tone was contrary to environmental inspection (Photo: Brazilian Army)

According to him, the sense of impunity is the main explanation for the recent increase in Amazon deforestation. “Many producers think they will not be caught or even if they are [caught by environmental inspections], it will be worth it,” he points out. “With the increase in the BRL-USD exchange rate [in addition to very high prices of commodities like soybeans], they realize that since their products are exported, they will be able to cover all these costs even if they have to pay fines and legal costs.”

Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) Professor José Augusto Pádua, who researches environmental history, points out that these agents of Amazon deforestation do not keep fixed roles in society. A logger opens roads and later he may decide to use the logging areas for cattle ‘farms,’ or he may invest in mining. That is, they are not land grabbers with roles that are fixed all the time. “They move according to the context. They are always there, but the rhythm and boldness of their actions depend on the political messages they get.”

“GLO is often presented as an environmental protection action, but it means even more humiliation to the Ministry of the Environment/Ibama, which, despite their experience, now have to follow orders from the military,” says ISA researcher Antonio Oviedo.

When deforestation dropped substantially in 2005-2015, they remained there but invested in businesses such as gas stations and other enterprises and services. “When they see an opening, they jump at it. It’s important to note that the current government promotes the idea that deforestation has always been out of control. And that’s a lie,” Pádua adds. He considers the federal administration of President Bolsonaro as “directly responsible for the setback”; it has brought back Brazil’s “image as the environmental bad guy” due to uncontrolled deforestation and burnings in the Amazon last year and this year.

That is why the messages are essential. “And the messages sent in the beginning of the Bolsonaro government were terrible: the President said he would no longer demarcate any indigenous land and he criticized Conservation Units. There was this backwards discourse on ‘total freedom,’ a return to that view that conservation is development’s enemy,” he says. According to him, Bolsonaro’s mindset is similar to that of illegal miners who see the forest as “worthless, as an obstacle to what really matters, which is economic gain.”

Chart adapted from The rotten apples of Brazil’s agribusiness shows the relationship between high deforestation and reduction in the number of fines imposed by Ibama

Suely Araújo had already noticed the changes in the second half of 2018, when she was still Ibama’s head: increasing number of deforestation alerts issued in the Amazon and growing hostility against field inspectors. The reason, she said, was the presidential race. “The Bolsonaro’s campaign spoke against environmental control. Environmental sanctions were presented as part of an ‘industry of fines,’ as if inspectors were doing something wrong. More serious than that: violators were told that ‘anything goes,’ increasing the number of illegal acts.”

Oviedo, from ISA, recalls that in 2019, the previous GLO decree together with a 60-day fire moratorium contributed to the fight against forest fires but had virtually no impact on deforestation rates. “Along with all the forest cut down in 2020, there is an enormous amount of dry biomass ready to be burned during the fire season in the Amazon this year,” he says. Considering the aggravating factor of Covid-19, which also affects respiratory health, the researcher points out that two critical peaks may coincide – fires and viral infections – which may culminate in new collapses in the health system, with fewer hospital beds and health professionals available and increased mortality during the annual fire season in the Amazon Forest (August-October). A technical note published in June by the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) estimates that, if the current drivers of deforestation persist, about 9,000 km² of deforested areas may turn to ash. IPAM calculations made in the towns most affected by burning in the Amazon showed that the air pollution increased by 53% on average.

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