Bolsonaro: Dismantling Environmental Protections Since January 1

“When it comes to environmental pollution, it’s just to poop every other day, which will make our lives that much better,” Brazil’s president said after a reporter asked how the country could grow economically while preserving the environment. Ludicrous statements such as this one have given the president a reputation as hostile to environmental considerations, especially after the fires in the Amazon forest became a prime story in international news last month. The hostility, however, is not just talk.

On January 2, one day after Jair Messias Bolsonaro took office as President of the Republic, the new administration published a series of decrees that made its intentions clear regarding land and environmental policy. The decrees transferred the power to demarcate indigenous territory from the National Indian Foundation (Funai) to the Ministry of Agriculture. The latter also received the Brazilian Forest Service from the Ministry of the Environment, which — in addition to forestry and restoring vegetation­­ — is tasked with managing the Rural Environmental Registry (CAR). CAR is a digital registry to which all rural properties must be reported by its owners, its purpose being to facilitate regularization of these properties in accordance with environmental laws and land regulations.

The Secretariat of Climate Change and Forests, a department under the Ministry of the Environment, changed its name to be “of Forests and Sustainable Development” — a move seen by some as reflecting Bolsonaro’s ambiguous position on climate change (a phenomenon his sons openly question). Any mention of deforestation was removed from the ministry’s portfolio. Its head, Ricardo Salles, defended the changes by saying that they would provide more efficiency.

Ricardo Salles

Ricardo Salles, Bolsonaro’s Minister of the Environment, was previously state secretary of the environment under São Paulo’s former governor, Geraldo Alckmin, who resigned to run for president in the 2018 election.

Salles was condemned in December last year for administrative misconduct, having put pressure on staff to circumvent legal procedures and modify maps of protected areas in favor of businesses wanting to exploit the land. He was sentenced to a fine and suspension from public office for three years but remains in government pending appeal. Salles defended himself by arguing that environmental policy should be formulated with “ideological detachment.”

The minister’s party, Novo, excluded him in August after the Amazon fires became an international crisis. Novo motivated the exclusion by referring to Salles’s “divergent conducts” in regard to the party’s environmental program, citing examples such as “scorning scientific data” and “firing qualified professionals.”

Little more than a week after the Bolsonaro government was instated, the Special Secretary of Land Affairs, acting under the Ministry of Agriculture, said that a “wide survey” was needed “to see the real situation of land regularization.” Speaking to the newspaper Estado de S. Paulo, Luiz Antonio Nabhan Garcia claimed that there were “irregularities” in many of the organs tasked with regulating land rights and that during past years these organs had been steered by political ideology. “The political and ideological contamination is complete,” he said, emphasizing that everything had to be analyzed “without the interference of NGOs.”

Six days later, Ricardo Salles suspended all of his ministry’s NGO contracts––including those of its administrative arms Ibama (Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources) and ICMbio (the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation), both tasked with safeguarding protected land and its environment. The ministry would go through all the contracts, Salles explained, and maintain those that were “correct” — implying without evidence that some contracts had circumvented proper procedure. The suspension would last 90 days.

Some of Brazil’s foremost environmental organizations released a joint message clarifying that, according to law, contracts can only be suspended after an administrative process has been opened where the party accused has the full right to defend itself.

Ibama and ICMbio

On January 7, the then president of Ibama, Suely Araújo, asked to be dismissed after both President Bolsonaro and Ricardo Salles had questioned on Twitter a contract for acquiring vehicles, to the cost of BRL 28.7 million (almost USD 7 million), with Bolsonaro calling it “irregular.” The organ declared in a message that the accusation attested to “a complete ignorance” of its “magnitude and its functions.” The message explained that the contract provided 393 trucks — adjusted to surveillance, intelligence, and enforcement activities, in addition to combatting forest fires and other environmental emergencies — to cover the whole country (the world’s fifth largest). Bolsonaro deleted his message shortly after having published it, while the Minister of the Environment said that he had simply highlighted “the high price.”

The following month, Ricardo Salles dismissed the Ibama superintendents of 20 states and the Federal District (Brasília), leaving only six states with their leadership intact. It was the largest collective dismissal in 30 years. One month later, the head of Ibama’s Air Operations Center was discharged, the only one of his rank to be so. He had fined Bolsonaro BRL 12,000 (about USD 3,000) in 2012 when the then-deputy had been caught fishing illegally in a protected area.

On May 25, Ibama released a statement informing about upcoming surveillance and enforcement operations against illegal deforestation and mining, effectively giving heads-up to those involved in such activity in these areas. Until Bolsonaro came to power, information of this kind was kept under wraps.

In early July, Ibama agents were attacked during an operation against illegal loggers on indigenous land in the state of Rondônia. The loggers had cut down trees to block the road for oncoming vehicles and the Ibama agents could not receive aerial support. The agents had to abort the operation and retreat under the threat of being injured. Close to where this encounter took place, an Ibama truck with helicopter fuel was set on fire the day before. As late as last year, unsafe operations of this kind were carried out by Ibama’s elite unit instead of regular agents.

Two weeks after the confrontation, Folha de S.Paulo reported that Minister Salles had arrived in the region. He was applauded by loggers as he directed himself to what he called “the good people that work in this country and that are here represented by you.” The plight of the loggers — that logging on protected land is illegal — was “unfortunately,” according to the minister, “the result of years and years and years of public policy producing laws, rules and regulations that are not always related to the real world.”

According to the newspaper, Ibama servants saw this as the defining “big moment” of the organization’s future course under the current presidency. The next month, the newspaper reported that Ibama’s surveillance and enforcement operations had fallen by 58% nationally between January and April compared with the year before. In the Amazon, they had fallen with 70%. Environmental fines had been reduced by 23%.

On April 13, Ricardo Salles opened an administrative process against public servants at ICMBio in which he alleged that they had not shown up at a meeting, attended by agribusinesses and farmers, where Salles had spoken. Speaking to Estado de S. Paulo under anonymity, the servants said that they had never been invited to the event. The head of ICMBio, who had attended the event with Salles, asked to resign shortly thereafter for “personal reasons.”

Several federal employees in the environmental sector released a letter two days later condemning Salles for his “declarations and postures” against environmental protection policies and the public servants carrying them out. Among some of the examples given of Salles’s confrontational style was a post on social media where he wrote that he would reinforce ICMbio with “serious and competent” people, implying that current employees lacked these qualities.

Pesticides and deforestation

The Ministry of Agriculture announced at the end of June that it would legalize 42 new pesticides, increasing the total amount of pesticides legalized under Bolsonaro to 239. According to Greenpeace at the time, the pesticides constituted either new combinations of old formulas that had not yet been tested or prohibited products allowed to re-enter the market under new names. One product was completely new and had still not been tested in Europe, while an estimated 30% of the other pesticides were prohibited within the European Union.

The National Institute for Space Research (INPE) reported on July 1 that deforestation in the Amazon during June had increased by 60% compared with the same month last year. The numbers had looked about the same as in 2018 until April, when they began to rise radically. The publication of those numbers irritated President Bolsonaro, who fired the institute’s director, Ricardo Galvão, one month later. Bolsonaro had publicly aired the suspicion that Galvão could be “at the service of some NGO” after INPE released the data. He motivated Galvão’s firing by saying that “there was no longer a climate [for the director] to continue, even if he could have proven that the data was even correct.”

On August 6, INPE reported that deforestation in the Amazon in July had increased by 278% in comparison with the same month the year before. Two weeks later, Brazilian skies turned black by smoke from a burning Amazon forest and Bolsonaro accused, without evidence, environmental NGOs of having started the fires in revenge for withheld resources.

The Amazon soon thereafter became a hot topic in international news and was introduced into the G7 meeting with little prior notice — a rare occurrence for a gathering where the agenda is usually set months in advance. Facing both international and domestic pressure, Bolsonaro eventually made a televised statement where he expressed concern for the Amazon and announced that he would dispatch the military to take care of the situation.

The military and “anti-globalist” factions within the government, as well as Bolsonaro himself, expressed distrust toward foreign countries wanting to “meddle” in Brazilian affairs. The generals in the government argued that it violated Brazil’s sovereignty, while Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo described the “environmental crisis” as a leftist plot. The domestic pressure to ease international concerns came from agribusinesses who feared reduced exports in case their image was tarnished.

On the campaign trail, Bolsonaro said he would fuse the Ministry of the Environment into the Ministry of Agriculture — an announcement that provoked an outcry among environmental groups. He reneged on this promise once in power, again due to agribusiness pressure, and the Ministry of the Environment remained.

Ironically, it seems as if the sole party within Bolsonaro’s government concerned with adhering to international climate commitments is the very agricultural lobby that initially was seen as, perhaps, the principal threat to the environmentalist agenda. Judging from Ricardo Salles’s actions so far, it does not seem as if the Minister of the Environment shares those concerns.

Bolsonaro, the EU-Mercosul Trade Agreement, and the Environment

Many São Paulo residents took fright on the afternoon of August 15 when, suddenly, the sky turned completely dark. “Day turns night,” headlines went. A cold front combined with smoke from burning forests in Brazil’s Amazon region had caused the unnerving effect.

The burning of the forest soon became international news and an international concern when images of the extensive fires reached television screens. Brazil’s president claimed that NGOs had started the fires because resources meant for environmental protection had been withdrawn. He was quickly condemned and ridiculed by media outlets as he had no proof to back up his claim. Federal prosecutors said that the main cause of the fires and the recent rise in deforestation is illegal stockbreeding.

President Macron of France threatened to block the EU-Mercosul trade agreement if the Brazilian government did not take measures to stop the burning and halt deforestation. His position, expressed right before the G7 summit, ultimately weakened when other EU countries, including Germany, distanced themselves from the move and took the view that the trade agreement and the Amazon question should be treated as separate discussions.

Bolsonaro nevertheless made a statement where he affirmed that “the protection of the forest is our duty” and that the government is “acting to combat illegal deforestation and any other criminal activities.” The statement came after pressure from the agribusiness lobby and its fear that exports of agricultural products might take a hit.

Bolsonaro responded to the criticisms from world leaders by saying that they challenged Brazil’s sovereignty and that discussing the Amazon question at the G7 meeting without the countries immediately concerned, on whose territory the forest is located, showed a “colonial mentality”––a point that was somewhat lost among less mature remarks.

The diminishment of Macron’s threat to vote against the EU-Mercosul agreement does not mean that Brazil is free of environmental responsibility. The trade agreement includes a chapter on sustainable development where the EU and the South American trade bloc commit to implementing the Paris Agreement.

Bolsonaro promised to withdraw from the Paris Agreement during his presidential campaign but refrained from doing so once elected after appeals from agribusiness interests. He has nevertheless described the agreement as an infringement on Brazil’s sovereignty.

The trade agreement between the EU and Mercosul, however, is important to President Bolsonaro’s political agenda as it is a key victory in his promise to liberalize the Brazilian economy and distance his politics from those of former governments. Bolsonaro sees the Amazon and other large forests important to the ecosystem––such the Cerrado and Mata Atlântica––as land ripe for exploitation, wanting to significantly reduce the areas set aside for reservations. But if his priority is indeed international trade, he will most likely have to compromise on that aspiration.

The Paris Agreement lets each signatory country determine its own emission targets, a so-called Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), which contradicts Bolsonaro’s argument that the agreement undermines Brazilian sovereignty. Brazil’s NDC cites as its first step “to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 37% below 2005 levels in 2025.” Brazil, like so many other countries, has not presented a formal plan to achieve this goal. It has, however, almost reached this goal in the past.

Carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions went down 42% between 2005 and 2009, but the NDC uses a more comprehensive metric called Global Warming Potential (GWP). Emissions lowered 33.7% measured this way, which is not far from the goalpost. Decreased deforestation accounted for the majority of this reduction. Some important measures that helped reach those results were clear territorial delimitations so that intrusions were easy to spot, tougher monitoring with appropriate equipment, and an increased priority given to prosecution cases involving land intrusion and related illegal activity.

Brazil’s total emissions from 2005 to 2010. Source: SEEG.

Production did not decrease despite reduced access to land. “Instead of expansion in new areas, we are looking at how to produce more in the same areas,” the president of the Brazilian Rural Society, a lobbying organization, was quoted as saying in a 2014 National Geographic article. The article noted that land output had increased in the preceding years.

Emmanuel Macron, in addition to threatening the EU-Mercosul trade agreement, said that the internationalization of the Amazon is open for debate. The Brazilian government’s spokesperson responded that “Brazilian sovereignty is not under discussion.” The French president’s comment was seen as a direct challenge by the Brazilian government, while Macron has been frustrated by the insults of a president he perceives as not up to the job.

The government also questioned the interests of the G7 countries in offering USD 20 million to help combat Amazon fires, suggesting that there were hidden motives behind the initiative. Bolsonaro conditioned accepting the money on Macron retracting a statement he had made a few days earlier, that Bolsonaro had lied to him about respecting the Paris Agreement during the EU-Mercosul trade negotiations.

The spat between Bolsonaro and Macron is the loudest, but the relative silence of the other parties to the EU-Mercosul agreement does not mean that they are not listening or that they do not care. The climate has quickly become one of the most urgent questions on the international agenda and Brazil’s actions will not go unnoticed. If Bolsonaro is serious about the trade agreement he will have to commit to the environmental goals his country has set out. The good thing is that if he does, there is a clear path already laid out for him.