Armed officers in charge of defending Amazon from loggers ‘taken off job by Bolsonaro government’

Authorities transferring on-the-ground employees out of federal protection offices in Amazonas

Phoebe Weston
Science Correspondent
Tuesday 17 September 2019 16:38
According to official documents the government has started transfering all employees out of three of Amazonas state's four federal environmental protection offices (file photo)
According to official documents the government has started transfering all employees out of three of Amazonas state's four federal environmental protection offices (file photo)

The Brazilian government has begun legal procedures to remove environment protection employees who work on the ground to defend the Amazon rainforest from deforestation, land grabbing and illegal fires, official documents have revealed.

Environment guardians working in the vast state of Amazonas plunge deep into the jungle on helicopters or boats, wearing bulletproof vests and carrying arms to confront illegal loggers or ranchers. This state has been among the hardest hit by wildfires, with more than 6,000 blazes recorded in August – 2.5 times higher than it was in August last year.

However, environmental protections are set to weaken.

According to official documents seen by The Associated Press, the government has started transferring all employees out of three of the state’s four federal environmental protection offices.

This move is part of a broader erosion of the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, known by its Portuguese initials as Ibama.

Its operations have declined sharply since the start of this year and the agency’s funding for discretionary spending and enforcement operations this year faces a 24 per cent cut, a significant blow to what two experts described as an already small budget.

The sharp increase in fires this year has roused global concern because the Amazon rainforest acts as a bulwark against climate change. Its lush vegetation absorbs heat-trapping carbon dioxide and the moisture given off by its trees affects rainfall patterns and climate across South America and beyond.

The budget decrease came as part of a wider austerity push by President Jair Bolsonaro, who took office on 1 January and is seeking to rein in spending by Brazil’s financially strapped government. But critics note that he has also complained that environmental regulations hinder development in the Amazon.

Ibama staffers say the regional offices are critical to their jobs, giving them closer knowledge of problem areas and faster response times in the country’s most extensive state, which is larger than Texas, California and Montana combined.

Bolsonaro told reporters he would attend the upcoming UN General Assembly in September to deliver a speech expected to focus on the Amazon, which he says was “ignored” by previous administrations.

His administration argues that the lack of economic opportunities and cumbersome red tape in the Amazon region contributes to rampant illegal deforestation. It says the region can be protected while allowing far more development than conservationists believe is safe.

Bolsonaro has sent troops to aid in fighting the blazes and banned fires to clear land in the Amazon for 60 days.

But the president has fiercely resisted efforts to treat the Amazon as a global issue, notably clashing with French President Emmanuel Macron, who told his Brazilian counterpart during the peak of the fires: “We cannot allow you to destroy everything.”

Bolsonaro has also accused non-governmental groups of inefficiency and trying to stifle Brazil’s economy by preventing development in the region.

The president also is no fan of Ibama and its enforcement actions, complaining that an “industry of fines” has slowed economic development in Latin America’s largest nation.

“I will no longer allow Ibama to distribute fines right, left and centre,” Bolsonaro said before taking office. There is a personal edge to the issue: He was fined by the agency years ago for fishing in a protected area.

Bolsonaro and Environment Minister Ricardo Salles have also talked of ending Ibama’s legal authority to burn heavy equipment being used by illegal loggers.

Critics say the top-level scepticism and budget cuts are having an impact in the field. On-the-ground operations carried out by Ibama agents from January through April declined 58 per cent from the same period last year, according to official data obtained by the Brazilian group Climate Observatory. The decline began under the previous government in 2018, when operations were down 23 per cent but accelerated this year.

Prosecutors in the northeastern state of Para, which borders Amazonas, are investigating the link between the decline in Ibama’s activities and the rise in fires this year, which have broken out at a pace not seen since 2010.

Federal prosecutor Ricardo Negrini said authorities failed to act when his office warned of reports that farmers in Para had called for “a day of fire” to ignite multiple blazes 10 August.

Aerial footage shows Amazon wildfires burning and devastation left behind

Ibama told prosecutors it wasn’t able to intervene because police forces in the state had been refusing to offer security. Ibama agents have sometimes been met with gunfire when confronting illegal loggers and miners.

Negrini said he found that state police had declined to escort Ibama agents for months despite a longstanding tradition of cooperation between the two bodies. Documents seen by AP show that police forces denied six requests from Ibama in June and July.

In the documents, police say the lack of an official cooperation agreement prevented them from joining such operations, though Negrini said that had not been an issue in the past.

Ibama and the environment ministry did not reply to several requests for comments from The Associated Press. The Independent has also requested comment.

But in the past months, hundreds of workers from Ibama and another public agency, the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation, have signed letters denouncing what they contend is government neglect of the environment.

Ten employees of environmental agencies interviewed by AP complained of a growing sense of censorship, intimidation and retaliations from superiors.

“This is not a problem of difficult transition (from one administration to the other), because people are trying to understand how to do their jobs,” said Andre Barbosa, president of an association of federal environmental employees in Rio de Janeiro. “This is a project to break the system down, so that people no longer have the capacity to work.”

In response to such complaints from public workers, federal prosecutors issued a statement this month asking government officials to strengthen environmental protection and to refrain from encouraging law-breaking or delegitimizing the work of Ibama agents.

They also gave officials 30 days to present information that proves they had used “technical criteria” to appoint new supervisors, many of whom have a military background.

Additional reporting by AP

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