The environment minister under investigation. The head of the environmental protection agency suspended. The Brazilian government is facing its strongest accusations to date that it not only turned a blind eye to illegal deforestation in the Amazon but actively participated in its pillage.
On May 19, police raided properties and offices connected to Environment Minister Ricardo Salles and Eduardo Bim, the head of the environment protection agency (Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis — Ibama), according to a federal police statement.
The police operation, dubbed Akuanduba for a deity of the Arara Indigenous community, was sparked by suspicions that Salles, Bim and other officials helped timber companies to export far more wood logged in the Amazon than legally allowed.
Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes signed off on the operation and suspended an Ibama policy that allowed timber companies to export forestry goods without specific authorization. In February 2020, Salles and Bim met with timber companies and, shortly afterward, loosened these regulations, according to Reuters. The order even allowed past exports to be legalized retroactively. The federal police said that around 8,000 shipments of illegal timber were able to be exported due to this order.
Warning about these suspicious cargoes of wood was first provided by US authorities after they found irregularities in timber shipments from the Brazilian Amazon arriving in the US state of Georgia in 2019 and 2020. Other orders were found in Belgium and Denmark.
Operation Akuandupa is notable in its scope. The officials involved are suspected of corruption, malfeasance and facilitating smuggling, while investigators have gained access to their personal and professional bank accounts.
The investigation is currently seeking concrete evidence of government officials having deliberately helped companies to smuggle timber abroad, including the payment of bribes, according to Globo. Neither Salles nor Bim have been charged with any crime so far, and the minister has denied any involvement in illegal activities.
InSight Crime Analysis
The government of President Jair Bolsonaro has been controversially linked to a number of destructive actions in the Amazon. Foremost among these may be how the soybean and beef industries have been allowed to expand, facilitated by rampant forest fires.
Despite mounting international pressure, they have little incentive to stop this expansion since major Western companies continue to buy their products, in flagrant disregard for pledges they have made not to do so, according to an investigation by the Guardian.
But revelations that Brazil's foremost environmental officials actively participated in the illegal smuggling of Amazon timber may change this dynamic.
For example, Salles had long been an enthusiastic advocate for some of the causes of deforestation and a constant target for environmental activists. “We have to attract private capital to the Amazon. This is my approach in all of the meetings that I have in Europe and the US,” he told Al Jazeera in an interview last November. He also supported slashing the budget of Ibama, tried to make it easier for agriculture and cattle to move into protected land and encouraged the government to roll back environmental laws while the world was distracted by COVID-19.
But until now, he had not been formally suspected of breaking the law. Should the allegations connecting him to timber trafficking be proven, investigations into government ties to the companies profiting from the Amazon’s destruction are likely to ramp up significantly.
And Ibama has lost any real credibility. Allegations that its director helped companies profit from illegal deforestation will only increase supervision of its actions.
This agency was once a model for the fight against deforestation, having overseen a drop in deforestation of 80 percent between 2004 and 2012. In 2010, it had 1,311 dedicated environmental enforcement officials overseeing all of Brazil.
By 2019, this had plummeted to 591, a 55 percent drop.
Worse, the tools at its disposal to regulate deforestation have fallen into disuse. Fines for illegal deforestation dwindled to a record low, forcing individual states to step in. And of those fines that were issued, Salles is alleged to have ensured most of them were ignored with impunity. From October 2019 to May 2020, “thousands of fines for illegal deforestation and other environmental infringements” had been issued but procedures put in place by Salles meant only five were paid, Human Rights Watch reported.
Senior officials were fired, seemingly for doing their job too well and embarrassing their superiors, including Salles.
Any heightened scrutiny by prosecutors of Ibama’s actions may at least prevent it from actively participating in the destruction of the very natural resources it was created to protect.