The abandonment of environmental fines for illegal deforestation in Brazil has sparked a political scandal, with a cabinet minister potentially being removed from office and state governments breaking with the policies of President Jair Bolsonaro.
On July 6, the Attorney General’s Office called for the dismissal of Environment Minister Ricardo Salles for the “willful disruption of environmental protection structures.” The accusations included that Salles had deliberately reduced the number of environmental fines issued to their lowest in 20 years while seeing forest fires grow to record levels, and he fired environmental inspectors after they carried out successful raids against criminal groups.
Environmental fines have been one of the more visible consequences of the Bolsonaro government’s stance on deforestation. In April 2019, President Bolsonaro issued a decree, allowing those slapped with such fines to avoid paying them by engaging in unspecified “environmental recovery and protection actions.”
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The result was immediate. In May 2020, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that the charging of these fines had essentially been frozen since October 2019.
Federal enforcement agents issued “thousands of fines for illegal deforestation and other environmental infringements…since October” but new procedures coming from Salles meant only five of these fines had actually been paid, according to HRW.
The fall in environmental fines is even starker year-on-year. From 2018 to 2019, the number of fines levied by the environmental protection agency, Ibama, collapsed by 34 percent across the Amazon region, according to Folha de São Paulo.
But as forest fires reached another frightening record in June, there are signs state governments are increasingly breaking step with Bolsonaro.
In June and July, the central state of Goiás has carried out a series of raids and issued numerous fines to private landowners found to be engaging in illegal deforestation on their properties.
And in a videoconference call with Vice President Hamilton Mourão in late June, governors from the Amazon region vowed to increase fines among other environmental protection actions and criticized the lack of coordination with federal authorities, reported AF Notícias.
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Environmental fines are not a particularly useful deterrent for criminal groups and landowners engaging in illegal deforestation in Brazil. Evidence from previous governments since 2000 shows that fines over $10,000 in value were only rarely enforced.
Nevertheless, they have become an easy-to-measure flashpoint for how the Bolsonaro government has allowed the pillaging of the Amazon rainforest to go seemingly unchecked.
The ignoring of fines levied by environmental prosecutors also trivializes the work carried out by federal prosecutors to investigate illegal logging and other crimes in the Amazon. Worse, the head of Ibama’s environmental protection department was fired in April for allegedly doing his job too well and carrying out an operation to prevent illegal logging in Indigenous lands in the northern state of Pará. His dismissal was prominently mentioned in the accusations made against Salles by the Attorney General’s Office.
“Federal agents are working hard to enforce the rule of law, in this case Brazil’s environmental laws – often at considerable personal risk – only to have their efforts sabotaged by the Bolsonaro administration,” Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch, said in a news release.
“The violent criminal networks destroying the Amazon rainforest and Brazilians’ enjoyment of a healthy environment aren’t going to be deterred by fines they don’t have to pay,” added Canineu.
There are signs the Bolsonaro government is beginning to feel this increased pressure. In May, thousands of army troops were deployed across the Amazon to fight deforestation and quickly reported levying fines worth 7.5 million reais ($1.4 million), as well as capturing machinery and vehicles used for this illegal practice.
This may not make good financial sense, though, since the military deployment cost 60 million reais ($11.2 million), or 86 percent of Brazil’s environmental regulator’s annual budget, according to Greenpeace.