Under fire, Brazil’s Environment Minister denies “encouraging” deforestation

and . May 20, 2020
Under fire, Brazil's Environment Minister denies "encouraging" deforestation Amazon area being deforested in Mato Grosso. Photo: Mayke Toscano/Secom-MT

During April, with all of Brazilian states imposing varying degrees of social isolation measures to combat the coronavirus pandemic, deforestation in the Amazon reached its highest level in ten years. Over 30 days, an area equivalent to five times the size of Paris was cut down, a 171-percent increase on April 2019 figures. The culprits are illegal land-grabbers, loggers, wildcat miners, and farmers, who have made use of the Covid-19 quarantines to ramp up their operations in the Amazon rainforest. According to environmentalists, blame for these crimes can be placed at the doorstep of Brazil’s Environment Ministry, led by embattled cabinet minister Ricardo Salles.

</p> <h2>Cheering from the sidelines</h2> <p>The accusation is that Mr. Salles, along with the rest of the Jair Bolsonaro government, has encouraged deforestation in the Amazon Basin by way of its consistent promotion of &#8220;economic development&#8221; throughout the region, as well as pushing to legalize activities such as farming and mining on protected lands.</p> <p>Speaking to <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>, Mr. Salles echoed this message, saying that the increase in deforestation was down to &#8220;the lack of economic opportunities in sustainable activities&#8221; for people in the Amazon.</p> <p>However, when asked whether the government&#8217;s stance has empowered those who cut down Brazil&#8217;s forests, the Environment Minister was curt in his response. &#8220;We haven&#8217;t encouraged any of this,&#8221; he said. &#8220;Unlike previous governments, we don&#8217;t engage in make-believe. They pretended there was no mining in the Amazon (&#8230;) instead of legalizing it and promoting environmental licensing, they allowed the infractions.&#8221;</p> <p>Expanding this line of reasoning, instead of cracking down on trespassing, the Bolsonaro government wants to make it legal.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="650" src="" alt="&quot;We haven't encouraged any of this,&quot; says Environment Minister Ricardo Salles." class="wp-image-39826" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 1536w, 610w, 945w, 630w, 2048w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>&#8220;We haven&#8217;t encouraged any of this,&#8221; says Environment Minister Ricardo Salles. Photo: Lula Marques/AGPT</figcaption></figure> <h2>The Land-Grabbing Decree</h2> <p>Since taking office, Ricardo Salles&#8217; department has pushed for the involvement of the private sector in the Amazon, claiming they can help in environmental protection efforts, despite their inherent bottom-line mentality. &#8220;There has been a real aversion to the participation of the private sector, as if only non-profit activities can contribute to environmental protection,&#8221; he said. &#8220;But it is precisely the development of economic activities, carried out in a sustainable manner, that generate prosperity and funds to reinvest in environmental preservation.&#8221;</p> <p>The bugbear of the Environment Ministry is Brazil&#8217;s legislation on land use in the Amazon, which it sought to alter drastically by way of Provisional Decree 910 — nicknamed by environmentalists as the &#8220;<a href="">Land-Grabbing Decree</a>.&#8221;</p> <p>In short, the measure would dramatically simplify the process of claiming ownership land, requiring only a self-declared statement that the individual or company in question occupied the area since 2014. Former Environment Minister <a href="">Marina Silva</a> called it an &#8220;amnesty&#8221; for land-grabbing.</p> <p>Over 40 companies — including British supermarket chains Marks &amp; Spencers, Sainsbury&#8217;s, Tesco, and Morrisons — <a href="">signed an open letter </a>against the approval of the Land-Grabbing Decree, threatening that it would &#8220;put at risk the ability of organizations such as ours to continue sourcing from Brazil in the future.&#8221;</p> <p>Without going into more detail, Mr. Salles affirmed that the decree is &#8220;a lot more beneficial to the environment than people are saying,&#8221; blaming a &#8220;defamatory campaign&#8221; from sectors of society who &#8220;don&#8217;t understand the issue.&#8221;</p> <p>The decree was set to be voted on in Congress last week, but was removed from the agenda and will now expire. An identical bill was then submitted to the legislature and will process as normal.</p> <h2>Environment Ministry pulling the rug out from underneath</h2> <p>Among the biggest criticisms of Mr. Salles&#8217; Environment Ministry and the Bolsonaro government is its dismantling of environmental and indigenous protection agencies Ibama, ICMBio, and Funai. The former represents Brazil&#8217;s principal agency for combating environmental crimes and has been undergoing cuts to its staff and budget since 2018.</p> <p>Mr. Salles claims that his administration &#8220;inherited an already dismantled&#8221; Ibama, but he has continued the process by successive budget cuts — 24 percent in 2019, and 31 percent in 2020.</p> <p>He has also been accused of interfering in the agency&#8217;s staff, dismissing directors who promote large scale crackdown operations on environmental crimes. On April 12, <em>TV Globo</em>&#8216;s weekly magazine show &#8220;Fantástico&#8221; showed a behind-the-scenes report on an Ibama operation in protected indigenous lands in the south of Pará state, combating illegal gold miners, loggers, poachers, and stopping the coronavirus from reaching nearby indigenous communities.</p> <p>Ibama officials seized and destroyed equipment belonging to the trespassers, a prerogative of the agency which is enshrined in law.</p> <p>One of the land-grabbers shown in the report said that he had been encouraged &#8220;by the message of the federal government, from [Mr. Salles], that they would reduce indigenous areas by 5 percent.&#8221;</p> <p><p>Two days after the report was aired, Ricardo Salles fired the leader of the operation, Ibama&#8217;s environmental protection director in Brasilia, Olivaldi Borges Azevedo. Two weeks later, a further two environmental protection coordinators involved in the operation were dismissed by Mr. Salles, a move he described as &#8220;absolutely normal.&#8221;<span style="font-size: inherit;"> </span></p></p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p><em>This article was edited on May 20, 2020, at 12:29 pm, to reflect that the Jair Bolsonaro government has been criticized for dismantling Funai. The previous edition erroneously attributed this disapproval to the Environment Ministry alone, which does not have jurisdiction over Funai.</em>

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Brenno Grillo

Brenno has worked as a journalist since 2012, specializing in coverage related to law and the justice system. He has worked for O Estado de S. Paulo, Portal Brasil, ConJur, and has experience in political campaigns.

Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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