Exclusive-Brazil's Bolsonaro may backtrack, boost environmental fines to protect Amazon

·4 min read

By Jake Spring

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro could sign a decree as soon as Tuesday to step up fines for environmental crimes, two officials familiar with the matter told Reuters, a move that would allow more aggressive protection of the Amazon rainforest.

The government officials, who were not authorized to speak to the media, said that the decree was ready and would be sent to Bolsonaro's desk on Tuesday for his signature.

Bolsonaro's office and the Environment Ministry did not respond to questions about the matter, including if and when he intends to sign the decree.

The draft decree, seen by Reuters, would raise the potential value of fines for falsifying documents to cover up illegal logging, clarify heavier consequences for repeat environmental offenders and help to reduce the backlog of fines pending collection.

Environmental fines - which also target infractions such as unauthorized hunting, fishing and pollution - are one of Brazil's key tools for combating illegal deforestation.

Signing the decree would be one of the first concrete steps the Bolsonaro government has made to bolster Amazon protections following its commitment to end illegal deforestation by 2028 at the COP26 U.N. climate summit in November.

Preserving the Amazon, the world's largest rainforest, is vital to preventing catastrophic climate change because of the vast amounts of climate-warming carbon it stores.

The decree would also mark a reversal for Bolsonaro, an ardent critic of environmental fines. In his 2018 campaign, the right-wing former army captain railed against an "industry of fines" created by environmental agencies to persecute farmers. He has continued to criticize fines in the run-up to this October's presidential election.

According to the draft decree, falsifying documents to introduce illegal timber into legal supply chains would bear an additional penalty of 300 reais ($58.62) per cubic meter, with a maximum fine of 50 million reais. The previous cap for defrauding the lumber tracking system was 1 million reais.

The decree would also undo some of the red tape created by Bolsonaro himself. Shortly after assuming office in 2019, the president signed an order that gave individuals and companies accused of environmental crimes the right to "reconciliation hearings" that can reduce or cancel penalties.

Those hearings came in addition to an existing system to adjudicate fines that already allowed for multiple appeals.

A Reuters investigation last year showed that the added bureaucratic step, without adequate government staff to hold the hearings, meant 17,000 fines had piled up and gone uncollected as they awaited audiences.

"Fines are very important for stopping deforestation, to scare off illegal deforesters ... principally in the Amazon," said Jose Sarney Filho, former environment minister from 2016 to 2018. "This new step discredited fines as a tool."

As fines have gone uncollected, deforestation of Brazil's Amazon rainforest continued to accelerate.

Deforestation surged to a 15-year high in 2021, according to government satellite data. Preliminary figures show destruction set a fresh record for the period of January to April this year.

The new decree would require those facing fines to ask for a "reconciliation" appeals hearing rather than being automatically granted one, a move that could reduce the backlog.

POLICY SHIFT

Signing the decree would add to Bolsonaro's efforts since last year to show that his government is taking environmental protection more seriously, following pressure from European and American leaders to protect the Amazon rainforest.

Bolsonaro brought forward the country's emissions neutrality target during a White House Earth Day summit in April 2021. He told the U.N. General Assembly in September that Brazil was doubling its environmental enforcement budget.

At the November U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, Brazil committed to stop illegal deforestation by 2028.

But thus far, few policy changes have reflected a plan to keep those promises, as evidence of deforestation continues to rise, according to Ana Karine Pereira, an environmental policy professor at University of Brasilia.

The 2021 enforcement budget went mostly unspent, restaffing of key conservation agencies has been slow and Bolsonaro still calls for more mining and commercial farming in the Amazon.

When speaking to his political base among farmers, Bolsonaro also continues to criticize environmental fines.

In January this year, Bolsonaro told an agricultural event that a reduction in environmental fines was a mark of his government's success.

"We ended major environmental problems, especially with regard to fines. Do they have to exist? Yes. But we discussed it and reduced fines in the field by more than 80%," Bolsonaro said.

Environmental enforcement agency Ibama did not reply to questions about official data to back up Bolsonaro's estimate.

($1 = 5.1179 reais)

(Reporting by Jake Spring; Editing by Brad Haynes and Lisa Shumaker)

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