As fires race through Amazon, Brazil’s Bolsonaro weakens environment agency

Amazon Fire

As the world recoils at the sight of fires ravaging Brazil’s Amazon jungle, the nation’s far-right government is undermining the agency charged with protecting the rainforest, Reuters has learned from interviews with ten current and former employees, public records and a review of internal government reports.

Conservative President Jair Bolsonaro has made no secret of his disdain for the public body, known as Ibama, which he has publicly rebuked as an impediment to the nation’s development.

Since he took office on January 1, Ibama’s budget has shrunk by 25% as part of government-wide belt tightening, according to internal government data collected by the opposition PSOL party and shared with Reuters. Among the cuts: funding for prevention and control of forest fires was reduced 23%.

New leadership at Ibama also has made it tougher for the agency to crack down on illegal logging, farming and mining that have despoiled nearly 12,000 square kilometers (4,633 square miles) in the Amazon this year, all of the former and current employees told Reuters.

For example, field agents have seen new restrictions on their ability to destroy heavy equipment found at the scene of environmental crimes, a long-standing tactic to slow land-grabbers, five of the people said.

In addition, an elite corps of Ibama forest cops has not seen action in the Amazon this year, a first since the heavily-armed, highly-trained unit was launched five years ago, according to four of the people familiar with the matter. Instead, these special agents have been confined largely to desk duty, the people say, or assigned field tasks far from hot spots in the rainforest.

Punishment of environmental criminals has declined substantially on Bolsonaro’s watch. Through August 23, the number of fines issued by Ibama fell 29% compared to the same period last year, while the collective value of those penalties tumbled 43%, government statistics show.