SAO PAULO – Fines for illegal logging in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest have been suspended since President Jair Bolsonaro issued a decree in October 2019, Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned on Wednesday.
“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 statement.
“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.”
According to the organization, sanctions against environmental offenders have in practice been paralyzed since October 8 last year when new environmental procedures came into force following a decree presented in April 2019.
The Bolsonaro government implemented new procedures meaning environmental fines have to be reviewed at “conciliation hearings,” where a commission can offer reductions on the fines or eliminate them altogether.
Under the new law, the Environment Ministry suspended the deadlines to pay fines until a hearing could be held.
“The effective suspension of fines is one of several steps the Bolsonaro administration has taken in Brazil to undercut the enforcement of environmental laws and protection of the environment in Brazil,” HRW warned.
“Others include the removal of senior environmental officials in apparent retaliation for a successful operation against large-scale illegal mining and deforestation in the Amazon.”
Between October 2019 and April 2020, HRW reported just five cases in which sanctions were imposed for illegal logging in the Brazilian Amazon, meaning thousands of fines are likely on hold under the new procedure.
Before the new decree came into force the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) reported that fines were issued on the spot and payment had to be immediate.
Most illegal loggers issued with fines would delay the payment by appeals, and under Brazilian law fines expire after five years, meaning many never paid fines at all.
Conciliation hearings of the October decree were created to allegedly make the issuance of environmental fines more streamlined, but the move has further hindered IBAMA’s abilities with the payment of fines further delayed by the hearings.
The coronavirus pandemic has also meant hearings have been suspended indefinitely, something HWR has criticized given they could continue via video link.
According to The Intercept, fines issued from January to mid-April could amount to $82 million.
“Since Bolsonaro took office, he has lambasted the government’s own environmental protection agencies, which he calls ‘industries of fines,’ and has vowed to end their ‘festival’ of sanctions for environmental crimes,” HWR said.
With these anti-eco measures, the far-right Brazilian leader is at odds with international human rights obligations and Brazil’s constitution, which recognizes the right to an ecologically sound environment, the organization warned.
“Brazil’s environmental enforcement agents are increasingly feeling under threat from both sides – from the criminal networks they confront in the field, and from the government they serve,” Canineu added.
“They fear if they do their job right, they could lose it.”
HWR also highlighted Environment Minister Ricardo Salles’ controversial decision to fire the director of IBAMA after a news program about an operation against logging and illegal mining in indigenous territories in the state of Para.
According to data collected by Brazil’s Space Agency, deforestation of the Amazon region of Brazil increased by 53% between October and April compared to the same period last year.