Brazil minister advises using COVID-19 to distract from Amazon deregulation

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  • In a Brazilian cabinet meeting Environment Minister Ricardo Salles was caught on video declaring that the COVID-19 pandemic which has killed more than 23,000 of his fellow citizens offers a distraction during which the government can “run the cattle herd” through the Amazon, “changing all the rules and simplifying standards.”
  • The Brazilian and international response was critical and swift, with one European Union parliamentarian recommending that the largest trade treaty every negotiated, between the South American nations of Mercusor and the EU, not be signed as punishment for Brazil’s radical anti-environmental policies.
  • Salles statements were “the inconceivably blatant confirmation that the Bolsonaro government is dismantling, step-by-step, the protection regulations of the Amazon, while the world fights the Coronavirus,” the member of the EU Parliament said.
  • The government’s environmental deregulation policies are yielding results. Today the MapBiomas Alert project released its first Annual Deforestation Report on all Brazilian biomes. It found that 99% of all deforestation in Brazil in 2019 was illegal — a total of 12,187 square kilometers (4,705 square miles) of native vegetation lost.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (left) with Environment Minister Ricardo Salles. Image by Marcos Corrêa / Palácio do Planalto, Brasilia, Brasil.

The video of a controversial meeting between a foul-mouthed Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his cabinet has yielded a second intense controversy, this one instigated by Minister of the Environment Ricardo Salles.

During the meeting Salles suggests that the government “run the cattle herd” through the Amazon, “changing all the rules and simplifying standards.” He seemed to indicate that now — with the public and press focused on the COVID-19 pandemic — would be a good time to make a “load” of changes, weakening environmental rules dealing with agribusiness.

Global outrage at Salles remarks were swift, including among European Union parliamentarians. German MEP Anna Cavazzini, spokeswoman for the European Greens trade policy, said that Salles’ statements are “the inconceivably blatant confirmation that the Bolsonaro government is dismantling, step-by-step, the protection regulations of the Amazon, while the world fights the Coronavirus.”

Cavazzini asserted that, as a result of Salles remarks and Brazil’s disregard for the rule of law, that the free trade agreement between Mercosur and the European Union (EU) should not be ratified. The Mercursor agreement, which involves several South American nations including Brazil, if signed, would be the biggest trade treaty in the world, and would also hugely benefit Brazil’s struggling economy.

Responding to the negative blowback his remarks received in his own nation and internationally, Salles gave a one-hour-and-ten-minute internet interview Monday in which he repeated administration spin, echoing rhetoric by Bolsonaro and Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina, and vilifying NGOs.

Deforestation near Porto Velho, in Rondônia state. August 2019. Image by SentinelHub CC BY 2.0 license.

Salles declared that “in my comments… of simplification, deregulation… I was not talking about the Amazon. I was referring to the rules of 10, 20, 30 years ago pointed out by national and international organizations, such as the World Bank, about Brazil’s lack of competitiveness.”

Salles also warned international consumers against blaming high rates of deforestation on the Bolsonaro government’s policies, but rather place the blame on poverty: “Boycotting Brazilian products abroad will only worsen even more the situation in the Amazon because poverty and disrespect for nature walk together. The places where there is the biggest disrespect for the environment are [with] those of greatest poverty.”

Tasso Azevedo, coordinator of the MapBiomas initiative, debunked Salles’ claim that poverty lies at the heart of Amazon deforestation. In an interview he pointed out that “A [rural] family is not able to deforest more than two or three hectares [4.9 or 7.4 acres] in a year. It is a very painful and laborious activity when it is done manually.” To deforest on the vast scale that occurred in Brazil last year, for example, investments in industrial machinery, trucks, and tractors is necessary.

Ricardo Salles blames Brazil’s deforestation not on his government’s agribusiness-friendly policies, but on “poverty.” A critic was incredulous, pointing out that the nation’s rural poor, like this Afro-Brazilian family, lack access to the heavy industrial equipment needed to cause the high levels of deforestation being seen in the Amazon today. Image by Mayangdi Inzaulgarat.

Salles also responded angrily to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, which found that thousands of fines issued by IBAMA, the nation’s environmental protection agency, for illegal deforestation have gone unpaid — with all movement paralyzed by a Bolsonaro decree. Since October, only five cases have resulted in a determination of payment of fines by offenders.

“This HRW report is the typical militancy [of NGOs],” Salles said on television “[The criticisms] are purposely orchestrated by entities and people from within [the country], who want to raise funds for their activities, for their NGOs. They don’t mind speaking ill of their own country abroad to raise funds.”

Salles conditioned the reduction of Amazon illegal deforestation on measures that, according to him, would attack the root causes of forest destruction. These included, “land regularization” via a now expired presidential decree (MP 910) experts say would legalize wholesale land grabbing in the Amazon, and legislation with the same objective; “money from carbon credits for payment of environmental services, which Europe promised to buy; economic and ecological zoning; and a bio-economy agenda… attracting private capital, instead of expelling it from the Amazon.

“When we have all of that,” Salles declared, “we have a positive expectation to reverse [deforestation] within two years.”

Fires in the Amazon rainforest in Porto Velho, Rondônia state in August 2019. Fire is used as a tool by land grabbers to clear forest on public lands which can then be sold to cattle ranchers at a hefty profit. Image by Victor Moriyama / Greenpeace.

Critics in Brazil and abroad weren’t buying what Salles was selling. Brazilian journalist André Trigueiro, who has covered the environment for 30 years, responded, what “What he [Salles] said is very severe. It reveals not only dark interests, lack of transparency and of ethics, but a moral incompatibility to occupy a most important position, in a country that is a mega-biodiverse power. Changing the rules to favor whom? Why now, that the press is distracted, is it time to change the rules? This episode reminds us of the condemnation of Ricardo Salles by the São Paulo Justice for administrative improbity when he was state Secretary of the Environment.”

For German deputy and Green Party foreign policy spokesperson Omid Nouripour, Salles’ declarations showed “misanthropic cynicism” with the minister imagining that a pandemic that has killed more than 23,000 of his fellow citizens “would be a good opportunity” to weaken environmental protections. “Salles’ statements make clear once again that, for the Brazilian government, all means are valid to sacrifice the Amazon forest for the interests of the agribusiness and the mining lobbies.”

The German Environment Ministry did not comment on the minister’s speech, but said that the release of Germany’s funds — totaling US$39.5 million slated for environmental projects in the Brazilian Amazon, Atlantic Forest and Cerrado biomes and suspended since last August — depends on a common understanding and agreement by both governments on what’s needed for climate and biodiversity protection. “Unfortunately, we are still a long way from that,” said a Ministry spokesperson.

Amazon timber illegally harvested in Pará state. Pará has seen the greatest concentration of deforestation alerts in protected areas, mainly in the Apyterewa Indigenous Territory which registered 479 alerts, according to MapBiomas analysis. Image by Sue Branford.

Words, policies, actions and results all seem to align in a Bolsonaro administration staunchly opposed to most environmental regulation. Today, the MapBiomas Alert project, a multi-institutional initiative involving universities, NGOs and technology companies, released its first Annual Deforestation Report, produced in Brazil and covering all Brazilian biomes. It found that 99% of all deforestation in Brazil in 2019 was illegal — a total of 12,187 square kilometers (4,705 square miles) of native vegetation lost.

MapBiomas registered approximately 56,000 deforestation alerts across the country, 11% of which occurred within Conservation Units and 5.9% inside Indigenous Lands (TI). The Altamira region, in Pará state, saw the greatest concentration of alerts in protected areas, mainly in the Apyterewa TI, which registered 479 alerts. The data also point to an overlap between the deforestation alerts and the outbreaks of fires recorded last year in the Brazilian Amazon — indicating many of those fires were likely set by land grabbers.

Tasso Azevedo, coordinator of the MapBiomas initiative, said: “99 percent of all deforestation that happened in Brazil is not regular [legitimate]: it was not authorized, or occurred in areas that [should] never have been deforested.”

Banner image: Brazilian Minister of the Environment Ricardo Salles. Image found on flickr.

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