As fires rage in the Brazilian Amazon, environment minister Joaquim Leite announced that the government has doubled the budget for environmental law enforcement and will recruit 700 new enforcement agents.
Leite presented these measures as steps towards fulfilling President Jair Bolsonaro’s climate action pledges made at the summit hosted by US President Joe Biden in April, ahead of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change conference of the parties (COP26) in November.
Given the critical situation of the Brazilian Amazon, any steps to increase enforcement are urgently needed and welcome. However, Leite’s announcement needs to be understood in context.
During Bolsonaro’s first two years in office, his administration sabotaged environmental law enforcement, effectively giving a green light to criminal networks that drive the destruction of the Amazon. Deforestation, fires, illegal mining, and invasions of Indigenous territories and public forests soared under his watch.
While preliminary estimates suggest a slight 5 percent drop in deforestation of the Amazon this year compared to 2020, the dire trend has hardly been reversed. With 10,800 square kilometers having been clear cut last year, it also doesn’t bring Brazil remotely close to meeting its climate commitment of reducing deforestation in the Amazon to 3,925 square kilometers per year.
Even more than the environmental agencies’ lack of resources or personnel, it’s the Bolsonaro administration’s lack of political will to curb deforestation that has been the key problem.
In 2020, Brazil’s chief enforcement agency, Ibama, issued fewer fines for environmental violations than in any previous year during the past two decades. This wasn’t because they ran short of funding – in fact, towards the end of last year, Ibama had reportedly spent only a fraction of its funds allocated for enforcement. In the past, President Bolsonaro has publicly gloated about low numbers of fines. Furthering impunity even more, his administration effectively suspended the requirement to pay fines at all between October 2019 and November 2020.
Nonetheless, Bolsonaro’s pledge at Biden’s summit and this announcement are evidence that international pressure – encouraged by the relentless efforts of Brazilian civil society and its allies – is having an impact.
The United States, the European Union, and multilateral organizations should continue pressing Bolsonaro for measurable, concrete results in the reduction of deforestation and an end to impunity for environmental crimes, as well as better protection of Indigenous peoples’ rights.