Brazil under President Jair Bolsonaro has obstructed the system for imposing environmental fines, one of the main instruments for punishing those who illegally cut down the Amazon rainforest, according to government documents and insiders.

Under a presidential decree issued by Bolsonaro shortly after assuming office, those individuals and companies accused of environmental crimes after October 2019 are entitled to "reconciliation hearings" that can reduce or cancel penalties.

A backlog of more than 17,000 fines has piled up, going uncollected as they await hearings, according to internal documents and confirmed by two sources at the main federal environmental agencies Ibama and ICMBio, both of whom requested anonymity as the information is not publicly available.

So far about 500 reconciliation hearings have been held — less than 3% of the backlog — according to a statement from environmental agency Ibama and data obtained under Brazil's public information laws in mid-June.

"The reconciliation decree has caused damage because it would only function with many more staff, as there are thousands of cases. It's a huge extra workload," said Roberta Graf, director for government environmental workers' union Ascema Nacional. Graf is also an ICMBio agent working on reconciliation audiences.

Graf and other staff at Ibama and ICMBio said Bolsonaro appointees had mismanaged the rollout of the system.

In a statement, Ibama said the reconciliation process is meant to resolve fines more quickly, reduce bureaucracy and generate savings. It added that the backlog had piled up because of the pandemic and was being addressed.

ICMBio said in a statement that 1,265 notifications, accounting for 52% of the agency's backlog, had been sent out to those fined and that hearings were being scheduled.

With environmental laws defanged, deforestation in Brazil's Amazon rainforest has surged further this year, rising 25% in the first five months of the year according to preliminary government data. In 2020, deforestation hit a 12-year high.

The accounts of environmental agents hamstrung by new rules also undercuts Brazil's negotiations with the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, which has offered to help fund the preservation of the Amazon so long as Brazil steps up enforcement.

Bolsonaro's office directed questions to the Environment Ministry, which did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Under President Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil has obstructed the system for environmental fines — one of the main instruments for punishing those who illegally cut down the Amazon rainforest. | REUTERS
Under President Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil has obstructed the system for environmental fines — one of the main instruments for punishing those who illegally cut down the Amazon rainforest. | REUTERS

Time running out

Environmental advocates say the backlog is just the latest sign that the Bolsonaro government is purposefully weakening environmental agencies — having already reined in hard-line tactics targeting illegal loggers and miners, slashed agencies' budgets and maintained a yearslong hiring freeze.

Bolsonaro has railed against environmental penalties since the campaign trail, criticizing what he calls an "industry of fines" that unfairly targets farmers.

"I will not allow for Ibama to go out fining people left and right, nor ICMBio. The party is over," he said shortly after his election.

Last Friday, Bolsonaro again showed animosity towards fines, recalling an incident in 2012 when he was caught fishing illegally off the coast of Rio de Janeiro state.

Bolsonaro, photographed at the scene by agents, refused to identify himself and called the then-Minister of Fishing in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid the fee, according to Jose Olimpio Augusto Morelli, the Ibama agent who handed out the fine.

Public records show that Bolsonaro mounted myriad defenses in Ibama's appeal system and fought long enough to run out the clock on the five-year statute of limitation.

"It wasn't easy to get out of that," Bolsonaro told the crowd last Friday.

His office did not respond to request for comment on the fishing fine.

Bolsonaro critics and environmental agency workers, including Graf, say they fear delays in processing fines will allow more people to follow in the now-president's footsteps and avoid paying fines by running out the statute of limitations.

A fine can expire in as little as three years if it fails to advance past preliminary analysis. Many fines have already been on hold for the nearly two years since the reconciliation system was rolled out.

Ibama denied that reconciliation is heightening the risk that fines will expire.

A fire burns in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso in August 2020.  | MARIA MAGDALENA ARRELLAGA / THE NEW YORK TIMES
A fire burns in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso in August 2020. | MARIA MAGDALENA ARRELLAGA / THE NEW YORK TIMES

Delays and missteps

There have been a series of repeated delays and missteps in instituting the reconciliation hearings, according to Graf and four other agents at main environmental enforcer Ibama and parks service ICMBio, who requested not to be named for fear of professional reprisals.

For example, former Environment Minister Ricardo Salles issued regulations in January 2020 needed to enact Bolsonaro's decree, although new fines had started pouring in from October when the decree took effect; Ibama analysts say they had provided draft rules months earlier.

When the pandemic forced in-person hearings to be cancelled in March 2020, the regulations did not allow an easy shift to holding virtual audiences, with rules only issued in November.

In April, the rules were changed again to require hearings be scheduled within 30 days — a bid to speed up the process and help clear the mounting fines. But insider critics say the revised regulations are unrealistic given the limited staff.

Salles, who oversaw the implementation of the reconciliations system and stepped down last month, did not respond to request for comment.

Over 900 Ibama and ICMBio staffers signed letters protesting the April rules, which also specified that they could face administrative punishments if they failed to meet the aggressive timelines.

"It is humanly impossible for the work to be done by a single employee," said one exasperated reconciliation staff member out of roughly 120, according to internal documents.

The software backing the new reconciliation system only began to function in May, Graf and other agency sources added.

In a statement, Ibama said not all of the thousands of fines would go to conciliation hearings as the people fined can choose to opt out — if they want to fight the fine legally, for example. In addition, 165 fines eligible for hearings were paid or otherwise settled without contest or an audience, Ibama said.

Environmental agency sources said the number of people opting out had had minimal impact on the backlog.

Graf estimates ICMBio would need to quintuple reconciliation staff to meet the timelines established by the regulations. Instead, she said, many hearings end up being repeatedly rescheduled.

Meanwhile, agents said more fines are piling up every day.

Fines usually accelerate in the Amazon's dry season as it is easier for criminals to illegally log and set fires, which peak in August and September.

Marcio Astrini of the Climate Observatory advocacy group said that in addition to environmental budgets having been slashed, the increased bureaucracy for handing out and collecting fines had undercut the entire system of enforcement.

"The government has given up," Astrini said. "Now an environmental criminal in the Amazon has much more space to operate."

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