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In this March 10, 2018 photo released by Ibama, the Brazilian Environmental and Renewable Natural Resources Institute, agents from Ibama measure illegally cut timber from Cachoeira Seca indigenous land in Para state in Brazil's Amazon basin. © 2018 Vinicius Mendonza/Ibama via AP

(São Paulo) – Fines for illegal logging in the Amazon in Brazil have been effectively suspended since October 2019 under a Bolsonaro administration decree, Human Rights Watch said today.

Federal enforcement agents have issued thousands of fines for illegal deforestation and other environmental infringements in the Amazon and elsewhere in Brazil since October. Yet due to new procedures put in place by the Environment Ministry that month, based on a decree issued by President Jair Bolsonaro last April, lawbreakers have been required to pay in no more than five of these cases, according to official information obtained by Human Rights Watch. 

“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,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “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.”

Real-time alerts from Brazil’s Space Agency, INPE, show that deforestation in the Amazon region may have increased 53 percent between October 2019 and April 2020 compared with the same period a year before.

The Bolsonaro administration should stop shielding members of criminal networks engaged in illegal deforestation from being sanctioned for violations of Brazil’s environmental laws and undermining protection of the right to a healthy environment, Human Rights Watch said.

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. 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.

In October, the Bolsonaro administration implemented new procedures establishing that environmental fines should be reviewed at “conciliation hearings,” in which a commission can offer discounts or eliminate the fine altogether. The Environment Ministry suspended all deadlines to pay those fines until a “conciliation” hearing could be held. 

Only five such hearings have been held nationwide since October 8, when the procedure went into effect, the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), Brazil’s main environmental law enforcement agency, told Human Rights Watch. That means that thousands of fines against those destroying the environment are on hold. According to reporting by The Intercept, fines issued from January through mid-April could be worth 412 million reais (US$82 million). Under Brazilian law, all unpaid fines lapse in up to five years, and, in some circumstances, in three years, after which violators no longer need to pay them.

Before October, when IBAMA field agents found a violation of environmental law, they would issue a fine and a ticket on the spot for immediate payment. The vast majority of lawbreakers did not actually pay right away but used repeated appeals to push proceedings beyond the period they remained in effect, an agency official told Human Rights Watch. He requested not to be identified for fear of retaliation from her superiors. 

Environment Minister Ricardo Salles presented conciliation hearings as a way of making the environmental sanctioning more efficient. But the change has in fact crippled the environmental agency’s already limited ability to sanction and deter environmental crimes by delaying proceedings even more. IBAMA agents continue to issue fines for illegal deforestation, mining, and other environmental crimes, but instead of a ticket for payment, they present violators with a citation for a hearing that may never take place.

While hearings are pending, violators have no obligation to pay the fine. On the contrary – if they prefer to forgo the hearing and pay the fine, they have to expressly ask the agency to issue them a ticket before they are permitted to make a payment. Violators have little incentive to do so, as they know that at the hearing they may be able to get their fines reduced by as much as 60 percent, as established by the decree issued by the Bolsonaro administration.

From October to early January, IBAMA held no conciliation hearings, the agency told Human Rights Watch. From January through April 28, it held only five. The agency has since suspended hearings indefinitely, citing the Covid-19 pandemic, even though hearings could be held remotely via videoconference. Since October, IBAMA agents have issued thousands of fines, although the exact number is not known because the public database is not up to date, as IBAMA itself told Human Rights Watch.

The conciliation hearing policy is one of several steps taken by the Bolsonaro administration that have weakened Brazil’s capacity to enforce its environmental laws. These include a bill that would grant amnesty for people who illegally occupy forests to raise cattle or crops and another bill to open up Indigenous territories to commercial exploitation. 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.

On May 7, Bolsonaro issued a decree putting the Armed Forces in charge of overseeing and coordinating environmental agencies in military operations to combat deforestation and fires in the Amazon, without ensuring or making clear how the enforcement agents will have the autonomy, tools, and resources needed to safely and effectively carry out their mission.

In April, Minister Salles fired the director of environmental enforcement at the agency after a news program showed an operation against large-scale illegal logging and mining in Indigenous territories in the state of Pará. In a letter, 16 IBAMA agents said that they feared the top 2 enforcement agents, who are career officers, could also be removed in retaliation for the operation. After the letter became public, the government did remove those two agents, without any justification. Federal prosecutors have opened an investigation into those decisions.

With its anti-environmental measures, the Bolsonaro administration has empowered criminal networks to step up both illegal deforestation in the Amazon and the threats and violence against those who stand in their way, including IBAMA agents, Indigenous people, small farmers, and others, as documented by Human Rights Watch and other organizations. 

These actions conflict with Brazil’s international human rights obligations and its own constitution, which recognizes the right to an ecologically sound environment. The Inter-American human rights system, which is binding on Brazil, has held that states’ obligations to ensure a clean environment requires them to protect the elements of the environment, such as forests, rivers, and seas.

Under international standards, the government has obligations to act against environmental harm, which includes taking steps to establish, maintain, and enforce effective legal and institutional frameworks for the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. The policies of the Bolsonaro administration flout those obligations.

“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 said. “They fear if they do their job right, they could lose it.” 

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