Brazil reduces environmental enforcement amid coronavirus outbreak
By: Jake Spring
Brazil will decrease efforts to combat environmental crimes during the coronavirus outbreak, an official from the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama) told Reuters, despite fears that reduced protection could lead to an increase in the deforestation. Ibama's director of Environmental Protection, Olivaldi Azevedo, said the outbreak left him little choice but to send fewer inspectors to the field because of the highly contagious virus. He estimated that a third of the entity's field inspectors are almost 60 years old or have medical problems that put them at an increased risk of having severe symptoms of the virus. Ibama has not hired new agents in years because of government budget cuts, and its ranks are aging rapidly. "You have no way of putting people who are in the risk group, exposing them to the virus," said Azevedo. "There is no choice between one thing and the other, it is an obligation to do." Two sources from Ibama who were not authorized to speak to the press said that field workers are concerned about their own health and the risk of spreading the coronavirus in the rural regions in which they operate. Deforestation experts said that while health concerns should be a priority, the practice can have serious environmental consequences. "Weakening surveillance certainly means a greater risk of deforestation, for obvious reasons," said environmental economist Sergio Margulis, author of the study "Causes of Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon". The added danger comes in the wake of a surge in deforestation and an increase in fires in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019. It has caused global outrage that he is encouraging illegal loggers, farmers and land grabbers. Brazil is home to approximately 60% of the Amazon, the largest tropical forest in the world, which absorbs immense amounts of greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Bolsonaro defends development plans for the Amazon region, arguing that they are the best way to lift more Brazilians out of poverty - but the jump in deforestation threatens to derail a South American free trade agreement with Europe and hinder exports. ESSENTIAL AND EMPHASISED In a decree signed last week, Bolsonaro defined environmental surveillance as an essential service during the coronavirus pandemic, authorizing Ibama to continue sending agents to the field. But Azevedo said that even essential services, such as the health system and policing, need to be reduced to protect threatened workers. The most important operations will be prioritized, and some areas will need to be restricted, said Azevedo, adding that protecting the Amazon is a priority. He denied that there will be a reduction of agents in the Amazon and predicted that some parts of the forest may even register a decrease in deforestation. Ibama sources said the pandemic creates more logistical challenges because many hotels and restaurants are closed and flights have been canceled en masse. Azevedo said that, although agents can still choose to fly, Ibama is allocating vehicles and prioritizing ground transportation to reduce the risk of contagion. Some agents drive for days to reach their posts in the Amazon, according to one of the sources. Researchers agree that reduced enforcement opens space for further deforestation, but a deep recession triggered by the pandemic could lead to rising unemployment - which can encourage criminal activities, but also lower the prices of illegally purchased wood and land. Paulo Barreto, senior researcher at the non-profit institute Imazon, said that it is impossible to predict the reaction of criminals, who are difficult to study. Commodity prices remain high, and the weakening of the real increases export earnings for Brazilian farmers. As a result, the demand for deforestation of new land for agriculture remains high, he explained. Deforesting and selling land illegally is inherently speculative, which is why Barreto said that criminals can deforest with impunity and then occupy the land until they can sell it. In January and February, deforestation had already risen 71% compared to a year earlier, according to preliminary government data, and researchers will carefully monitor the March and April data. "My guess, I think deforestation will not go down," said Carlos Nobre, a scientist at the University of São Paulo. Wanted, the Planalto Palace said that comments would fall to the Ministry of the Environment, to which Ibama is subordinate. The portfolio, in turn, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.