BRASILIA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Efforts to keep the Amazon rainforest standing and reduce Brazil’s planet-warming emissions are being hampered by budget cuts for the country’s environmental watchdog and its main climate change programme, researchers have said.
Brazil has seen a sharp spike in deforestation under the right-wing government of President Jair Bolsonaro, with less than half the forest inspectors it had a decade ago and the COVID-19 pandemic spreading rapidly across the Amazon region.
Compared with 2019, the first five months of 2020 registered a substantial drop in government spending on forest inspection activities carried out by the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama).
For January to May 2019, the amount allocated was R$17.4 million ($3.24 million), against R$5.3 million so far in 2020, according to figures provided by the Institute of Socioeconomic Studies (INESC), a non-profit organisation that has analysed Brazil’s public budget for more than 30 years.
Funding for activities under Brazil’s national climate change plan has also been cut, from R$436 million for 2019 to R$247 million for 2020, a drop of more than 40%, INESC research showed.
The climate plan, led by the environment ministry, is aimed at meeting Brazil’s international commitment under the 2015 Paris Agreement to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 37% from 2005 levels by 2025 and an “intended reduction” of 43% by 2030.
Measures in the plan include boosting renewable energy, cutting illegal deforestation in the Amazon to zero by 2030, and restoring and reforesting 12 million hectares of forests in the next decade - targets that were set in 2015 by the government of left-wing president Dilma Rousseff.
Yet the National Climate Change Fund, a key financial instrument for implementing the government climate plan, spent nothing in 2019 nor so far in 2020, according to INESC.
And the Amazon Fund, into which Norway and Germany had been paying money for forest protection, has been paralysed since January 2019 after Brazil’s Ministry of Environment changed the fund’s governance structure and donors withheld further cash.
Alessandra Cardoso, INESC policy advisor, said the shrinking of the budget for climate measures and forest protection was “in line with” Bolsonaro’s speeches and administrative decisions such as replacing technical officials with military personnel.
“All of this constitutes an emptying of environmental policy with visible consequences,” she said.
For Suely Araújo, a political scientist at the University of Brasília and a former president of Ibama, the reduction in resources to tackle climate change points to a lack of government interest in the problem.
“The budget is a mirror of government priorities. If the money is decreasing, it means that the government is paying less attention to that topic, which is very worrying,” said Araújo.
Although Brazil made promises to tackle climate change as part of global efforts under the Paris Agreement, “no one is taking any action in this regard in this government”, she added.
Even as the federal government has cut resources for climate action, Bolsonaro approved a military operation to help protect the Amazon and prevent wildfires.
At a cost of R$60 million for just one month until June 10, and involving 3,800 military personnel, the objective is to “fight illegalities in the Amazon”, according to the National Council of the Amazon, set up by Bolsonaro.
Ibama’s inspection budget forecast for the whole of 2020 is not much higher, at R$77 million, according to INESC research.
To be effective, policing deforestation requires a range of different measures over time rather than putting a large number of people in specific places for a few weeks, said Araújo.
“With Bolsonaro’s speeches since 2018, what they understand on the ground is that environmental crime is now free of charge,” said Araújo, referring to illegal loggers, wildcat miners and those who want to clear land for farming.
A spokeswoman from the Ministry of Defense said the military operation was important because “Brazil is unfairly accused of not caring for the Amazon”.
“The operation allows us to leverage all the know-how of environmental agencies, guaranteeing the best conditions to obtain results in a short period of time,” she added.
For the Ministry of Defense, this coordinated action “clearly demonstrates Brazil’s firm determination to preserve and defend the Amazon”, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Nonetheless, deforestation in Brazil’s section of the Amazon in the first four months of 2020 was up 55% from a year ago, according to preliminary government data.
And in a video the Supreme Court ordered released in May, Brazilian Environment Minister Ricardo Salles called on the government to push through further deregulation of environmental policy while people are distracted by the coronavirus pandemic.
A May report from environmental advocacy group Climate Observatory said Brazil could produce 10-20% more climate-warming gases in 2020 due to deforestation and farming compared to the most recent data from 2018, even as global emissions are expected to fall due to coronavirus-related shutdowns.
Ibama and the Ministry of Environment did not respond to requests for comment from the Thomson Reuters Foundation.