Brazil agency gives out fewest environmental fines in 24 years

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazil’s federal environment agency last year gave out the fewest fines for breaking conservation laws since 1995, the agency’s press office told Reuters on Monday, as the efficacy of the agency, known as Ibama, continues to fall under President Jair Bolsonaro.

It handed out 12,266 fines for environmental infractions in 2019, down 17% from the previous year, the press office said in response to questions. Ibama did not give an explanation for the drop.

On the campaign trail, Bolsonaro railed against an “industry of fines” that he claims is out of control and perpetuated by Ibama. His rhetoric has had a chilling effect at the agency, with the government reining in its ability to take on environmental criminals, agency sources told Reuters last year.

Meanwhile, destruction of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest has surged since Bolsonaro took office last year, with deforestation hitting an 11-year high, government data shows.

Environmentalists say the president’s calls to farm and mine protected areas have emboldened illegal logging, ranching and land speculation.

The Amazon is the world’s largest tropical rainforest, absorbing and storing vast amounts of greenhouse gases that cause climate change.

Fires tore through the rainforest last year, provoking global outcry from activists and some world leaders who said Brazil is not doing enough to protect the Amazon. Bolsonaro says the criticisms are not justified given that most of Brazil’s Amazon is still standing.

Environmental fines, although rarely paid, are one of Ibama’s principle tools for enforcing conservation laws. Having a fine on record can make it difficult for farmers to access credit.

The number of fines has been steadily falling since 2016 as Ibama suffered budget and staff cuts while Brazil underwent a deep recession, from which it is still recovering.

Reporting by Jake Spring; Editing by Dan Grebler