Brazil to privatize some of its most famous national parks starting this year

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazil aims to begin privatizing the management of its national parks this year, including some of its most famous natural tourist sites, the country’s Environment Minister Ricardo Salles said on Wednesday.

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The government aims to privatize as many as possible, he said.

Salles listed Foz do Iguaçu, one of the world’s largest waterfalls that straddles the border with Paraguay and Argentina, as one of many famous national parks around the country that could be brought under private management.

Activists and environmentalists have said they fear right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, who assumed office Jan. 1, and Salles will roll back environmental oversight in the country in favor of economic development.

On the campaign trail, Bolsonaro criticized fines for environmental infractions, considered pulling out of the Paris Agreement on climate and at one point proposed that the agriculture and environment ministries be merged.

A system to carry out the privatization will be in place “definitely this year,” Salles told reporters following a hearing in Brazil’s Senate.

“We’ll see how many we’re able to do. The effort is being made to do the maximum possible without disturbing a process that relies both on an economic model but also on well executed sustainability.”

The move would involve privatizing oversight for territories demarcated as “conservation units” that are generally managed by government agency Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio).

The institute is named for Mendes, the defender of the Amazon rainforest who was murdered for his work. Salles called Mendes “irrelevant” in a television interview earlier this year.

Salles listed Fernando de Noronha island - an exclusive getaway for underwater divers - as well as Pau Brasil, Chapada dos Veadeiros and Itatiaia national parks as also being potential targets for private management.

Salles said the Environment Ministry was seeking to create a new body for resolving environmental fines.

The structure that Salles called the “nucleus of conciliation of fines” would have the power to authorize, modify or cancel fines as well as reach accords with environmental offenders who confess infractions.

Brazilian newspaper Folha de S.Paulo first reported the initiative was under consideration last month.

Fines are a key tool employed by environmental agency Ibama to enforce its regulations.

The current model, in which it is extremely rare that fines are actually collected, cannot continue, Salles said.

Reporting by Jake Spring; Editing by Sandra Maler