SAO PAULO, May 24 (Reuters) - Brazilian President Jair
Bolsonaro could sign a decree as soon as Tuesday to step up
fines for environmental crimes, two officials familiar with the
matter told Reuters, a move that would allow more aggressive
protection of the Amazon rainforest.
The government officials, who were not authorized to speak
to the media, said that the decree was ready and would be sent
to Bolsonaro's desk on Tuesday for his signature.
Bolsonaro's office and the Environment Ministry did not
respond to questions about the matter, including if and when he
intends to sign the decree.
The draft decree, seen by Reuters, would raise the potential
value of fines for falsifying documents to cover up illegal
logging, clarify heavier consequences for repeat environmental
offenders and help to reduce the backlog of fines pending
Environmental fines - which also target infractions such as
unauthorized hunting, fishing and pollution - are one of
Brazil's key tools for combating illegal deforestation.
Signing the decree would be one of the first concrete steps
the Bolsonaro government has made to bolster Amazon protections
following its commitment to end illegal deforestation by 2028 at
the COP26 U.N. climate summit in November.
Preserving the Amazon, the world's largest rainforest, is
vital to preventing catastrophic climate change because of the
vast amounts of climate-warming carbon it stores.
The decree would also mark a reversal for Bolsonaro, an
ardent critic of environmental fines. In his 2018 campaign, the
right-wing former army captain railed against an "industry of
fines" created by environmental agencies to persecute farmers.
He has continued to criticize fines in the run-up to this
October's presidential election.
According to the draft decree, falsifying documents to
introduce illegal timber into legal supply chains would bear an
additional penalty of 300 reais ($58.62) per cubic meter, with a
maximum fine of 50 million reais. The previous cap for
defrauding the lumber tracking system was 1 million reais.
The decree would also undo some of the red tape created by
Bolsonaro himself. Shortly after assuming office in 2019, the
president signed an order that gave individuals and companies
accused of environmental crimes the right to "reconciliation
hearings" that can reduce or cancel penalties.
Those hearings came in addition to an existing system to
adjudicate fines that already allowed for multiple appeals.
A Reuters investigation last year showed that the added
bureaucratic step, without adequate government staff to hold the
hearings, meant 17,000 fines had piled up and gone uncollected
as they awaited audiences.
"Fines are very important for stopping deforestation, to
scare off illegal deforesters ... principally in the Amazon,"
said Jose Sarney Filho, former environment minister from 2016 to
2018. "This new step discredited fines as a tool."
As fines have gone uncollected, deforestation of Brazil's
Amazon rainforest continued to accelerate.
Deforestation surged to a 15-year high in 2021, according to
government satellite data. Preliminary figures show destruction
set a fresh record for the period of January to April this year.
The new decree would require those facing fines to ask for a
"reconciliation" appeals hearing rather than being automatically
granted one, a move that could reduce the backlog.
Signing the decree would add to Bolsonaro's efforts since
last year to show that his government is taking environmental
protection more seriously, following pressure from European and
American leaders to protect the Amazon rainforest.
Bolsonaro brought forward the country's emissions neutrality
target during a White House Earth Day summit in April 2021. He
told the U.N. General Assembly in September that Brazil was
doubling its environmental enforcement budget.
At the November U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, Brazil
committed to stop illegal deforestation by 2028.
But thus far, few policy changes have reflected a plan to
keep those promises, as evidence of deforestation continues to
rise, according to Ana Karine Pereira, an environmental policy
professor at University of Brasilia.
The 2021 enforcement budget went mostly unspent, restaffing
of key conservation agencies has been slow and Bolsonaro still
calls for more mining and commercial farming in the Amazon.
When speaking to his political base among farmers, Bolsonaro
also continues to criticize environmental fines.
In January this year, Bolsonaro told an agricultural event
that a reduction in environmental fines was a mark of his
"We ended major environmental problems, especially with
regard to fines. Do they have to exist? Yes. But we discussed it
and reduced fines in the field by more than 80%," Bolsonaro
Environmental enforcement agency Ibama did not reply to
questions about official data to back up Bolsonaro's estimate.
($1 = 5.1179 reais)
(Reporting by Jake Spring
Editing by Brad Haynes and Lisa Shumaker)