Brazil's environmental workers tell of decline before fires

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — As fires burn across the Brazilian Amazon, the vast state of Amazonas has been among the hardest hit, with more than 6,600 blazes recorded in August, 2 1/2 times more than the same month a year ago.

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Yet official documents seen by The Associated Press show that Brazil's government has begun legal procedures to transfer all employees out of three of the state's four federal environmental protection offices, which are in charge of defending the rainforest from deforestation, land grabbing and illegal fires.

It's part of a broader erosion of the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, known by its Portuguese initials as Ibama, whose field operations appear to have declined sharply since the early part of this year. The agency's funding for discretionary spending and enforcement operations this year faces a 24% cut, a significant blow to what two experts described as an already small budget.

The budget decrease came as part of a wider austerity push by President Jair Bolsonaro, who took office Jan. 1 and is seeking to rein in spending by Brazil's financially strapped government. But critics note that he has also complained that environmental regulations hinder development in the Amazon.

Ibama staffers say the regional offices are critical to their jobs, giving them closer knowledge of problem areas and faster response times in the country's most extensive state. larger than Texas, California and Montana combined.

Ibama agents often plunge deep into the jungle aboard helicopters or boats, wearing bulletproof vests and carrying arms to confront illegal loggers or ranchers who cut away the forest and then set fires to clear the land.

The sharp increase in fires this year has roused global concern because the Amazon rainforest acts as a bulwark against climate change. Its lush vegetation absorbs heat-trapping carbon dioxide and the moisture given off by its trees affects rainfall patterns and climate across South America and beyond.

Boslonaro told reporters he would attend the upcoming U.N. General Assembly in September to deliver a speech expected to focus on the Amazon, which he says was "ignored" by previous administrations.

His administration argues that the lack of economic opportunities and cumbersome red tape in the Amazon region contributes to rampant illegal deforestation. It says the region can be protected while allowing far more development than conservationists believe is safe.

Bolsonaro has sent troops to aid in fighting the blazes and banned fires to clear land in the Amazon for 60 days.

But the president has fiercely resisted efforts to treat the Amazon as a global issue, notably clashing with French President Emmanuel Macron, who told his Brazilian counterpart during the peak of the fires: "We cannot allow you to destroy everything."

Bolsonaro has also accused non-governmental groups of inefficiency and trying to stifle Brazil's economy by preventing development in the region.

The president also is no big fan of Ibama and its enforcement actions, complaining that an "industry of fines" has slowed economic development in Latin America's largest nation.

"I will no longer allow Ibama to distribute fines right, left and center," Bolsonaro said before taking office. There is a personal edge to the issue: He was fined by the agency years ago for fishing in a protected area.

Bolsonaro and Environment Minister Ricardo Salles have also talked of ending Ibama's legal authority to burn heavy equipment being used by illegal loggers.

Critics say the top-level skepticism and budget cuts are having an impact in the field. On-the-ground operations carried out by Ibama agents from January through April declined 58% from the same period last year, according to official data obtained by the Brazilian group Climate Observatory. The decline began under the previous government in 2018, when operations were down 23% but accelerated this year.

Prosecutors in the northeastern state of Para, which borders Amazonas, are investigating the link between the decline in Ibama's activities and the rise in fires this year, which have broken out at a pace not seen since 2010.

Federal prosecutor Ricardo Negrini said authorities failed to act when his office warned of reports that farmers in Para had called for "a day of fire" to ignite multiple blazes Aug. 10.

Ibama told prosecutors it wasn't able to intervene because police forces in the state had been refusing to offer security. Ibama agents have sometimes been met with gunfire when confronting illegal loggers and miners.

Negrini said he found that state police had declined to escort Ibama agents for months despite a longstanding tradition of cooperation between the two bodies. Documents seen by AP show that police forces denied six requests from Ibama in June and July.

In the documents, police say the lack of an official cooperation agreement prevented them from joining such operations, though Negrini said that had not been an issue in the past.

Ibama and the environment ministry did not reply to several requests for comments.

But in the past months, hundreds of workers from Ibama and another public agency, the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation, have signed letters denouncing what they contend is government neglect of the environment.

Ten employees of environmental agencies interviewed by AP complained of a growing sense of censorship, intimidation and retaliations from superiors.

"This is not a problem of difficult transition (from one administration to the other), because people are trying to understand how to do their jobs," said André Barbosa, president of an association of federal environmental employees in Rio de Janeiro. "This is a project to break the system down, so that people no longer have the capacity to work."

In response to such complaints from public workers, federal prosecutors issued a statement this month asking government officials to strengthen environmental protection and to refrain from encouraging law-breaking or delegitimizing the work of Ibama agents.

They also gave officials 30 days to present information that proves they had used "technical criteria" to appoint new supervisors, many of whom have a military background.