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Record number of fires in the Amazon rainforest coincides with a sharp drop in fines for environment violations

Monday, August 26th 2019 - 20:13 UTC
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 This year saw the lowest number of fines handed out by the agency in a decade (in the period between January and August) Pîc NASA This year saw the lowest number of fines handed out by the agency in a decade (in the period between January and August) Pîc NASA

The record number of fires in Brazil's Amazon rainforest has coincided with a sharp drop in fines for environmental violations, BBC analysis has found. Official data from Brazil's environment agency shows fines from January to 23 August dropped almost a third compared with the same period last year.

At the same time, the number of fires burning in Brazil has increased by 84%.

It is not known how many of these fires have been set deliberately, but critics have accused President Jair Bolsonaro's administration of “green lighting” the destruction of the rainforest through a culture of impunity.

Bolsonaro has sent in the military to help put out the fires after coming under pressure from the international community, saying he wanted to “help protect” the Amazon.

The largest rainforest in the world, the Amazon is a vital carbon store that slows down the pace of global warming. It is known as the “lungs of the world” and is home to about three million species of plants and animals, and one million indigenous people.

Analysis by BBC Brasil shows the number of fines handed out by the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama) for environmental violations has dropped significantly since Bolsonaro took office on 1 January.

This year saw the lowest number of fines handed out by the agency in a decade (in the period between January and August). Between 1 January and 23 August 2019, the total number of fines handed out was 6,895 Ibama handed out 9,771 fines during the same period in 2018: a drop of 29.4%. The total number of fines relating to “flora” - which includes deforestation and burning - dropped from 4,138 to 2,535 over the same period, and in the nine states that make up the Brazilian Amazon, the drop in fines relating to flora dropped from 2,817 to 1,627.

Mariangélica de Almeida, a professor of environmental law who has defended clients over unfair fines, suggested to BBC Brasil that the figures for previous years could have reflected a culture of over-fining, in order to meet goals.

However, others have pointed the finger directly at Mr. Bolsonaro, who has scorned environmental activists and declared his support for clearing areas of the Amazon for agriculture and mining.

Elisabeth Uema, who retired from Ibama last year, said it was clear even before Mr Bolsonaro was elected that he did not like Ibama. During his campaign, he pledged to limit fines for damaging the rainforest and to weaken the influence of the environmental agency.

The message was further underlined in April when Mr Bolsonaro ordered an investigation into officials who burned tractors and trucks belonging to loggers who were allegedly involved in illegal activities in the Jamari National Forest. This was a long-held policy seen as a deterrent against illegal loggers.

The agency's work, she said, had also been hampered by the fact that just eight of its 27 offices across the country now had a permanent head.

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