By Jake Spring
BRASILIA, July 2(Reuters) - Brazil under President Jair Bolsonaro has obstructed the system for environmental fines, one of the main instruments for punishing those who illegally cut down the Amazon rainforest, according to government documents and insiders.
Under a presidential decree issued by Bolsonaro shortly after assuming office, those individuals and companies accused of environmental crimes after October 2019 are entitled to "reconciliation hearings" that can reduce or cancel penalties.
Yet a backlog of more than 17,000 fines has piled up, going uncollected as they await hearings, according to internal documents seen by Reuters and confirmed by two sources at the main federal environmental agencies Ibama and ICMBio, both of whom requested anonymity as the information is not publicly available.
So far about 500 reconciliation hearings have been held, according to a statement from environmental agency Ibama and data obtained by Reuters under Brazil's public information laws in mid-June - less than 3% of the backlog.
"The reconciliation decree has caused damage because it would only function with many more staff, as there are thousands of cases. It's a huge extra workload," said Roberta Graf, speaking as director for government environmental workers' union Ascema Nacional. Graf is also an ICMBio agent working on reconciliation audiences.
Graf and other staff of Ibama and ICMBio told Reuters that Bolsonaro appointees had mismanaged the roll out of the system.
In a statement to Reuters, Ibama said the reconciliation process is meant to resolve fines more quickly, reduce bureaucracy and generate savings. It added that the backlog had piled up because of the pandemic and is being addressed.
ICMBio said in a statement that 1,265 notifications, accounting for 52% of the agency's backlog, were sent out to those fined and that hearings were being scheduled.
With environmental laws defanged, deforestation in Brazil's Amazon rainforest has surged further this year, rising 25% in the first five months of the year according to preliminary government data. In 2020, deforestation hit a 12-year high.
The accounts of environmental agents hamstrung by new rules also undercuts Brazil's negotiations with the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, which has offered to help fund the preservation of the Amazon so long as Brazil steps up enforcement.
Bolsonaro's office directed questions to the Environment Ministry, which did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
TIME RUNNING OUT?
Environmental advocates say the backlog is just the latest sign that the Bolsonaro government is purposefully weakening environmental agencies, having already slashed their budgets, reined in hardline tactics targeting illegal loggers and miners, and maintained a years-long hiring freeze.
Bolsonaro has railed against environmental penalties since the campaign trail, criticising what he calls an "industry of fines" that unfairly targets farmers.
"I will not allow for Ibama to go out fining people left and right, nor ICMBio. The party is over," he said shortly after his election.
Last Friday, Bolsonaro again showed his animosity towards fines, recalling an incident in 2012 when he was caught fishing illegally off the coast of Rio de Janeiro state.
Bolsonaro, photographed by agents in a white speedo, refused to identify himself and called the then-Minister of Fishing in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid the fee, José Olímpio Augusto Morelli, the Ibama agent who handed out the fine, told Reuters.
Public records obtained by Reuters show that Bolsonaro mounted myriad defenses in Ibama's appeal system and fought long enough to run out the clock on the five-year statute of limitation.
"It wasn't easy to get out of that," Bolsonaro told the crowd last Friday.
His office did not respond to request for comment on the fishing fine.
Bolsonaro critics and environmental agency workers, including Graf, say they fear delays in processing fines will allow more people to follow in the now-president's footsteps and avoid paying fines by running out the statute of limitations. Ibama denied that reconciliation is heightening this risk fines will expire.
A fine can expire in as little as three years if it fails to advance past preliminary analysis. Many fines have already been on hold for the nearly two years since the reconciliation system was rolled out.
DELAYS AND MISSTEPS
Reuters spoke to Graf and four other agents at main environmental enforcer Ibama and parks service ICMBio, who requested not to be named for fear of professional reprisals.
They described a series of repeated delays and missteps in instituting the reconciliation hearings.
For example, former Environment Minister Ricardo Salles issued regulations in January 2020 needed to enact Bolsonaro's decree, although new fines poured in starting in October when the decree took effect; Ibama analysts say they provided draft rules months earlier.
When the pandemic forced in-person hearings to be cancelled in March 2020, the regulations did not allow an easy shift to holding virtual audiences, with rules only issued in November.
In April, the rules were changed again to require hearings be scheduled within 30 days - a bid to speed up the process and help clear the mounting fines. But insider critics say the revised regulations are unrealistic given the limited staff.
Salles, who oversaw the implementation of the reconciliations system and stepped down last month, did not respond to request for comment.
Over 900 Ibama and ICMBio staffers signed letters protesting the April rules, which also specified that they could face administrative punishments if they failed to meet the aggressive timelines.
"It is humanly impossible for the work to be done by a single employee," said one exasperated reconciliation staff member out of roughly 120, according to internal documents reviewed by Reuters.
The software backing the new reconciliation system only began to function in May, Graf and other agency sources added.
In a statement to Reuters, Ibama said not all of the thousands of fines will go to conciliation hearings as the people fined can choose to opt out, if they want to fight the fine legally for example. In addition, 165 fines eligible for hearings were paid or otherwise settled without contest or an audience, Ibama said.
The environmental agency sources said the number of people opting out has had minimal impact on the backlog.
Graf estimates ICMBio would need to quintuple the reconciliation staff to meet the timelines established by the regulations. Instead, she said, many hearings end up being repeatedly rescheduled.
Meanwhile, agents said more fines are piling up every day.
Fines usually accelerate in the Amazon's dry season as it is easier for criminals to illegally log and set fires, which peak in August and September.
Marcio Astrini of the Climate Observatory advocacy group said that, in addition to slashing environmental budgets, the increased bureaucracy for handing out and collecting fines has undercut the entire system of enforcement.
"The government has given up," Astrini said. "Now an environmental criminal in the Amazon has much more space to operate." (Reporting by Jake Spring; Editing by Stephen Eisenhammer and Aurora Ellis)
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