Brazil: Ibama, an environmental police force that is catching its breath

From our special correspondent in Para State – Since Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s return to power, the environmental police have come back to life and have finally “gone back to work”, according to its president Rodrigo Agostinho. After years of budget cuts under the government of Jair Bolsonaro, Ibama has seen its resources triple since January and is now increasing control missions against deforestation, livestock farming and illegal gold panning. Reporting from the state of Para, in northern Brazil.

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Despite the impressive swerves that the pick-up makes to avoid the gaping holes in the dirt road, Géandro Guerreiro tries as best he can to visualize on his phone the map on which his next targets are located. “Today, we have around ten lands to check in this area. The owners will certainly not be there, but the objective is to note the violation, to fly over the area and to notify the culprits as quickly as possible.”

The head of the field mission supervises around fifteen Ibama police officers in this Amazonian no-man’s land eaten away by pastures. “All you see in gray is land that has been illegally deforested and already embargoed,” he explains, pointing to a map dotted with spots. Here in Pacaja, in Para, as everywhere since the return of the left to power in Brasilia, Géandro Guerreiro admits that we must move forward with caution.

Brazilian environmental police on a road in Para state. © Mathieu Niev, France 24

“Hostility is often present”

In a recent interview with the international press, the president of Ibama, Rodrigo Agostinho, affirmed that the increase in the number of weapons – the acquisition of which was relaxed under former president Jair Bolsonaro – makes the work of much more dangerous field agents.

“There is often hostility.” With his hand on his weapon and the bulletproof vest constantly on his body, even during the lunch break, Géandro Guerreiro lowers his voice, but does not let his guard down. A little over a month ago, near Altamira, in the indigenous territory of Ituna Itata, his colleagues came under fire from residents and illegal breeders. A delicate balancing act in immense and remote territories, where it is difficult to enforce the law.

Brazilian environmental police on field mission in the state of Para.
Brazilian environmental police on field mission in the state of Para. © Mathieu Niev, France 24

That day, Géandro Guerreiro’s unit caught a father and his son, farmers, red-handed. “Small” farmers looking for a better life, very far from the image of the big bad exploiter. Armed with machetes, the two men were preparing to clear a wood which, they say, belongs to them. Tone up. “Under Bolsonaro, we were free at least. He gave us the right to make our lives here!” This is precisely the reason why Géandro Guerreiro and his colleagues are eagerly crisscrossing this region of Para which suffered a record of deforestation under the former government: to prevent the statute of limitations – of five years – from prevailing. This allows anyone who grants themselves land and officially declares it to the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (Incra) to exploit it if it is not controlled by the environmental police before this. deadline. To put it another way: the “not seen, not taken” rule.

Brazilian environmental police officers on the ground in the state of Para.
To discover the identity of those responsible for deforestation, Ibama agents must investigate with neighbors. Hostility and the law of omerta are there. © Mathieu Niev, France 24

“The more it annoys them, the more it means we are doing our job well”

Since the tide turned in Brasilia, and the presidential palace changed tenants with the coming to power of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in January, Ibama has been trying to avoid the worst by working hard. Triple even, like its budget: it has almost tripled since the start of the year. An organization stifled under Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources – its real name – has resumed its war against those responsible for deforestation.

Jair Schmitt, director of environmental protection, is proud of having launched hundreds of control missions in the Amazon regions, where deforestation was previously breaking records. And the results are there: “We have apprehended more than two million cubic meters of illegal timber, controlled more than 85 indigenous territories, seized 5,000 head of cattle raised on illegal land and destroyed more than a dozen forest sites. gold panning”, notably in the state of Roraima, in the north of the country, where the humanitarian crisis hitting the Yanomami indigenous people has shocked the whole world.

A herd of cattle on a road in the state of Para, Brazil.
On the roads of the Pacaja region, the Ibama convoy is often slowed down by herds of cattle raised on illegally cleared land. © Mathieu Niev, France 24

Without forgetting nearly 500,000 illegally cleared hectares placed under embargo. “And it’s only just beginning,” he assures, a little annoyed at having to constantly repeat his feats of arms. “And the more it annoys them – he said of Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters – the more it means that we are doing our job well.” Money, too, is coming in again, thanks to the numerous fines (finally) applied on the ground. According to the institution’s first statistical report, these fines for deforestation brought in nearly a billion euros in 2023 – compared to almost half as much in 2022.

The Ibama has come a long way. And not just on the ground. At headquarters too, in Brasilia, we are breathing again. As proof, the press relations telephone line finally answers. Communications manager, Daiane Cortes remembers a deleterious climate when she arrived in office: civil servants threatened, abandoned posts, ghost rooms and a press service which had been specifically instructed not to respond… to the press. At the end of Jair Bolsonaro’s mandate, the former occupants even erased the access codes of social networks and all traces of their actions.

“We were sabotaged”

So we had to start everything from scratch. And hire. Because Jair Bolsonaro had also emptied the body of its arms and its brains. “We were sabotaged, so we are rebuilding the house from its foundations,” explains Jair Schmitt. “The problem is that we are not hiring fast enough. We opened 230 civil servant positions during the last public competition, we are waiting for authorization from the Ministry of Management to launch a second one. Between Brasilia and the field, We need 2,400 more agents.”

View of the vastness near the small town of Pacaja (State of Para), in Brazil.
Control seems endless in these vast spaces near the small Brazilian town of Pacaja (Para state). Although the land here was embargoed in January, illegal breeding continues. © Mathieu Niev, France 24

When we worry about the difficult control, by the environmental police, of the recent fires near Manaus and the historic drought affecting the Amazon and Solimoes rivers, the director replies: “We reduced deforestation by 50% between January and September compared to the same period last year. What burned near Manaus, added to the natural phenomenon El Nino which we cannot control, is also the consequence of the deforestation carried out in previous years in the same place. But the IPÊ [l’Institut de recherches écologiques, NDLR] claims that there is a 25% reduction in fire outbreaks between January and October.”

The only downside to this new relationship between the environmental police and the government: possible oil drilling carried out by the national giant Petrobras off the mouth of the Amazon River. With its potential 5.6 billion barrels, drilling could increase the country’s oil reserves by 37%. Defended by President Lula, the project is highly criticized by Ibama, which refused a first license in May. The offshore drilling area is located 500 kilometers from the river mouth and 170 kilometers from the Oyapock River, which marks the border with French Guiana. A pharaonic project criticized by environmental defense NGOs, who fear that the fragile coral of the Amazon coast will disappear forever. On November 22, during a press conference, Ibama president Rodrigo Agostinho announced that he had not yet made any decision on the matter but that he would make it in early 2024.

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