Brazil toughens environmental fines in reaction to a lawsuit

FILE - Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro attends a ceremony marking Army Day at Army headquarters in Brasilia, Brazil, April 19, 2022. Bolsonaro signed a decree Tuesday, May 24, 2022 that creates stricter rules against environmental crimes in the Amazon rainforest, such as fraud in timber licensing. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres, File) (Eraldo Peres, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

RIO DE JANEIRO – After a series of measures that weakened Brazil’s environmental laws, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has signaled an about-face, signing a decree Tuesday relating to crimes involving the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.

The new legislation increases fines for people who provide false information for logging license applications and forest concessions. On the other hand, it does not address pressing issues that have made punishment difficult, such as the fact that fines are allowed to expire without being paid.

Suely Araújo, senior public policy specialist at the Climate Observatory, a network of environmental groups, says that the decree is a response to a lawsuit in the Supreme Court that accuses the Bolsonaro government of ceasing to prosecute environmental crimes.

At the center of the lawsuit are 'reconciliation centers' Bolsonaro created in 2019 where environmental offenders may contest their fines. Environmentalists have harshly criticized these.

The centers led to a sharp reduction in environmental fines, a fact that's been celebrated as an achievement by Bolsonaro, who promised to stop what he called the “fining industry” during his election campaign.

“We stopped having big problems with the environmental issue, especially regarding fines. Do they have to exist? Yes, but we talked, and we reduced the fines in agriculture by more than 80%,” he bragged in January during an official event.

But the decree "is like applying a band-aid to a broken bone," says Araújo, who headed up Brazil’s environment regulatory agency but resigned at the beginning of Bolsonaro’s term.

At a time when environmental crimes are exploding, enforcement is down and punishment procedures are chaotic, "this decree means absolutely nothing,” she said.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon broke records for April, with new records also set in January and February this year. Satellite alerts for deforestation for April corresponded to more than 1,000 square kilometers (nearly 400 square miles).