Bolsonaro Government Faces International Crisis Over Amazon Fires

By September 2019Brazil

The sharp increase in Amazon Basin fires and deforestation has sparked domestic and international outrage against President Jair Bolsonaro’s government and Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, including from French President Emmanuel Macron. In the past few months, Salles has withdrawn resources from the environmental protection agency (IBAMA) to enforce Brazil’s forestry code, thus allowing illegal logging and mining operations in the Amazon Basin to continue spreading unchecked. The logging operations often set fires to clear the land for pasture. Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) reported that fires had risen by 278% in July 2019 compared to the same month last year.

Bolsonaro responded by insisting that INPE was lying and then proceeded to sack its director general, Ricardo Galvao, a renowned physicist and engineer, earlier this month. This move set off protests among both domestic and international scientific communities. Galvao’s dismissal also focused media attention on the increase in fires and deforestation sweeping through the Brazilian Amazon. Bolsonaro and Salles then doubled down by criticizing the Amazon Fund’s strategic plan and brushing off the concerns of its major donors, the German and Norwegian governments. On 15 August, Salles suspended the Amazon Fund, and Germany and Norway announced the suspension of further donations. Norwegian Environment Minister Ola Elvestue responded that Salles does not have the authority to make changes to the Amazon Fund without the consent of Germany and Norway. He added that the Brazilian government’s actions do not reflect a sincere effort to combat deforestation.

Rather than confront the environmental challenges, Salles blamed international NGOs for a campaign of misinformation, and Bolsonaro reiterated that the Brazilian Amazon is sovereign territory to be developed for the benefit of Brazilians. The increasing number of fires, the escalating media attention, and the government’s reluctance to address the merits of the mounting environmental challenge finally led the Sustainability Network (Rede) to file a petition before the Supreme Court, on 22 August, to impeach Salles for administrative malfeasance.

Senator Fabiano Contrarato, a Rede member from the state of Espirito Santo who is president of the Senate Environment Committee, stated that Salles had violated the constitution by unilaterally reforming the National Environmental Policy Council (CONAMA), neglecting the nation’s environmental welfare, and sacking IBAMA auditor Jose Olimpio Augusto, who was responsible for fining Bolsonaro in 2012 for illegal fishing. Salles is also blamed for disciplining employees of the Environment Ministry’s Chico Mendes Biodiversity Conservation Agency (ICMBio) and removing its leadership. Of note, the impeachment petition is supported by two prominent Rede members: Senator Randolfe Rodrigues of Amapa, who leads the chamber’s opposition, and former presidential candidate and Environment Minister Marina Silva.

The growing rift between Contarato and Salles was made public on 8 August when the latter testified before the Environment Committee. Contarato claimed that Salles was destroying the federal government’s capacity to execute environmental protection programs as well as monitor and enforce the forestry code. While the impeachment petition is unlikely to earn a Supreme Court hearing soon, the matter will attract heated debate in the Environment Committee. We expect Contarato to employ his sharp criticism of Salles’ environmental policy to raise his national profile and square off against Mato Grosso Senator Soraya Thronicke of the president’s Social Liberal Party (PSL). The Rede senator argues that the environment transcends the Brazilian government and the question of national sovereignty because it is truly a planetary issue.

In his short time in the Senate, Contarato has already established himself as a skilled debater who can win arguments without insulting his adversaries. The debate in the Senate could determine Salles’ future as minister by illustrating the recent spike in reputational risks associated with his leadership and policy agenda. His removal could mitigate the rising tide of opposition to the government’s management of the Amazon, but our contacts report that Bolsonaro will try to weather the crisis and support Salles in the coming weeks.