On Wednesday (21), four political parties filed a lawsuit in the Federal Supreme Court against the decree signed President Jair Bolsonaro that suspended the enforcement of environmental fines, creating a kind of “Zero Punishment” project.
In the lawsuit, PT, PSB, PSOL and Rede ask that decree 9,760, of April 2019, which created the so-called “conciliation” of environmental fines, be definitively suspended – and, after the trial, annulled. The lawsuit was based on technical documents compiled by Observatório do Clima, a network composed of 50 civil society organizations.
Devised by the Minister of the Environment, conciliation is yet another step in the already lengthy process of imposition of Ibama and ICMBio fines. The justification for its creation was the possibility of holding hearings between the inspection agencies and offenders, which would supposedly lead to the payment of fines without the need for legal action.
In practice, what happened was that offenders are getting off scot-free. This is because the decree suspends the imposition of fines until the conciliation hearing is held. Since April last year, Ibama has held only five out of a total of 7,205 scheduled hearings. ICMBio did not hold any. In other words, in Brazil, environmental fines, which, before, went mostly unpaid – since the largest offenders always filed appeal after appeal – now are not even being charged.
However, the statute of limitations on crimes and infractions has not been suspended. According to the parties, the fines now risk preclusion without the offenders suffering any punishment.
“In reality, the conciliation step completely halted the development of the environmental penalty-imposition process instead of speeding it up, rewarding offenders, guaranteeing their impunity and setting the stage for an exponential increase in environmental degradation”, states the text of the lawsuit. “The goal seems to be to generate a state of unclarity capable of paralyzing and preventing the development of penalty-imposition processes, fostering the main objective of this administration, which is to disorganize and dismantle the environmental protection system. In the minister’s words: ‘let’s push the whole lot through’.”
Ibama’s fines have a history of extremely low collection rates: on average around R$ 3 billion in fines are imposed annually (the number fell under the Bolsonaro administration), but less than 5% are actually collected. Even so, they have a strong deterrent power – the agency’s penalty-imposing actions helped bring down deforestation rates in the Amazon between 2005 and 2012. With the guarantee that they will not need to pay a fine or even retain a lawyer, offenders feel free to do as they please. Proof of this is the explosion in deforestation rates in 2019 and 2020, as well as invasions of indigenous lands and other crimes.
“The changes in the rules for the process of judging environmental violations carried out in 2019, especially the creation of the conciliation step – built on fragile legal bases – led to a paralysis in decisions”, says Suely Araújo, senior specialist in Public Policies at Observatório do Clima. “There are no conciliation hearings taking place either at Ibama or at ICMBio. Zero. The pandemic cannot be used as an excuse, since the presidential decree itself allows remote hearings. Infraction notices are drawn up, but the process does not follow its course, which completely depletes the deterrent power of environmental penalties”, she says. “This is the environmental anti-policy that we are now facing.”
Conciliation was not the only act of dismantling of the federal environmental agencies’ penalty-imposing process that took place last year. The conversion of fines has also been halted. This was a policy that had been resumed in the Temer administration, under which offenders could be granted a 60%-reduction of their fines if they deposited the remaining 40% in environmental recovery project accounts. The Environment Minister tried to turn the conversion into a fund that he could manage as he pleased, but Congress did not agree, so the whole process was simply suspended.
With the ban on such centralizing action, the government canceled the first call for recovery projects in the São Francisco and Parnaíba basins, which would be carried out by non-profit entities – specifically benefiting the Northeast region, where the President of the Republic falsely says there is no NGO action. About R$ 1.1 billion was not invested in important environmental projects as a result of this decision alone. “The Bolsonaro administration’s attempts to weaken environmental legislation and governance in the country need to be stopped. We will not passively watch the destruction of our forests and biodiversity. We hope that the Courts will help society protect the environment in Brazil”, said Marcio Astrini, executive secretary at Observatório do Clima.
“The Bolsonaro/Salles decree that created conciliation hearings is, in fact, a whole lot of hogwash. At the same time that the federal government encourages environmental crime through speeches, meetings with criminals and criminalizing the actions of civil servants, it also resorts to administrative means to ensure impunity, pushing the support for criminal activity to a whole new level.” Nilto Tatto, federal congressman, PT-SP
“By creating a new conciliation step in the environmental fine imposition process without altering the statute of limitations, the government gives out the one tool that was missing for environmental offenders to dodge the payment of damages to the environment. This is an initiative that, without the necessary intervention by the Judiciary, can cause irreparable damage to all Brazilian ecosystems.” Alessandro Molon, federal congressman, PSB – RJ
“Imploding environmental legislation is one of the main objectives of the federal government. Minister Ricardo Salles openly works in favor of land grabbers, miners and deforesters. This is context underpinning the presidential decree, which, in practice, stays the collection of environmental fines. PSOL has signed the lawsuit filed with the Federal Supreme Court to overturn this tragic measure. It is necessary for Brazil to draw a line in the sand and stop the actions of this government that acts deliberately in favor of the destruction of our nature and original peoples.” Sâmia Bomfim, federal congresswoman, PSOL-SP
“President Bolsonaro and his anti-environment minister have been promoting a wave of social and environmental setbacks never seen in the country before. They promote all sorts of evils against environmental protection agencies, dismantle public funds, attack the protection of biomes and indigenous and traditional communities, in addition to being inactive in cases of deforestation and fires. This is a criminal stance against Brazil’s natural heritage and the demoralization of our country on a global level when it comes to major environmental issues in which we were once protagonists, such as climate issues. As if this were not enough, the government is now adding prevarication and negligence to the mix, suspending the imposition of fines on environmental offenders. This is yet another action we take to stop this mismanagement. Pedro Ivo Batista, national spokesperson for Rede Sustentabilidade
About Observatório do Clima: Observatório do Clima is a network formed in 2002, composed of 50 non-governmental organizations and social movements. It fosters the progress of dialogue, public policies and decision-making processes on climate change in the country and globally. Website: www.observatoriodoclima.eco.br.
Solange A. Barreira – P&B Comunicação
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