On June 5, in recognition of World Environment Day, Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro tweeted that, "[W]e are the country that most preserves the environment in the world. Unjustly, the most criticized [one]."
The message was followed by a pie chart with data from the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) and Ministry of Agriculture on the use of rural land in the country, showing that 30% of land use is for agriculture and 66% for protected and preserved areas.
Below the chart, another message: "In Brazil, producing and preserving go hand in hand."
The tweet is misleading.
As of 2015, close to 5 million square kilometers (1.9 million square miles), or 59% of the Brazil’s land, was covered by forests (second only to Russia).Bolsonaro’s tweet ignores a record pace of deforestation and increasing environmental rollbacks under his administration.
Last year, Brazil recorded the world’s biggest loss of tropical primary forests, according to data from the University of Maryland, which developed machine-learning software to analyze satellite imagery for loss of tree cover. Brazil accounted for one-third of the overall global decrease, or 1.36 million hectares, roughly the area of Connecticut. Ninety-five percent of the decline happened in the Amazon rainforest.
Deforestation last year hit a decade-long high of 3,800 square miles, up 30% compared to 2018. According to Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE), deforestation alerts in the first five months of this year logged 712 square miles of losses – a record pace for the past four years. (After the president's tweet, INPE's website was temporarily deactivated.)
Bolsonaro took office on Jan. 1, 2019. His campaign rhetoric and subsequent ministry picks have resulted in loosening environmental protection laws and the dismantling of some environmental agencies and protection programs for indigenous lands.
Under his administration, the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (called Ibama) had a 23% reduction in funding for prevention and control of forest fires, as reported by Reuters. And in the 2020 federal budget, Ibama received a 25% cut.
The National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) suffered a 40 percent cut under Bolsonaro’s 2020 budget, particularly for programs to uphold Indigenous rights. This was "the first time that government planning does not include indigenous rights guaranteed by the Constitution," according to FUNAI's employee association.
Bolsonaro’s pick for the head of the agency, Marcelo Xavier da Silva, recently issued new rules that take away the protection from land grabbers in indigenous lands not officially recognized by the government. There are at least 237 areas which are now at risk of invasion, according to a report in Globo.
Bolsanaro’s minister of the environment, Ricardo Salles, worked as the secretary of the environment of São Paulo in 2016, where he was accused by prosecutors of violating environmental laws and altering the management plan for a protected area in the Tietê River. This year, he cited the COVID-19 pandemic as reason to modify (and relax) environmental regulations.
On April 6, Salles signed an order giving amnesty to rural landowners who had deforested and occupied Permanent Protection Areas of the Atlantic Forest. The forest covers 19 million hectares, which is about 15% of its original area, along the east coast of Brazil, and is home to seven of the nine largest river basins in the country.
On June 4, Salles revoked the order after a lawsuit by the Federal Public Prosecution Service (MPF) said it was improperly invoked. The lawsuit said the order also “brings with it the imminent risk of undue cancellation of thousands of records of environmental infraction” as well as an "undue abstention from taking action and regular exercise of power police in relation to these illegal deforestations.”
On April 30, Salles fired the director and two inspection chiefs of the Ibama environmental agency, which coincidentally came after a large-scale agency operation against land grabbers in indigenous lands in the state of Pará. Salles claimed the firings were unrelated.
In the second week of May, his ministry also restructured its Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), responsible for the management and inspection of federal protected areas. The change replaced the 11 centers overseeing 334 conservation units with five regional centers (one for each region). A day later, a decree excluded the institute from the process of defining the areas and amount of forest products for commercial use. The responsibility was shifted to the Brazilian Forest Service, part of the Ministry of Agriculture, which is less favorable to preservation and is headed by former Congressman Valdir Colatto, who co-authored a bill that advocates hunting wild animals, even within protected areas.
In August 2019, Bolsonaro's government received international condemnation for ravaging fires in the Amazon rainforest. The fires were set by people to clear land for farming, mining, and other development.
Such fires are not unusual: Every dry season, which happens between August and October, sees an uptick in fires. Bolsonaro's critics, however, blamed last year’s notable increase in fires on a drop in oversight and an orchestrated day of burning around Novo Progresso in the state of Pará on August 10, which came to be known as “Fire Day.” The burning reportedly was organized using WhatsApp to show support for the president’s environmental policies.
The events led Germany and Norway to suspend financial support for the Fundo Amazonia (Amazon Fund) – created in 2008 to combat deforestation and finance prevention, monitoring, and conservation. The two European countries were the fund’s biggest contributors.
In a response to the fires and the actions that followed, Bolsonaro accused environmental groups of starting the fires and said that Brazil didn’t need money from other countries to protect the rainforest.
Brazil ranks 55th in the 2020 Environmental Performance Index (EPI), designed by Yale University to analyze how 180 countries are addressing environmental challenges of our era. This was an improvement over the 2018 EPI report, in which the country was ranked 69th.
Still, Brazil remains far from the top, as Bolsonaro’s tweet implies, particularly in the category of terrestrial biome (such as grasslands, forests, deserts, and tundra) protection, where the country ranks 88th.