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Ricardo Salles in a press conference in August, 2019. In a meeting in April 2020, the minister suggested environmental regulations should be bent while the media attention was focused on the Covid-19 pandemic. Credits: Marcos Corrêa/PR, Wikimedia CommonsFoto: Marcos Corrêa/PR

In 2020, Brazilian environmental policy cost less than an SUV

Housing assistance for direct employees of the Environment ministry received over three times the money spent on environmental policy last year
Housing assistance for direct employees of the Environment ministry received over three times the money spent on environmental policy last year

Last July, the Brazilian Government Accountability Office released the 2019 annual audit report for the country’s Environment Ministry’s activities. Its message was clear: it wasn’t possible to evaluate the year’s results because there wasn’t an initial plan they could be compared to. Comparing the budget of a few key programs to previous years, auditors noticed investments plummeted — even if the money was there, available to be spent. 

When Suely Araújo looked at the report and the numbers, she noticed something odd was going on. The senior specialist in public policy at Brazil’s Climate Observatory was astonished by the gap and went on into the 2020 budget figures — to find out that by the end of August 2020, the ministry effectively spent R$105,410 (US$19,750) in policy actions since January. 

By the end of November, the picture hadn’t changed much. 

Data from the Integrated System for Planning and Budget of the Brazilian government (SIOP) shows that by 24 November, the ministry had spent R$189,004 — a little more than US$35,400 — in such actions in 2020. This is enough to buy a new Toyota 4Runner (US$34,610) but not a Jaguar E-Pace (US$38,600), two of the most popular SUVs in the Brazilian market.

As a matter of comparison, Environment employees in Brasília had received R$645,111 (US121,000) in housing assistance by the same period — over three times the money spent on policy actions. Just with maintenance for the operations in Brasília (costs with rent, water and energy, for example) R$23,568,384 (US$4,4 million) had been spent by the end of November — or 127 Toyota 4Runner SUVs. 

“The spending on policy planning has always been lower than that on executive areas within the Environment, but not like this”, Araújo says. 

She explains that these figures are related to payment for actions of “direct management” (administração direta) for the creation of public policy, or related to planning within the ministry itself. These include, for example, initiatives for the implementation of the national climate change policy, the planning of actions for environmental education and strategies for the protection and sustainable management of biodiversity. 

In 2018 and 2019, these actions received more than a million reais (US$187,400) and in 2017, over R$4,5 million (US$840,000). 

Actions of command and control within the ministry, such as the prevention and combat against forest fires and the prevention of deforestation in protected areas are not included in this sum. These actions are led by entities such as the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) and the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), the executive branches of the Brazilian Environment ministry. With less money for several actions in 2020, their current status is not much better either.

Araújo, who in September launched an advisory note for policymakers through the Climate Observatory sounding the alarm on the 2020 budget gap, said the situation points to a halt in environmental policy in Brazil.  “It means that only what depends on ministry employees could be done. Studies or extra service contracting is totally out of sight. This is a problem because the Environment ministry’s main role is, precisely, to foster planning actions”, she says.

Deforestation, mining and fires are also a scourge for protected areas such as the Tapajós National Forest in Southwest Pará state, covered with smoke in September 2020. Photo: Marizilda Cruppe/Amazônia Real/Amazon Watch (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Planned dismantling

Ronaldo Seroa da Motta, an environmental economics professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, says the current underspending is not a surprise. Given the posture of the Bolsonaro administration, “it would be surprising if governance had been strengthened”, he says. 

The rupture is coherent with the current administration’s promises. Back in 2018, the then-candidate to the Brazilian presidency Jair Bolsonaro campaigned for the extinction of the Environment Ministry, created in 1992. Bolsonaro vowed that, if elected, he would fuse the ministries of Agriculture and Environment, turning the latter into a secretary within the former. 

Two years on under a Bolsonaro government, political and societal pressure kept the president from fulfilling his promise — to a certain extent. The choice of lawyer Ricardo Salles as Environment minister seems to be helping him get closer to his goal.

In December 2018, Salles was condemned for administrative misconduct for actions taken while he was state secretary of Environment in São Paulo in 2016. He is accused of having committed fraud in the administrative process of the management plan of the Tietê River floodplain protection area in favour of mining companies and the São Paulo Federation of Industries. Salles has been involved in a number of other investigations and has been the subject of a removal request by the Public Prosecution Service. His little investment in planning has, according to Araújo and Da Motta, been undermining the ministry from within. 

To Da Motta, since Brazilian environmental policy has so much at stake, this should be a State, not a government agenda. “We need the Congress to design stronger policy frameworks that are not so susceptible to the will of each government that takes power”, he says.

While that scenario is out of sight, civil society and political parties are taking the Brazilian government to the courts to oblige it to do public policy, Suely Araújo says. “There is an action in the Supreme Court demanding for the use of resources of the Climate Fund, and another for the Amazon Fund, for example. There’s one requiring the Plan for Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Amazon to be resumed so Brazil can fulfill its Paris Agreement pledges”.

“This is really crazy”, she says. 

Smoke from forest fires in the Amazon can be seen from space satellites, like in this image from August 2019. Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)