RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - The phone call had to happen late at night, after their shift was over. “The walls have ears here,” explained the employee of a government-run wildlife preservation agency in Brazil. “We feel as though we are constantly being watched. We never know who to trust. It’s a terrifying situation.”
The employee is one of seven whistleblowers at Brazil’s federal environmental protection agencies, known as Ibama and ICMBio, who spoke to VICE World News about the persecution of employees who defend conservation policies opposed by the government of President Jair Bolsonaro.
Brazil's controversial right-wing president has a reputation for attacking anyone who defends the environment. During his tenure, which is approaching two years in January, the country has seen record-breaking forest fires and damage to its natural resources. Shortly after Joe Biden’s victory in the U.S. presidential election, Bolsonaro warned that if the president-elect imposes sanctions on Brazil for failing to protect the Amazon rainforest, he would have to resort to using “gunpowder” against him.
Sources inside Brazil’s environmental agencies revealed that Bolsonaro has turned that rage inward, against his own employees. They report being intimidated by superiors, threatened with internal investigations, demoted from leadership roles, and even fired. The Ministry of the Environment, the umbrella institution that oversees the country’s environmental protection agencies, has prohibited employees from speaking directly to the press and expressing opinions on social media.
“They took a screenshot of my Facebook page because I shared articles that were critical [of the government]. Then they called me to say they had proof of what I had done,” said another source, who asked VICE World News not to publish their name for fear of repercussions. The source said that a high-ranking superior from their protection agency rang them several times to intimidate them by reading out examples of posts they had shared. They were told they could not "do this if they work for this government.”
After that, the employee deleted most of their social media accounts. “They put a muzzle on all of us, so they have succeeded in keeping us quiet,” they added.
This ongoing persecution is fed by President Bolsonaro’s claim that Brazil’s environmental protection agencies stand in the way of the country’s economic development. Last year on social media, Bolsonaro said that employees in environmental institutions who “stood in the way of progress” should be sent to “the edge of the beach,” alluding to where executions took place during Brazil’s military dictatorship in the years 1964 to 1985.
The president has a particular fixation with environmental fines, and has stated on numerous occasions that they are detrimental to economic growth. When Bolsonaro was newly elected, he vowed to keep Ibama and ICMBio from issuing “fines left and right” and declared that he will put a “stop to this mess.” The government has since cut the annual budget that directly funds field operations to halt environmental crimes by 24 percent. Between January and July, the number of environmental fines issued by Ibama dropped by 40 percent compared to the same time frame in 2019. And this was not without consequences. Eight of every ten Amazon municipalities where the number of fines decreased in 2019 saw an increase in deforestation, according to Brail’s investigative news agency Agencia Publica.
Sources within Brazil’s environmental agencies said that the government’s anti-fine stance has given perpetrators a green light to commit environmental crimes with impunity. “When our surveillance teams arrive, trespassers who commit crimes inside wildlife reserves say they have the government’s blessing to be there,” said one source.
In April 2019, Bolsonaro sanctioned a decree that added an extra bureaucratic step to the process of paying off environmental fines. This ultimately stalls proceedings, which were already slow, and makes it even easier for the fine to eventually expire and the perpetrator to emerge unpunished.
When he was a congressman in 2012, Bolsonaro was personally issued an environmental fine that expired in 2019 and which he never paid. The R$10.000 (about $1,700) fine was for illegally fishing in a wildlife preservation area in the state of Rio de Janeiro called Tamoios Ecological Station.
Instead of paying what he owed, President Bolsonaro said he planned to loosen conservation rules and transform Tamoios Ecological Station into a “Brazilian Cancun.” José Olímpio Augusto Morelli, the employee who issued the fine, has received verbal threats from Bolsonaro who told him to “lawyer up,” and after Bolsonaro became president, Morelli lost his high-ranking position as chief of aerial operations at Ibama. “After being fined [Bolsonaro] transformed both Ibama and myself into his most prized enemies,” said Morelli to VICE World News.
Employees who hand out fines and conduct routine surveillance operations to flag down illegal activity are especially targeted by the government, VICE World News was told by insiders.
In April, Hugo Loss and Renê Luiz de Oliveira, two heads of Ibama’s surveillance unit, were demoted after appearing in the press overseeing a raid to stop the extraction of gold from an indigenous territory in the Amazonian state of Pará. The whole ordeal was frowned upon by the government, especially since Bolsonaro endorsed a bill in February to make the extraction of minerals from indigenous territories legal.
“Last year they started to persecute all members of our surveillance team,” said a source stationed in a wildlife preservation area deep in the Amazon rainforest. They asked that details of their workplace not be disclosed, and that their name not be published. After participating in a series of operations to remove squatters and apprehend dozens of cattle illegally being raised in the conservation area, a series of internal investigations were suddenly launched against them and their colleagues. “The level of persecution nearly drove us out of our minds,” the source said.
One employee was fired and the rest of the investigations were eventually dropped. “We knew that they were just sending us a message. After that many colleagues decided they no longer wanted to participate in future surveillance operations.”
High-ranking officials in Brazil’s environmental protection agencies are also suffering widespread demotions. Immediately after Bolsonaro took office, 21 of the 27 high-ranking regional supervisors in Ibama were dismissed from their posts. Those in key roles were typically replaced by military police officers. In total, there are 99 military personnel occupying leadership positions within Brazil’s environmental agencies Ibama, ICMBio, and Funai, the protection agency for indigenous rights.
In May, Bolsonaro deployed military troops to contain environmental crimes in response to an international outcry over wildfires surging out of control in the Amazon. To make it happen, he issued an executive decree known as Garantia da Lei e da Ordem (GLO) that subordinated all decisions made by environmental agencies to the Ministry of Defense until November.
“This militarization is very costly and generates few results because military personnel are not prepared for these types of operations. It would be more effective to use that money to replenish teams in environmental agencies that are already highly trained for the job,” said Suely Araujo, ex-director of Ibama, to VICE World News.
The government spends R$60 million ($10 million) per month on military intervention in the Amazon, a figure that represents nearly all of Ibama’s budget for surveillance operations year-round.
Militarization is also used as a scare tactic inside Brazil’s environmental agencies, those who work there told VICE World News. One employee said they were approached by a military officer who was their superior after voicing opinions at work that were critical of the government’s environmental policies. “He reminded me that he was part of the military police and that they have contacts all over the country. He said if there is anything they need to know, they will find out about it,” the source said. “After that I became very paranoid and scared of persecution. I ended up getting depressed and had to seek treatment.”
But employees from Brazil’s beleaguered environmental agencies are pushing back. Ascema, the national association for environmental workers, is collecting persecution stories and plans to send a report to the United Nations detailing how the Bolsonaro government is actively “dismantling environmental policies in Brazil.” Members of Ascema said efforts to organize have been met with intimidating remarks from higher ups urging them to stop.
"We are seeing an absurd rise in cases [of persecution]. It's unlike anything I ever saw in my 40 years as a public servant," said Elizabeth Uema, one of the heads of the association who receives a constant stream of complaints from employees. Uema said the government’s strategy is to spread fear through subtle attacks. “Let’s say someone spoke to the media. That person will suddenly be barred from taking a course or receiving a benefit that they requested, or they will get transferred to a remote area forcing them to uproot their life,” she explained.
Despite living in fear, another member of the association, who asked not to be named, said there is no other choice but to resist. “It’s a fight for survival. Not just the survival of our jobs, but the future of what we do, which is keeping our country’s biodiversity alive.”