Brazil’s environmental workers tell of decline before fires

Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources agents often plunge deep into the jungle aboard helicopters or boats, wearing bulletproof vests and carrying arms to confront illegal loggers or ranchers. (Reuters)
Updated 17 September 2019

Brazil’s environmental workers tell of decline before fires

  • The sharp increase in fires this year has roused global concern because the Amazon rainforest acts as a bulwark against climate change
  • The decline began under the previous government in 2018, when operations were down 23% but accelerated this year

RIO DE JANEIRO: As fires burn across the Brazilian Amazon, the vast state of Amazonas has been among the hardest hit, with more than 6,600 blazes recorded in August, 2 1/2 times more than the same month a year ago.
Yet official documents seen by The Associated Press show that Brazil’s government has begun legal procedures to transfer all employees out of three of the state’s four federal environmental protection offices, which are in charge of defending the rainforest from deforestation, land grabbing and illegal fires.
It’s part of a broader erosion of the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, known by its Portuguese initials as Ibama, whose field operations appear to have declined sharply since the early part of this year. The agency’s funding for discretionary spending and enforcement operations this year faces a 24% cut, a significant blow to what two experts described as an already small budget.
The budget decrease came as part of a wider austerity push by President Jair Bolsonaro, who took office Jan. 1 and is seeking to rein in spending by Brazil’s financially strapped government. But critics note that he has also complained that environmental regulations hinder development in the Amazon.
Ibama staffers say the regional offices are critical to their jobs, giving them closer knowledge of problem areas and faster response times in the country’s most extensive state. larger than Texas, California and Montana combined.
Ibama agents often plunge deep into the jungle aboard helicopters or boats, wearing bulletproof vests and carrying arms to confront illegal loggers or ranchers who cut away the forest and then set fires to clear the land.
The sharp increase in fires this year has roused global concern because the Amazon rainforest acts as a bulwark against climate change. Its lush vegetation absorbs heat-trapping carbon dioxide and the moisture given off by its trees affects rainfall patterns and climate across South America and beyond.
Boslonaro told reporters he would attend the upcoming UN General Assembly in September to deliver a speech expected to focus on the Amazon, which he says was “ignored” by previous administrations.
His administration argues that the lack of economic opportunities and cumbersome red tape in the Amazon region contributes to rampant illegal deforestation. It says the region can be protected while allowing far more development than conservationists believe is safe.
Bolsonaro has sent troops to aid in fighting the blazes and banned fires to clear land in the Amazon for 60 days.
But the president has fiercely resisted efforts to treat the Amazon as a global issue, notably clashing with French President Emmanuel Macron, who told his Brazilian counterpart during the peak of the fires: “We cannot allow you to destroy everything.”
Bolsonaro has also accused non-governmental groups of inefficiency and trying to stifle Brazil’s economy by preventing development in the region.
The president also is no big fan of Ibama and its enforcement actions, complaining that an “industry of fines” has slowed economic development in Latin America’s largest nation.
“I will no longer allow Ibama to distribute fines right, left and center,” Bolsonaro said before taking office. There is a personal edge to the issue: He was fined by the agency years ago for fishing in a protected area.
Bolsonaro and Environment Minister Ricardo Salles have also talked of ending Ibama’s legal authority to burn heavy equipment being used by illegal loggers.
Critics say the top-level skepticism and budget cuts are having an impact in the field. On-the-ground operations carried out by Ibama agents from January through April declined 58% from the same period last year, according to official data obtained by the Brazilian group Climate Observatory. The decline began under the previous government in 2018, when operations were down 23% but accelerated this year.
Prosecutors in the northeastern state of Para, which borders Amazonas, are investigating the link between the decline in Ibama’s activities and the rise in fires this year, which have broken out at a pace not seen since 2010.
Federal prosecutor Ricardo Negrini said authorities failed to act when his office warned of reports that farmers in Para had called for “a day of fire” to ignite multiple blazes Aug. 10.
Ibama told prosecutors it wasn’t able to intervene because police forces in the state had been refusing to offer security. Ibama agents have sometimes been met with gunfire when confronting illegal loggers and miners.
Negrini said he found that state police had declined to escort Ibama agents for months despite a longstanding tradition of cooperation between the two bodies. Documents seen by AP show that police forces denied six requests from Ibama in June and July.
In the documents, police say the lack of an official cooperation agreement prevented them from joining such operations, though Negrini said that had not been an issue in the past.
Ibama and the environment ministry did not reply to several requests for comments.
But in the past months, hundreds of workers from Ibama and another public agency, the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation, have signed letters denouncing what they contend is government neglect of the environment.
Ten employees of environmental agencies interviewed by AP complained of a growing sense of censorship, intimidation and retaliations from superiors.
“This is not a problem of difficult transition (from one administration to the other), because people are trying to understand how to do their jobs,” said André Barbosa, president of an association of federal environmental employees in Rio de Janeiro. “This is a project to break the system down, so that people no longer have the capacity to work.”
In response to such complaints from public workers, federal prosecutors issued a statement this month asking government officials to strengthen environmental protection and to refrain from encouraging law-breaking or delegitimizing the work of Ibama agents.
They also gave officials 30 days to present information that proves they had used “technical criteria” to appoint new supervisors, many of whom have a military background.


Fears of Islamophobia in the UK even as record number of Muslim MPs elected 

Updated 15 December 2019

Fears of Islamophobia in the UK even as record number of Muslim MPs elected 

  • MCB warning comes after Johnson’s landslide election result
  • UK saw a record number of 220 women elected to the House of Commons   

LONDON: There is a “palpable sense of fear amongst Muslim communities” in the UK, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) has warned, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson secured a crushing victory in the 2019 general election.
“We entered the election campaign period with longstanding concerns about bigotry in our politics and our governing party. Now we worry that Islamophobia is ‘oven-ready’ for government. Mr Johnson has been entrusted with huge power, and we pray it is exercised responsibly for all Britons,” the MCB’s Secretary-General Harun Khan said. 
The warning came as accusations of Islamophobia within the Conservative Party continue to plague it.
Despite concern that Islamophobia is “oven-ready” for government, a record number of Muslim MPs were elected on Thursday, with 19 winning seats in the general election; an increase of four from the last election in 2017.
Of these, 15 belong to the Labour Party and the other four, including Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid, are Conservatives. 
As the UK saw a record number of 220 women elected to the House of Commons, this trend was also seen in the number of Muslim women, with 10 winning seats. 
Despite this, Muslims are still not proportionally represented in parliament.
Only 3 percent of the UK’s 650 MPs are Muslim, whilst the country’s Muslim population stands at around 5 percent.
The MCB’s concerns about bigotry and Islamophobia were echoed on Thursday by ex-party chairwoman Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the first female Muslim cabinet member.
Warsi said the Conservative Party “must start healing its relationship with British Muslims,” and the fact that her colleagues in the party had retweeted comments from Islamophobes Tommy Robinson and Katie Hopkins was “deeply disturbing.” 
She added: “An independent inquiry into Islamophobia is a must — the battle to root out racism must now intensify.”
The Tory peer has repeatedly called for an inquiry into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, and told BBC Radio 4’s Today program in November that the party had a “deep problem” with Islamophobia. 
“Remember, we’re now four years into these matters first being brought to the attention of the party … the fact that we’re still prevaricating about even having an inquiry, and the kind of inquiry we’re going to have, shows just how dismissive the party have been on the issue of Islamophobia.”

Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and Labour MP for Bolton South East Yasmin Qureshi (L) attend a general election campaign event in Bolton, Britain December 10, 2019. (Reuters)


Later in November, Johnson apologized for the “hurt and offence” that had been caused by Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, and said that an inquiry into “every manner of prejudice and discrimination” would begin by Christmas. 
Despite apologizing, he remained silent about his own comments on Muslim women wearing the niqab in his Daily Telegraph column in August 2018, when he wrote that Muslim women wearing it “look like letter boxes” or “bank robbers.”
Fourteen party members were suspended in March after posting Islamophobic or racist comments on social media, and a member who had previously been suspended in 2015 for comments on social media was due to stand in local elections this year. 
Peter Lamb was readmitted to the party after he had served a suspension and apologized for his comments.
Lamb, who has since quit the party, tweeted in 2015: “Islam (is) like alcoholism. The first step to recovery is admit you have a problem.”
Yasmin Qureshi, a female Muslim Labour MP, has held her Bolton South East seat since 2010 and was re-elected on Thursday for the fourth time.
Speaking to Arab News, Qureshi said many Muslims were “very fearful and very disappointed” at Johnson’s victory.
“Generally, you can say whatever you want about Muslims in this country now and nobody is really bothered, nobody challenges it, and if it is challenged, it is very mildly dealt with.
“Islamophobia is a big issue and although everybody rightly spoke about anti-semitism, there was not as much emphasis and talk about Islamophobia.
“Islamophobia is not just in the Conservative party, it is actually in the establishment. It is especially present in the media in this country; most of the newspapers of our country are very right-wing and anti-Muslim.
She added: “It doesn’t matter whether you malign Muslims, it’s essentially okay, you can get away with it. That is sadly a reflection of the current state of affairs in the UK.”