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.


Pakistan takes steps to turn locust infestation into farming benefit

Updated 04 August 2020

Pakistan takes steps to turn locust infestation into farming benefit

  • Pakistan’s worst locust infestation in about 30 years started in June 2019

ISLAMABAD: First the idea was to feed them to chickens, now the plan is to grind them into fertilizer — as more locust swarms threaten Pakistan’s crops, a project aims to test ways of killing and using the voracious pests for the benefit of local communities.
Pakistan’s worst locust infestation in about 30 years started in June 2019, when the insects came over from Iran in a surge climate experts link to changing conditions conducive to the spread of the insects.
This summer, the locusts are breeding locally, says the Pakistani government, which is trying to head off another attack by spraying pesticides on newborn locusts — called hoppers because they cannot fly — in desert areas on the Indian border.
But worries that the pesticides could be harmful to plants, animals and people have motivated researchers to seek chemical-free methods of cutting the locust population.
“We wanted to come up with a locust control project that would be environmentally friendly and sustainable,” said biotechnologist Johar Ali.
For Ali and his colleague Muhammad Khurshid, who was working for the food ministry at the time, the answer was chicken feed.
In February, the state-run Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) sent Ali and Khurshid, now with the privatization ministry, to implement a three-day trial in Punjab province in eastern Pakistan.
During an infestation this spring, villagers in Okara district plucked locusts — which are largely immobile at night — off trees in a nearby forest, gathering about 20 tons of the flying insects.
The project team bought the bugs for 20 Pakistani rupees a kilo, then sold them to a nearby processing plant, which dried them and mixed them into chicken feed, Ali said.
The aim was to help control the locust surge in forested and heavily populated areas, where widespread pesticide spraying is not possible, while also generating income for communities hit by the swarms.
“It’s an out-of-box solution,” Ali said. “It could easily be scaled up in our populated rural areas. Yes, in our desert areas where locusts breed, chemical sprays make sense — but not in areas where we have farms with crops, livestock and people.”
In June, the government shifted the focus from chicken feed to compost, after PARC decided fertilizer was a safer and more feasible use for the insects.
Last month, communities living in the desert areas of Cholistan, Tharparkar, Nara and Thal were trained on how to catch locusts as they head there to breed for the season.
The next step is to look at how to turn the pests into organic fertilizer, explained PARC chairman Muhammad Azeem Khan.
By providing a “slow and continuous” release of nutrients, the compost could help farmers increase their yields by 30 percent and cut their use of chemical fertilizer in half, he said.
Pakistan’s current locust problem started with what Muhammad Tariq Khan, technical director of the food security ministry’s plant protection department, called a “climate change-induced international locust crisis” in Yemen and East Africa.
“Two big cyclones in 2018 dumped enough water in a desert area called the Empty Quarter in the Arabian Peninsula for three generations of locusts to grow undetected,” he said.
Torn by civil war, Yemen was unable to focus on exterminating the pests, which lay their eggs beneath the soil, and so “they came up like a bomb,” Khan said.
July’s monsoon rains arrived 10 days earlier than usual in Pakistan, creating moist soil conditions favorable for the locusts to breed in the border desert area, Khan said.
Swarms are also expected to arrive soon in Pakistan from Somalia, he said.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates losses to agriculture from locusts this year could be as high as 353 billion rupees ($2.2 billion) for winter crops like wheat and potatoes and about 464 billion rupees for summer crops.
“You can’t eradicate locusts, but you can control them. In this situation we have to rely on chemicals,” Khan said.
So far, insecticide-spraying operations have been carried out in 32 affected districts — both desert and cropping areas — spread over about 1 million hectares.
Pakistan’s pesticide-spraying operations had made it impossible to ensure the locusts eaten by poultry would be chemical-free, said PARC’s Azeem Khan.
“Sprayed locusts, if used as feed, are a threat to human health,” he said.
The new project, which has been approved by the National Locust Control Center, will entail buying living and dead locusts from local communities at 25 rupees per kilo.
The bugs will then be mixed with bio-waste such as manure and vegetation to turn them into compost, Azeem Khan said.
PARC is now analyzing samples of dead and decomposing locusts that have been sprayed with insecticide to assess the levels of chemical residue on them, he noted.
The PARC chairman said the government had earmarked $15 million for the project, with just over half going to the communities and the rest toward compost-processing.