Geandro Guerreiro views a map on his phone showing his next destination in between the startling swerves the pick-up truck makes to avoid gaping holes in the dirt road.
“We’ve got around 10 plots of land to check in this area today. The owners probably won’t be there, but the aim is to record the offence, fly over the area and notify the culprits as quickly as possible.”
The man in charge of the ground mission here is supervising around 15 Ibama police officers in this Amazonian no man’s land, which is being eroded by pastures. “Everything in grey is land that has been illegally deforested and is already under embargo,” he explains, pointing to a map covered in spots. Here in the town of Pacaja, Guerreiro admits they have to tread carefully.
‘Hostility is often the order of the day’
In a recent interview with the international press, Ibama president Rodrigo Agostinho said the proliferation of weapons, which were made easier to buy under Bolsonaro, is making the work of field agents much more dangerous.
“Hostility is often the order of the day,” Guerreiro says. With his hand on his gun and always wearing his bullet-proof vest – even during his lunch break – Guerreiro lowers his voice but does not lower his guard. Just over a month ago, near Altamira in Ituna-Itata indigenous territory, his colleagues came under fire from residents and illegal herders. It’s a delicate balancing act in vast, remote territories, where it’s difficult to enforce the law.
That day, their unit caught a father and son red-handed. They were small farmers looking for a better life, far removed from the agribusiness giants that have been linked to the Amazon’s deforestation. Armed with machetes, the two men were about to clear a wood they claimed belonged to them. Things got heated.
“Ah, under Bolsonaro, at least we were free, he gave us the right to live our lives here!”
That is precisely why Guerreiro and his colleagues are hurrying to inspect this region of Para, which suffered record deforestation under the former government. Ibama is trying to outpace a five-year deadline on a measure that authorises anyone who claims a plot of land and officially declares it (to the National Institute for Colonisation and Agrarian Reform) to use that land if it is not brought under the control of the environmental police before it expires. It’s a simple “finders, keepers” rule.
‘It’s only just begun’
Since the tide turned in Brasilia, and the presidential palace changed hands, Ibama has been pulling out all the stops, raising its budget threefold since January. Starved of funding under Bolsonaro, Ibama has once again declared war on those responsible for deforestation. Jair Schmitt, Ibama’s director of environmental protection, is proud to have launched hundreds of field missions in every Amazonian region where deforestation was previously at record levels. And the results are in.
“We have seized more than 2 million cubic metres of illegal timber, brought more than 85 indigenous territories under control, seized 5,000 heads of cattle reared on illegal land and more than a dozen gold-mining sites have been destroyed,” Schmitt said. Much of this has taken place in Roraima state in the north of the country, where illegal mining has created a humanitarian crisis for the indigenous Yanomami people.
Almost 500,000 hectares of illegally cleared land have been reclaimed. “And it’s only just begun,” Schmitt says.
Referring to those who were looking to take advantage of the law, many of them Bolsonaro supporters, Schmitt was dismissive. “The angrier they get, the more it means we’re doing our job properly.”
Money is finally coming in again too, thanks to the many fines that are being levied. The institution’s first report shows that almost €1 billion in fines were doled out for deforestation in 2023, compared with around half that in 2022.
Ibama has come a long way, and not just in the field. At the head office in Brasilia, there’s a new lease on life. Notably, the phone line to the press office is finally working. Head of communications Daiane Cortes remembers the poisonous climate that prevailed when she first took up her post: civil servants threatened, posts abandoned, ghost rooms – and a press office that had been specifically instructed not to answer the press.
At the end of Bolsonaro’s term in office, the former staff had erased the access codes to social networking accounts. So they had to start from scratch, as well as go on a hiring spree after Bolsonaro emptied the institution of its brains and manpower.
“We were sabotaged, yes, so we’re in the process of institutional reconstruction,” says Schmitt. “We’re rebuilding the house from the ground up.”
And hiring remains a challenge. “We advertised 230 vacancies for civil servants in the last open call” and are waiting to launch a second one, Schmitt says. “Between Brasilia and the field, we need 2,400 more staff.”
‘The facts are there’
Amid lingering concerns about the environmental police’s struggle to control recent fires near Manaus, and the historic drought affecting the Amazon and Solimoes rivers, Schmitt says progress is being made.
“We reduced deforestation by 50% between January and September compared with the same period last year. The fires near Manaus, added to the natural El Nino phenomenon that we can’t control, is also the consequence of deforestation carried out in previous years in the same area.” He says Brazil‘s Ecological Research Institute (IPE) found there was a 25% reduction in the number of fires started between January and October.
The main thing overshadowing this new optimism and cooperation between the environmental police and the government is a possible oil drilling operation by national energy giant Petrobras close to the mouth of the Amazon River. With its potential of 5.6 billion barrels, the drilling could increase the country’s oil reserves by 37%. Supported by President Lula, the project has been heavily criticised by Ibama, which turned down an initial licence last May.
The drilling area would be located 500 kilometres from the mouth of the river and 170 kilometres from the Oiapok river, which marks the border with French Guyana. It’s a mammoth project that has been roundly condemned by environmental NGOs, who fear that the fragile coral of the Amazon coastline could disappear forever. Ibama chief Agostinho announced at a press conference on November 22 that he had not yet reached a decision on the matter but that he would give his response in early 2024.
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