Brazil environment funding flip-flop triggers alarm

BRASÍLIA (AFP) – Brazil’s Environment Ministry triggered an outcry on Friday by announcing it was halting operations against wildfires and Amazon deforestation because of budget cuts, before reversing course and saying it would maintain them.

It was the latest awkward moment on the environment for the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right climate change sceptic who faced scathing international criticism for presiding over surging deforestation and calling for the world’s biggest rainforest to be opened to mining and agriculture.

“As of midnight Monday, operations to combat illegal deforestation in the Amazon region and operations against wildfires in the Pantanal wetlands and other regions will be halted,” the Environment Ministry said in an initial statement.

It said the Economy Ministry blocked around BRL60 million in funding to two environmental regulatory agencies, forcing them to suspend operations.

Environmentalists immediately condemned the measure.

“This absurd cancellation comes at a time when deforestation levels and fires are increasing in the Amazon region and there is a record-breaking number of fires in the Pantanal,” the world’s biggest tropical wetlands, the World Wildlife Fund’s Brazil office said in a statement. Vice President Hamilton Mourao, who was appointed by Bolsonaro to lead a task force against deforestation, soon intervened to say Environment Minister Ricardo Salles had acted “hastily” and that the funding would not be blocked.

The environment ministry then did a U-turn, issuing a second statement that said the funds had been released and operations “will proceed as normal”.

Mourao attributed the fray to a request from Bolsonaro’s office for ministries to make cuts to help fund emergency stimulus payments of BRL600 a month the government has been making to poor Brazilians hit hard by the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

But the cuts are not mandatory, said the vice president.

Political analysts said the stimulus payments have driven Bolsonaro’s approval rating to the highest level since he took office in January 2019.

He has been scrambling to find funds to maintain them.

But the president is wary of reviving the international condemnation he faced last year when tens of thousands of fires ravaged the Amazon, raising fears for the future of a resource seen as vital to curbing climate change.