Letter on the Amazon and its Defenders to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)

As the OECD Environment Policy Committee (EPOC) prepares to review Brazil’s status with the committee at its upcoming meeting in February, we are urging member states’ delegations to examine the environmental and human rights impacts of President Jair Bolsonaro’s disastrous policies in the Amazon, which we believe should disqualify Brazil from a status upgrade at this time.

EPOC’s mandate includes supporting “the development of policies aiming at protecting and restoring the environment as well as responding to major environmental issues and threats.” It also includes ensuring that “the views and expertise of non-government institutions are drawn upon in the conduct of OECD’s environmental work.”[1]

The Bolsonaro administration, however, has actively and openly worked against these objectives. It has sabotaged Brazil’s environmental law enforcement agencies, falsely accused civil society organizations of environmental crimes and sidelined them from policymaking, and sought to undermine Indigenous rights. As we detail in the attached briefing document, these policies have contributed to soaring deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon, an ecosystem vital for containing global warming.

President Bolsonaro’s rhetoric and actions have effectively given a green light to criminal networks that are driving much of the deforestation. These mafias engage in acts of violence and intimidation against Brazilian forest defenders, including environmental enforcement agents, Indigenous communities, and other local residents. The fires that they and others set to clear deforested land produce pollution that poisons the air breathed by millions of Brazilians, taking a grave toll on public health in the region. Those responsible for the environmental crimes, violence, and fires are almost never brought to justice. 

If OECD member states were to upgrade Brazil’s EPOC status while the Bolsonaro government is so flagrantly flouting the principles espoused by the committee in its mandate–with devastating consequences for the environment and human rights in the Amazon–it would undermine the credibility of the EPOC’s commitment to these principles. It would also send a discouraging message to the many Brazilians who are facing violence and intimidation in retaliation for their efforts to preserve the world’s largest rainforest.

More broadly, in future discussions on Brazil’s request for OECD accession, we urge you to pay close attention to the Bolsonaro’s administration’s record with regard to environmental policies, deforestation, and respect for the rights of forest defenders and Indigenous peoples. OECD member states should send a clear signal to the Bolsonaro government that they will not support Brazil’s candidacy unless its current policies on those issues radically change to protect the environment and support its defenders, and until Brazil demonstrates concrete results in reducing deforestation and lawlessness in the Amazon.

I. Deforestation

Since President Bolsonaro took office in 2019, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has increased dramatically. The increase was more than 30 percent during the first year of his administration and an additional 9.5 percent during the second year, according to official figures.[2] Last year, over 11,000 square kilometers of rainforest were lost, nearly triple the 3,925 square kilometers target that Brazil committed itself to reaching by 2020 as part of its National Climate Change Policy.[3] Overall, deforestation under President Bolsonaro has reached the highest level over the past decade.

The accelerated destruction of the Brazilian Amazon could have devastating consequences for the region and global efforts to mitigate climate change. Scientists estimate that 17 percent of all the Amazon has already been deforested. If the current rate of destruction continues, between 20 and 25 per cent of the rainforest could be cleared in under two decades, pushing the Amazon towards a tipping point when vast portions of the rainforest would turn into dry savannah, decimating Brazilian agriculture, altering weather patterns and water cycles across South America, and releasing billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere.[4]

The Deforestation of the Legal Amazon Satellite Monitoring Project (PRODES), a system run by Brazil’s National Space Research Agency (INPE), produces annual official estimates of clear-cut deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon through analysis of satellite imagery.[5] The consolidated figure covers the 12-month period from August of the previous year through July (it does not provide month-to-month estimates). As evidenced by PRODES figures, deforestation under President Bolsonaro is significantly higher than any other year over the past decade (see graph below).

The Real-Time Deforestation Detection System (DETER), operated by INPE, provides near real-time alerts of deforestation based on satellite imagery to guide environmental enforcement efforts. The alerts are an indication of deforestation but, because of cloud cover and other factors, they often underestimate total deforestation in relation to PRODES. Unlike PRODES, however, DETER does provide daily and monthly estimates of deforestation. DETER monthly estimates show that over two thirds of the deforestation in the period between August 2018 and June 2019 took place after President Jair Bolsonaro took office.[6]

II. Forest Fires

Forest fires are closely linked to deforestation in Brazil. They do not occur naturally in the wet ecosystem of the Amazon basin, but rather are frequently started by people completing the process of deforestation where the trees of value have already been removed, often illegally. A total of 55 percent of the area cleared in the rainforest in 2019 was burned, equivalent to over 5,500 square kilometers.[7] Data is not available for the area deforested and burned in 2020, but the number of fires detected in 2020 increased by 15,7 percent in relation to 2019.[8]

The impact of these fires extends beyond the deforested lands when they spread to the remaining forest, destroying healthy trees, and opening up the overstory. This enables more sunlight to penetrate the forest, drying up vegetation on the ground and making it more flammable, leaving the forest more vulnerable for the next burning season.

In addition to the environmental consequences, the forest fires linked to deforestation produce air pollution that has a significant negative impact on public health in the Amazon region. In 2019, the pollution from the fires led to 2,195 hospitalizations due to respiratory illness, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, the Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia (IPAM) and the Instituto de Estudos para Políticas de Saúde (IEPS) that analyzed official health and environmental data.[9]

Hospitalizations are a small fraction of the overall health toll of the fires. In total, the air pollution affected millions of people. In August 2019, nearly 3 million people in the Amazon region were exposed to harmful air pollution levels above the World Health Organization’s recommended threshold. The number increased to 4.5 million people in September, the report showed (see graphs below). [10]

III.  Weakened Environmental Agencies

Since President Bolsonaro took office in 2019, his administration has moved aggressively to undermine the enforcement of environmental laws in Brazil. 

IV. Impunity for Environmental Destruction

The Bolsonaro administration also moved to reduce the sanctions faced by those caught engaging in illegal logging and other environmental crimes. 

V. Undermining Protection of Indigenous Territories

The demarcation and protection of Indigenous territories has been a cornerstone of successful conservation efforts in the Amazon, as well as a fundamental step toward the recognition a
nd respect of Indigenous rights.[28] Under the Bolsonaro administration, illegal incursions and environmental destruction within these areas have greatly increased, encouraged by the president’s rhetoric and actions to undermine oversight of these territories.[29]

VI. Impunity for Violence Against Forest Defenders

VII. Corruption Linked to Environmental Destruction

VIII. Hostility Toward Civil Society


[3] Brazil pledged at the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as the Copenhagen Summit, to reduce deforestation in the Amazon region by 80 percent by 2020 compared to average annual deforestation in the region between 1996 and 2005. That average was 19,625 square kilometers, which means that to achieve its pledge, Brazil would have to reduce deforestation to 3,925 square kilometers per year by 2020. Brazil established a National Policy on Climate Change by law in 2009, implemented by Decree 7,390 in 2010, which was replaced by Decree 9,578 in 2018. The decrees incorporated into domestic law the pledge that Brazil made at the Copenhagen Summit. Law 12,187, December 29, 2009, http://www.planalto.gov.br/ccivil_03/_ato2007-2010/2009/lei/l12187.htm (accessed June 30, 2019); Decree 9,578, November 22, 2018, http://www.planalto.gov.br/ccivil_03/_Ato2015-2018/2018/Decreto/D9578.htm (accessed January 26, 2021). For the deforestation data, see National Space Research Agency of Brazil (INPE), Nota técnica: Estimativa do PRODES, 2020 http://www.obt.inpe.br/OBT/noticias-obt-inpe/estimativa-de-desmatamento-por-corte-raso-na-amazonia-legal-para-2020-e-de-11-088-km2/NotaTecnica_Estimativa_PRODES_2020.pdf (accessed January 14, 2021).

[4] Thomas E. Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre, “Amazon Tipping Point”, Nature, Science Advances  21 Feb 2018:

Vol. 4, no. 2, https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/4/2/eaat2340 (accessed January 25, 2021); Thomas E. Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre, “Amazon tipping point: Last chance for action,” Science Advances  20 Dec 2019:Vol. 5, no. 12, https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/12/eaba2949 (accessed January 25, 2021).

[5] Brazil’s “Amazon” refers to the area known as “Legal Amazon” under Law 1,806/1953 that includes the states of Acre, Amapá, Amazonas, Mato Grosso, Pará, Rondônia, Roraima, Tocantins, and the western part of Maranhão. (Law 1,806/1953).

[7] Moutinho, P., Alencar, A., Arruda, V., Castro,I., e Artaxo, P., “Nota técnica nº 3: Amazônia em Chamas – desmatamento e fogo em tempos de covid-19,” Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia, Brasília, 2020, https://ipam.org.br/bibliotecas/amazonia-em-chamas-4-desmatamento-e-fogo-em-tempos-de-covid-19-na-amazonia/ (accessed July 20, 2020).

[11] “Bolsonaro diz que negociou com ministro do Meio Ambiente ‘uma limpa’ no IBAMA e no ICMBio,” G1, April 29, 2019, https://g1.globo.com/sp/ribeirao-preto-franca/noticia/2019/04/29/bolsonaro-diz-que-negociou-com-ministro-do-meio-ambiente-uma-limpa-no-ibama-e-no-icmbio.ghtml (accessed June 19, 2019).

[13] The evaluation was conducted by Brazil’s Federal Court of Accounts (TCU), which is responsible for the accounting, financial, budgetary, operational and patrimonial inspection of public bodies and entities in the country as to legality, legitimacy and economy, see TCU, Institucional: https://portal.tcu.gov.br/institucional/conheca-o-tcu/competencias/ (accessed January 26, 2021). The news outlet Estadao obtained the TCU report and published its conclusions; see André Borges, “Nomeações de militares por Salles no Ibama são irregulares, aponta auditoria do TCU,” Estadao, November 11, 2020, https://politica.estadao.com.br/noticias/geral,nomeacoes-de-militares-por-salles-no-ibama-sao-irregulares-aponta-auditoria-do-tcu,70003510029 (accessed January 26, 2021). The other regional directors evaluated and deemed unsuitable were in Amapá, Amazonas, Maranhão and Rondônia.

[14] The 1,600 inspectors in 2009 and the 780 in 2019 included field agents and others who work borders and airports. Human Rights Watch interviews with Suely Araújo, then IBAMA president, Brasília, April 3, 2018; and Luciano Evaristo, then director of director of environmental protection at IBAMA, Brasília, April 3, 2018. Open letter by IBAMA agents to IBAMA president, August 26, 2019, copy on file at Human Rights Watch. Letter from IBAMA staff to IBAMA president Eduardo Bim, July 21, 2020, http://www.ascemanacional.org.br/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/SEI_IBAMA-8011719-Manifestac%CC%A7a%CC%83o-Te%CC%81cnica.pdf (accessed January 1, 2021).

[15] Human Rights Watch interview with a high-level IBAMA official, Pará, May 3, 2019. He asked that his identity be kept confidential because he did not have authorization from his superiors to speak publicly.

[17] Fernando Tadeu Moraes, “Ministério do Meio Ambiente impõe mordaça ao Ibama,” Folha de Sao Paulo, March 13, 2019, https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/ambiente/2019/03/ministerio-do-meio-ambiente-impoe-mordaca-ao-ibama.shtml (accessed January 26, 2021). Ordinance n° 202, March 11, 2019, https://www.in.gov.br/web/dou/-/portaria-n-202-de-11-de-marco-de-2019-66758558 (accessed January 26, 2021).

[19] Decree n° 10,239/2020, February 11, 2020, Art. 3, http://www.planalto.gov.br/ccivil_03/_ato2019-2022/2020/Decreto/D10239.htm (accessed June 5, 2020).

[20] Rubens Valente, “Mourão forma Conselho da Amazônia com 19 militares e sem Ibama e Funai,” UOL, April 18, 2020. https://noticias.uol.com.br/colunas/rubens-valente/2020/04/18/conselho-amazonia-mourao.htm (accessed June 5, 2020).

[22] Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia (IPAM), “Desmatamento em florestas públicas da Amazônia explode em dois anos,” December 16, 2020, https://ipam.org.br/desmatamento-em-areas-griladas-nas-florestas-publicas-da-amazonia-explode-em-dois-anos/ (accessed January 26, 2021). See also: Claudia Azevedo-Ramosa, Paulo Moutinho, Vera Laísa da S. Arruda, Marcelo C.C. Stabile, Ane Alencar, Isabel Castro, João Paulo Ribeiro, “Lawless land in no man’s land: The undesignated public forests in the

Brazilian Amazon,” Land Use Policy 99, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landusepol.2020.104863 (accessed January 25, 2020).

[24] Between 2013 and 2017, IBAMA had issued an average of 16,000 fines every year, according to the Office of the Comptroller General, see: Fakebook.eco, “Sob Bolsonaro, multas do IBAMA caem para menor nível em duas décadas,” January 12, 2021, https://fakebook.eco.br/sob-bolsonaro-multas-do-ibama-caem-para-menor-nivel-em-duas-decadas/ (accessed January 15, 2021). Fakebook.eco is a fact-checking initiative of Observatório do Clima, a coalition of Brazil’s most prominent environmental organizations.

[26] In December 2019, Human Rights Watch filed a request before the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) under the Access to Information Law, asking how many conciliation hearings had been held. In January 2020, IBAMA responded that there had not been any hearings. In April 2020, IBAMA’s media office responded in writing to a Human Rights Watch request for updated information. It said that only five conciliation hearings had been held by that date, and that due to the Covid-19 health emergency, all additional hearings had been suspended. In December 2020, following another information request under the Access to Information Law, IBAMA provided similar information and added that the hearings were resuming based on a new ordinance.

[28] International Labor Organization Convention No. 169, ratified by Brazil on July 24, 2002, https://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=1000:11200:0::NO:11200:P11200_COUNTRY_ID:102571 (accessed January 27, 2021), Art. 14; UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the UN General Assembly on September 13, 2007, including Brazil, https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/wp-content/uploads/sites/19/2018/11/UNDRIP_E_web.pdf (accessed January 27, 2021), Art. 8. Nepstad, Daniel, et al., “Slowing Amazon Deforestation through Public Policy and Interventions in Beef and Soy Supply Chains,” Science 344, 1118 (2014), DOI: 10.1126/science.1248525

[30] Daniel Biasetto, “Sob Bolsonaro, Funai e Ministério da Justiça travam demarcação de terras indígenas,” O Globo, January 3, 2021, https://oglobo.globo.com/brasil/sob-bolsonaro-funai-ministerio-da-justica-travam-demarcacao-de-terras-indigenas-24820597 (accessed January 25, 2021); Constitution of the Federative Republic of Brazil, 1988, art. 231, http://www.stf.jus.br/arquivo/cms/legislacaoConstituicao/anexo/brazil_federal_constitution.pdf (accessed June 22, 2019).

[31] Ernesto Londoño, “Jair Bolsonaro, on Day 1, Undermines Indigenous Brazilians’ Rights,” The New York Times, January 2, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/02/world/americas/brazil-bolsonaro-president-indigenous-lands.html (accessed June 5, 2020); Draft bill n° 191/2019, February 6, 2020, https://www.camara.leg.br/proposicoesWeb/fichadetramitacao?idProposicao=2236765 (accessed June 5, 2020); Maria Laura Canineu and Andrea Carvalho, “Bolsonaro’s Plan to Legalize Crimes Against Indigenous Peoples,” UOL Noticias, https://noticias.uol.com.br/politica/ultimas-noticias/2020/03/01/artigo-proposta-de-bolsonaro-para-legalizar-crimes-contra-povos-indigenas.htm (accessed January 25, 2021).

[32] Human Rights Watch interview with an ICMBio official, Brasília, August 15, 2019. The official asked that his name be withheld for fear of reprisals.

[41] For Conama, see: Law 6,938 from August 31, 1981 created the CONAMA. Decree 99,274, from June 6, 1990, established that CONAMA would have 96 members, including representatives of federal, state, and municipal governments and 22 representatives of “workers and civil society.” Decree 9,806 from May 28, 2019 reduced the size of the council to 23 members and increased the relative representation of the federal government from 29 percent to 44 percent. Civil society was reduced to four seats, assigned by a lottery system for a one-year term. Civil society organizations previously had selected representatives to most of the seats reserved for civil society, and they were for a two-year term. Representação relativa à inconstitucionalidade do Decreto nº 9.806/2019” (Representation about the unconstitutionality of Decree No. 9.806/2019), Federal Prosecutor’s Office, August 28, 2019, p. 4, copy on file; See Law nº 8,080, September 19, 1990, Art. 13 and Art. 16, II, http://www.planalto.gov.br/ccivil_03/leis/l8080.htm (accessed July 4, 2020). For the Climate Fund, see Law n° 12.114, December 9, 2009, http://www.planalto.gov.br/ccivil_03/_ato2007-2010/2009/lei/l12114.htm (accessed January 18, 2021).

[42] BRANT, D. Bolsonaro critica diretor do Inpe por dados sobre desmatamento que ‘prejudicam’ nome do Brasil. Folha de São Paulo, 19 julho, 2019, https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/ambiente/2019/07/bolsonaro-critica-diretor-do-inpe-por-dados-sobre-desmatamento-que-prejudicam-nome-do-brasil.shtml : Gustavo Uribe, “Após dados negativos, Mourão diz que há oposição ao governo no Inpe,” Folha de São Paulo, September 15, 2020, https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/ambiente/2020/09/apos-dados-negativos-mourao-diz-que-ha-oposicao-ao-governo-no-inpe.shtml (accessed January 25, 2021).