Amazonia Is Burning. Corruption Is One of the Reasons.

Amazonia is the largest tropical rainforest in the world, spread over nine South American countries (Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, French Guyana, Peru, Surinam, and Venezuela), with approximately 60% of the forest (over four million square kilometers) located in in the north of Brazil. Brazilian Amazonia is home to around 45,000 different plant and animal species. This rainforest is also crucial to the global environment, especially with respect to climate change. During the past several months, an increase in the number and extent of forest fires in Brazilian Amazonia has triggered great concern, much of it focused on whether the Bolsonaro Administration’s policies are partly to blame for the widespread fires. While that conversation is no doubt important, it is also crucial to recognize that environmental crimes in Amazonia—including those related to the fires—are in part the product of widespread corruption, and that addressing Amazonia’s environmental crisis will require addressing Brazil’s governance crisis as well.

To understand how and why corruption is contributing to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, a bit of background is in order. The greatest environmental threats in this region are the illegal harvesting of timber and the illegal clearing of land (often through burning) to prepare the land for commercial use for agriculture and livestock. (Between 70% and 80% of the deforested area in Amazonia has been used to create pasture for breeding cattle to produce meat for domestic and international consumption.) To be sure, Brazil has laws in place to protect Amazonia from over-exploitation and other forms of environmental damage. About 80% of the land in Amazonia is publicly owned; on this public land, the forest may not be exploited or burned. The remaining 20% of Amazonia is private land owned by individuals or corporations; even for this privately owned land, Brazilian law requires that the owners keep between 50% and 80% of the area intact and unexploited. The Brazilian government is responsible for enforcing these rules and for regulating and overseeing the extraction, transportation, and commercialization of timber from Amazonia. The regulatory system involves government approval of forest management plans, the issuance of permits for timber harvesting and land clearing, and the tracking of timber to ensure that it was not illegally removed from public lands or from the protected areas of private lands.

That’s how it’s supposed to work. But in practice, private companies collude with corrupt public servants—forest wardens, police officers, and others—to evade these rules. As a result, substantial quantities of timber are illegally extracted from public lands and protected private areas, and agricultural and livestock interests illegally burn and clear irreplaceable forests. The corrupted public servants not only turn a blind eye to these environmental crimes, but they also warn the infringers about possible inspections by other agents.

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International Scholars, Stay in Your Lane: The Risks of Uninformed Foreign Commentary on Corruption Cases

Last June, a group of international scholars and jurists published an article in the French newspaper Le Monde arguing that former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula), who was convicted and imprisoned in a case related to the Lava Jato (Car Wash) anticorruption investigation, did not receive a fair trial, and was the victim of political persecution. A couple months later, a slightly revised version of the article, styled as an open letter to the Brazilian people and Supreme Court, appeared in the Brazilian media, where it made quite a splash. The letter, which was republished on GAB last month, was signed by prominent US scholars, including Susan Rose-Ackerman and Bruce Ackerman, as well as lawyers, professors, and former judges from numerous Latin American and European countries. Echoing accusations leveled by The Intercept and other media outlets, the letter claimed that presiding judge Sergio Moro (now Justice Minister) conducted the proceedings in a partial fashion and directed the prosecution “in contempt for fundamental rules of the Brazilian procedure.” Judge Moro, the letter asserts, “manipulated substantial assistance plea bargaining mechanisms, oriented the prosecution service works, required the substitution of a prosecutor, and directed the prosecution’s public communication strategy.” Furthermore, the letter states that the Judge “wiretapped Lula’s lawyers” and “disobeyed an order from an appeal judge to release Lula”. The letter also contended that there was no material evidence of Lula’s corruption, and that his arrest, prosecution, and conviction were all prompted by the illicit political motive of excluding him from the 2018 presidential elections. In light of all this, the letter asserted that the Brazilian Supreme Court has a duty to release Lula and nullify his conviction.

These accusations are largely baseless, or at least presented in an extremely one-sided fashion that parrots what have become the standard talking points of Lula’s supporters. The Car Wash prosecutors effectively debunked the texts’ main arguments in a rebuttal also published on this blog. (The blog also published a response from Lula’s lawyers that rehashed the same talking points and alluded to as-yet-undisclosed evidence, but that didn’t otherwise counter the prosecutors’ clear documentation of the open letter’s many errors.) What most troubled me about the original article and the open letter was less the fact that these arguments were being advanced—again, by now they’re familiar pro-Lula talking points—but the fact that the texts were signed not only by lawyers, but also by renowned law and political science professors. Lawyers are expected to act as advocates. But scholars are supposed to be more judicious, more scrupulous about evidence, and more circumspect about making bold, aggressive claims on subjects whose factual and legal particularities they don’t fully understand. Continue reading