March 5, 2020 / 9:33 PM / 24 days ago

Brazil restricts environmental employees' media contact after Amazon wood exports report

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazil’s environmental agency Ibama on Thursday published an order restricting contact between its employees and journalists, following a Reuters report on thousands of cargos of Amazon rainforest wood being exported without agency authorization.

The order, published in the official government gazette and signed by Ibama chief Eduardo Bim, states that contact with reporters must only be conducted through its press office or a representative designated by the press office.

The directive instructs department chiefs and other leaders at the agency to enforce the rules and report any knowledge of contact with journalists.

Reuters reported on Wednesday, citing people with direct knowledge of the matter, that thousands of shipments of wood had been exported from a single Amazon port last year to the United States and Europe without receiving Ibama’s authorization.

The sources said that the lack of authorizations meant there was a higher likelihood the exported wood is linked to illegal deforestation in the Amazon.

After the problem came to light, Bim changed Ibama’s regulations to eliminate the requirement for the agency to authorize exports, overruling a separate report by five Ibama analysts, according to an internal document reviewed by Reuters.

Ibama responded to questions from Reuters with a description of how current export approvals from the federal revenue service are only issued after cross checking the national system for tracking domestic wood production and transport to confirm the lumber’s origin. Ibama agents can still choose to make physical inspections of wood cargos headed for export, it said.

The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest and is seen as vital to curbing climate change because of the vast amount of greenhouse gas that it absorbs and stores.

Deforestation of Brazil’s rainforest surged to the highest level in 11 years after President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, provoking condemnation from environmentalists and some international leaders.

Scientists and activists blame Bolsonaro’s development plans in the Amazon for emboldening illegal loggers, ranchers and land speculators. Bolsonaro has said that he is unfairly demonized and that Brazil remains a model for proper environmental conservation given that much of the Amazon is still standing.

Brazil’s government had already restricted the operations of Ibama’s press office, with the agency in the first months of the Bolsonaro administration saying that all questions must instead be directed to the Environment Ministry.

Reporting by Jake Spring; editing by Grant McCool

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