A quarter of Brazil’s new congress tainted by campaign donations from illegal deforesters


A new Repórter Brasil investigations finds illegal land clearers and parties linked to slave labour backed congress members, while Earthsight research reveals further details of forest crimes committed by donors

Brazilian Senate chamber. Photo: Agencia Brasil

The donations were made during the presidential and legislative electoral campaigns of October 2018. The elected congressmen and women took their seats on 1 February.

Repórter Brasil, an investigative NGO, compared lists of donors made available by the High Electoral Court (TSE) with those of individuals and companies sanctioned by Ibama – Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency – or named on the Labour Ministry’s “dirty list” of slave labour.

The NGO’s researchers found that 131 federal deputies – 25% of the lower chamber of congress – and 17 senators – 21% of the senate – received a total of R$8.3m ($2.2m) from businessmen implicated in environmental or labour violations.

Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina and President Bolsonaro’s Chief of Staff Onyx Lorenzoni are among the parliamentarians who have received such donations (they were both elected to congress but have since taken up ministerial posts).

Senators Renan Calheiros and Rodrigo Pacheco received the largest sums, at R$500,000 ($134,000) each. Calheiros received this sum (20% of his total campaign funds) from Cícero Rafael Tenório da Silva, a businessmen fined no less than 10 times by Ibama for illegal deforestation.

Earthsight’s own research of Ibama’s public database shows that Tenório da Silva has had at least two farms in the state of Alagoas – Rio Bonito and Esperança – suspended for illegal clearing of protected areas at the Atlantic Forest biome.

Businessman Ariel Horovitz, a soy and cotton producer in the state of Bahia, donated R$15,000 ($4,000) to the campaign of federal deputy Jerônimo Goergen, who was at some point cogitated as the potential Agriculture Minister. Horovitz has been fined no less than seven times by Ibama.

Earthsight’s research shows that between 2008 and 2015 Horovitz was sanctioned by Ibama for illegal deforestation, illegal timber trade, pollution and other violations. The fines add up to R$2.5m ($670,000). He’s paid two of them ($16,000) and is disputing the others.

The biggest campaign donor was Rubens Ometto, who donated R$7.5m ($2m) to 65 candidates. He is the founder of Grupo Cosan, found to have subjected 49 workers to conditions analogous to slavery at sugar cane plantations. 

He donated R$200,000 ($53,500) to Onyx Lorenzoni and R$50,000 ($13,400) to Tereza Cristina (Cristina also received a donation of $26,800 from Marcos Marinho Lutz, managing director of Cosan).

In a statement sent to Repórter Brasil, Tereza Cristina has denied any potential conflicts of interest as a result of the donations.

Senator Luis Carlos Heinze received R$100,000 ($26,800) from Ometto and another R$25,000 ($6,700) from a businessman fined by Ibama for illegal deforestation.

Working conditions analogous to slavery have been identified in several farms throughout Brazil. Photo: João Ripper/Repórter Brasil

Senator Cid Gomes, brother of presidential candidate Ciro Gomes, received R$350m ($93,800) from businessmen connected to Esperança Agropecuária, an agribusiness implicated in slave labour, and Cascaju Agroindustrial, fined by Ibama. 

Earthsight’s own research has showed that both companies belong to the Edson Queiroz Group, but that Cascaju Agroindustrial no longer operates.

Ibama’s database shows that in 2011 Cascaju Agroindustrial had its Retiro Grande farm in the state of Ceará suspended due to illegal deforestation of protected areas. 

Cascaju reportedly exported 75% of its production of packaged roasted and salted cashew nuts with the brand name Cashews Royale.

With three farms in the states of Ceará, Maranhão and Piauí, Esperança Agropecuária is one of Brazil’s largest dairy producers.

The Edson Queiroz Group also owns companies in a number of sectors, including mineral water, domestic appliances, liquefied gas, media, and home paint.

According to Repórter Brasil, these electoral donations can help us “understand the interests behind parliamentarians’ actions.”

The October elections brought to power President Jair Bolsonaro, who has aligned himself closely to the agribusiness sector.

Tereza Cristina is a former leader of the Parliamentary Farming Front (FPA) in congress, Brazil’s most powerful agribusiness lobby. 

During the 2018 elections, the FPA threw its weight behind Bolsonaro’s campaign expecting the candidate to become a strong ally once in power. Cristina’s nomination as Agriculture Minister has confirmed to many that Bolsonaro and the FPA have made good on their commitments.

While the elections resulted in a slight reduction of the agribusiness front in congress, the FPA is expected to increase its influence on the legislative agenda and policy decisions of the new government due to its close political alliance with Bolsonaro.

A case in point is the high expectations by large agribusinesses that a bill being discussed in congress could soon pardon their debts of over R$15bn ($4bn) with the country’s social security system. 

The potential pardon has been heavily criticised by economists and civil society as an aggravating factor for Brazil’s public deficit while mostly benefitting big business.

The bill is being debated as a matter of urgency after Bolsonaro’s campaign pledges that he wold forgive the debt. The bill’s author is federal deputy Jerônimo Goergen, the same who received donations from Ariel Horovitz.

After only a few weeks in office, the new administration has already adopted a number of controversial policies that respond to old demands of the agribusiness lobby, such as endowing the Ministry of Agriculture with new powers on  environmental licensing and demarcation of indigenous lands, and the weakening of institutions responsible for environmental law enforcement.

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