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 March 22, 2018
Brazilian lawmakers funded by donors guilty of environmental crimes

 *The Brazilian Chamber of Deputies has 513 members. Of those, 249 received a total of 58.9 million reais (US$18.3 million) in official donations during the 2014 election from companies and people who committed environmental crimes, including illegal clearing of forests, says a recent report by Repórter Brasil.

*Receiving these donations is not a crime, but it does provide insight into how environmental offenders are connected to, and potentially influencing, lawmakers and their decisions. Of the 249 deputies who received tainted donations, 134 are members of the Bancada Ruralista, the pro-agribusiness rural caucus that dominates the chamber.

*Since the 2014 general election, Brazil's election laws have been tightened. In 2015, the Federal Supreme Court passed a decree that made it illegal for companies to donate to candidates and political parties. These new rules will be in effect for the October 2018 presidential election.

*Analysts still worry that money from those who have committed environmental crimes will go right on flowing to politicians ¬¬--- possibly illegally or utilizing newly discovered campaign finance law loopholes --- risking the possibility of influence peddling.

Roughly half of the high-ranking politicians serving in Brazil's lower house of congress received campaign donations in the last general election from companies and individuals that committed environmental crimes, an investigation by Repórter Brasil has found.

Of Brazil's 513 elected members of the Chamber of Deputies, 249 received a total of 58.9 million reais (US$18.3 million) in official donations during the 2014 election from companies and people who illegally cleared and/or burned forests, or committed other environmental crimes. These donations were both direct and indirect (i.e. funneled through committees), and came from 92 companies and 40 individuals registered on a list of environmental crime perpetrators complied by IBAMA, the nation's environmental agency.

Though receiving these donations is not a crime, nor forbidden by Brazil's Electoral Court, it does provide insight into how environmental offenders are connected to, and potentially influencing, lawmakers and their decisions. Some analysts feel strongly that the raft of anti-environmental legislation launched by the National Congress, which comprises the Chamber of Deputies and the Federal Senate, since 2014, especially under the Temer administration, may be closely linked to these recent campaign contributions.

Of the 249 deputies who received tainted donations, 134 are members of the Bancada Ruralista, the pro-agribusiness rural caucus that dominates the chamber.

"There are parties, congressmen and rulers who use their offices and draft laws in favor of those who finance them, or in exchange for favors and interests, even though this often means harming their own country," said Marcio Astrini, coordinator of public policies at Greenpeace Brazil.

Repórter Brasil's data was compiled from donation declarations made by candidates to the High Electoral Court as compared to IBAMA's list of environmental offenders as of November 2017. A number of these alignments between the acceptance of donations from environmental transgressors, and decisions made by politicians, are particularly notable.

The case of Adilton Sachetti

Take, for example, the case of Adilton Sachetti, a deputy from Mato Grosso state and an active member of the bancada ruralista. Sachetti received $300,000 from five entities that had committed environmental crimes --- a quarter of all donations he amassed in the run-up to his 2014 election.

In 2015, six months after taking office, Sachetti authored three bills that would have directly benefited the economic interests of these five funders. All three related to the building and utilization of industrial waterways; the first two were to permit companies to more freely utilize waterways on the Paraguia, Tapajos, Teles Pires and Juruena rivers.

The third bill would have allowed the construction of industrial waterways for the transport of soy and other commodities on rivers running through the states of Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, Pará and Goiás. If approved, the canals would open the way for large cargo vessels to sail from two Mato Grosso municipalities, where the businesses of the donors charged with environmental crimes are located, northeast all the way to the mouth of the Tapajós River, then down the Amazon to the Atlantic, with the commodities then exported globally. These proposed waterways have long been promoted for their time and economic savings, and for their potentially high profits to agribusiness. All three bills are yet to be voted on in congress.

The Maggi connection

Perhaps the best known of those who donated to Sachetti was Eraí Maggi, an agribusiness producer who inherited the crown of "king of soy" from his cousin, the well-known and highly controversial agriculture minister, Blairo Maggi. Eraí, who donated $15,000 to help put Sachetti into power, is a member of the Bom Futuro Group, an agribusiness concern based just 200 kilometers (124 miles) from where the cargo vessels would leave Mato Grosso headed downriver toward the coast.

IBAMA hit Erai with a $136,000 fine and seized his property when the environmental agency learned that he had deforested 1,463 hectares (3,615 acres) of land in 2016.

Sachetti, in a statement responding to Repórter Brasil's findings, said: "With our legislation, whoever works on the agricultural frontier will be unable to avoid getting into trouble with IBAMA. In Mato Grosso, which is a state on the agricultural frontier, there are many rural producers, and it is difficult to find anyone who hasn't been fined. Yes, I received donations from people and companies fined by IBAMA, and I have nothing to hide." He maintains that the donations had no bearing on his policy decisions or votes.

About the offending donors, he said: "They are my friends, we are all leaders in the sector. We arrived in Mato Grosso together and I have a history with these people. Eraí Maggi is from the same city that I grew up in, in the interior of Paraná."

Erai Maggi did not respond to Mongabay's request for comment.

More coincidences

Experts agree that it is hard to prove that particular campaign contributions result in specific political positions or votes. "The problem is you can't know if donors are giving money to make a politician behave a certain way, or thanking them for how they would have behaved anyway," said Taylor Boas, a political science professor from Boston University, who has researched the relationship between campaign donations and policy in Brazil. "But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence," he said.

Among those who have obtained donations from environmental offenders is Rio de Janeiro State Deputy Marco Antônio Cabral, who received a total of $400,000 in indirect donations from construction and energy companies on IBAMA's list. He has consistently voted against increasing the size of national parks, and against granting rights to traditional workers.

"All donations were made in a transparent manner, complying with the rules of electoral legislation," Cabral said.

Nilson Leitão, one of the most ardent ruralist deputies in congress, and a staunch member of the bancada ruralista, received a total of $203,000 from construction, energy and agribusiness companies on IBAMA's list of environmental offenders. In the years following his election he authored a number of bills that would likely have benefited the businesses in which many of his funders work. In 2014, he tried to halt a bill that would prohibit the collection and commercialization of plant species under threat of extinction. He also called for the annulment of the demarcation of two indigenous territories in Mato Grosso and Pará states, where major sugarcane companies are based (though this effort was ultimately unsuccessful). And in 2016, he crafted a bill that would allow rural workers to be paid for their work with food and shelter. None of these bills have been voted on yet.

Ceará deputy Antonio Balhmann received a direct donation of $6,000 from melon producer Agricola Famosa Ltda, which has been fined by IBAMA in 2011 for producing its fruit without the required licenses. The following year Balhmann authored a bill, yet to be voted on, that would allow pesticides to be used in non-traditional farming.

Luiz Carlos Heinze, a deputy from Rio Grande do Sul, received around $170,000 in 2014 campaign donations from a wide range of Brazilian corporations on IBAMA's list, including producers of sugarcane and other crops, and from cleaning products companies located in his state. In the same year, he called for the suspension of legal recognition of a Quilombola, a community of descendants of runaway slaves, in the state. The move was unsuccessful. In 2015, he authored a bill, still in the legislative queue for consideration, to get the letter "T" removed from the packaging of products containing transgenics, a move that seemed aimed at pleasing conventional farmers.

Deputies Leitão, Balhmann and Heinze did not respond to Mongabay's request for comment on the influence of campaign donations on the bills they authored and voted on.

The large proportion of funder-offenders giving to ruralist politicians is noteworthy in the context of recent legislative actions that have rolled back environmental regulations and broadened the confines within which companies can legally operate. Among these decisions is a provisional measure that legalizes and facilitates companies invading, acquiring and deforesting public land. Astrini, from Greenpeace, noted that "what this law did was to open the doors to the grabbing of public lands by criminals and mafias, thereby making legal what was before a crime." Heinze voted in favor of the provisional measure, which has now been made into law; three of his donors had been fined by IBAMA for deforestation.

"As a rule of thumb, it can be said that any legal proposal in Brazil that would harm the environment, has behind it the concrete parochial interests of companies or organizations that want to see environmental legislation weakened or overturned," said Carlos Rittl, executive secretary of the NGO Observatorio da Clima.

Toughened campaign finance laws

Since the 2014 general election, Brazil's election laws have been tightened. In 2015, the Federal Supreme Court passed a decree that made it illegal for companies to donate to candidates and political parties.

"As corporate election funding was still legal in the last parliamentary election, many deputies didn't bother to hide their ties to their funders' interests," said Wagner Pralon Mancuso, an academic from the University of São Paulo. "On the contrary, there are deputies who explicitly spell out these links, even as a kind of accountability to those who supported them, and in the expectation that funder support will be repeated in the next campaign."

There were five arguments for banning corporate election funding in 2015: combatting the influence of economic power in elections; promoting political equality; catalyzing political competition; defending the public interest; and reducing the influence of donations on elected representatives' behavior. The new election rules will be in effect for this year's presidential election.

Though hailed by some analysts as a significant democratic advance, others fear the rich and well-connected will still have significant influence over Brazil's upcoming general elections this October. President Michel Temer helped maintain the link between funders and politicians by fighting to ensure that individual entrepreneurs will still be able to donate up to 10 percent of their gross annual income to candidates. Indeed, in city elections since 2015, Brazil has witnessed the major influence of millionaires.

"What is yet to be seen, now that corporate gifts have been made illegal, is whether that organic tie between parliamentarians and business sectors will diminish, or whether it will find new ways to manifest itself," Mancuso said.

One potential concern, cautioned Boas, is that corporations will simply move from making legal donations to making illegal ones, passing money under the table. "They always have done so in the past and there's no reason to think they won't in the future," he said. In recent years, the Lava Jato (Car Wash) corruption scandal rocked the nation as investigators unveiled mass political corruption in Brazilian politics.

International comparisons

The link between campaign contributions and politicians isn't particularly Brazilian. A comparison between Brazil's campaign finance regulation framework and those of other nations is enlightening, and shows that election regulations are both stronger and weaker elsewhere.

Brazil, for example, with its 2015 rule tightening, now has much stricter regulations than the United Kingdom, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. Brazil presently bans donations by companies to candidates and political parties; Britain allows both. Likewise, Brazil forbids contributions going from trade unions to political parties, as does the United States; such contributions are permitted in the U.K.

However, there are no rules in Brazil or the U.K. against receiving donations from individuals who have behaved illegally by breaking environmental laws. As a representative from the Electoral Commission in the U.K. said: "So long as they're a registered person, their money is valid."

Clearly, lax campaign finance laws can open the door to political influence by wrongdoers. Similarly, in the U.S., a cloak of secrecy enshrouds political action committees (PACs) and other shadowy election finance groups, leading at least to a lack of transparency, and at worst, to influence peddling.

That being the case, many academics and environmental activists agree that the Brazilian government needs to crack down even harder to prevent "dirty" money from influencing policy. "I think there should be stricter donor control systems, especially for those who have behaved illegally," said Greenpeace's Astrini.

If politicians can be barred from running based on a corruption conviction, as may happen with former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, "then it seems logical and fair that convicted individuals could be banned from making campaign donations," Boas said.

There are currently no bills in Brazil's National Congress that would prevent anyone convicted of crimes from making campaign contributions.