Head of Brazil's Environmental Protection Agency Says It Is Not His Job to Protect the Environment

Photo: CIAT International Center for Tropical Agriculture / cc

As the President of Brazil's environmental protection agency IBAMA, which oversees regulationion in the world's largest rainforest, Curt Trennepohl has a very important position -- the only problem is, he says that protecting the environment isn't part of it. In an interview with Australia's "60 Minutes", when asked if his job was to guard the environment from destructive projects, Trennepohl replied: "No, my job is to minimize the impacts." And as if that were not controversial enough, the IBAMA chief then suggested that indigenous tribes which stand in the way of progress should be dealt with harshly.Australian reporter Allison Langdon recently confronted Trennepohl following his decision as head of IBAMA to approve construction of the Belo Monte dam, a controversial project which would destroy 121,600 acres of rainforest and displace nearly 50,000 indigenous people that live there. Prior to Trennepohl taking office, IBAMA's former president chose to resign rather than give in to political pressure to green-light the dam.

Clearly, Trennepohl has no intention of letting the environment stand in the way of progress. But perhaps what's more shocking, is his apparent willingness to violate the human rights of native peoples. In what Trennepohl believed to be a private moment, he made a disturbing statement seeming to indicate that indigenous Amazon tribes could be mistreated.

"You have the Aborigines there [in Australia]. You don't respect them," Trennepohl told Langdon.

"So you're going to do to the Indians what we did to the Aborigines?" she asked.

"Yes. Yes. Yes," he said.

Check out the 60 Minutes segment, including Langdon's interview with Trennepohl (which appears around the 12 minute mark), to judge for yourself what he may have meant by that.

Subsequently, Trennepohl was contacted by the Brazilian newspaper Folha to clarify his remarks. He said that he was caught off guard by the 'aggressive' reporter's questioning, adding that IBAMA's function was indeed to "minimize the impacts when a project is licensed," but that any project whose impact can't be minimized is rejected.

Regardless of whether the head of Brazil's environmental protection agency misspoke about his role in caring for the environment or dealing respectfully with indigenous groups, IBAMA's actions speak louder than any errant word. But standing up to interests lobbying for a massive dam in the middle of the Amazon, even if unpopular, is the job of such an agency. If Trennepohl, as President of IBAMA can't offer a sensible argument for preservation from within the government, what chance do NGOs have? Sadly, their biggest advocate may be no advocate at all.

Perhaps Brazilian blogger Roberto Malvezzi put it best when he wrote: "Finally someone in power is honest with their statements."

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Tags: Amazonia | Brazil | Dams