THE BLOG
08/18/2011 12:00 pm ET Updated Oct 18, 2011

Rainforest Crunch... Brazil Tags NGOs With Amazon Corruption

Running an NGO out of his Assemblies of God church, Pastor Wladimir Furtado planned to attract ecotourists to Brazil's rainforest. He was arrested last week along with 35 others in "Operation Voucher," a nationwide investigation police say was designed to ferret out people who scammed government tourism funds. It is the first time in nearly a decade of Workers Party governance that a high profile political corruption case has involved an American-guided church group.

On Monday President Dilma took objection to tactics used by federal police in the investigation that required 200 agents operating in Brasilia, Sao Paulo and Macapa. Mugshots of male suspects stripped to the waist, considered disrespectful in some Brazilian legal circles, were published by Globo and other online and print media. Photographs of the Assemblies of God prayer house investigators say Pastor Furtado used as a front for the NGO made the front pages of blogs and newspapers.

While websites claim the Assemblies of God church in Brazil is an independent organization, they also say the Brazilian operation is part of an international network claiming 60 million followers world-wide that receives guidance from the U.S.-headquartered church. The same Assemblies of God view linking homosexuality with sin articulated by church member and former U.S. vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is preached in Brazil at churches and via Internet resources, helping promote disrespect for homosexuals and lesbians, promoting social divisivness in a nation that prides itself on social inclusion.

Brazilian media report that Pastor Furtado qualified to receive government funds claiming to be turismologo (street translation="tourismologist") using the address of his church as the location for an NGO called Connectur. The NGO received 4 million reals ($2.6 million) to do a study examining ways to promote ecotourism in Amapa state.

Amapa has a population 600,000, with a land mass the size of Florida in the poor northeastern corner of Brazil bordering the French overseas department of Guyane. More than half the population in the region live on sub-poverty incomes of less than 70 reals ($45) per month. Government investigators say Pastor Furtado and Connectur never produced the study and that federal funds provided to the NGO have disappeared.

In spite of Dilma's critique, tacit approval for "Operation Voucher" among the political class, armed forces and security services indicates a healthy level of support for the actions government is finally taking to define what the free wheeling NGOs and faith-based groups can and can't do inside Brazil.

Accomodating the demands of NGOs and faith-based groups presents a tough challenge for the administration of President Dilma. A basic tactic of both is to work around nation-states and their infrastructures, sometimes feigning cooperation and incentivizing politicians of all stripes to help them achieve their objectives.

While recent data help target government stimulus programs designed to help families approach middle class status, Brazil's latest census did not count the number of NGOs and other organizations who often put their own agendas and values ahead of Brazilian sovereignty. A spokesperson for the president's office of social communication told this writer recently that there are so many loosely defined NGOs active in Brazil that the government is hard pressed to track them all and that a solution is required.

"Operation Voucher" made headlines last week following a prime time segment on Jornal Nacional, a popular investigative news program similar to 60 Minutes. Deputy minister of tourism Frederico Silva da Costa, who was arrested as a result of the investigation, has resigned. Other elements of "Operation Voucher" revealing a broader pattern of corruption, other ministries and larger transaction amounts remain politically sensitive and have not yet been made public.

In an effort to absolve himself, Pastor Furtado is on the record saying that the funds received at his church, some in blank checks and vouchers, were not earmarked for the Assemblies of God or the NGO, but for local politicans. He is well connected in local political circles, however, having served ten years as the mayor of Ferreira Gomes, an agricultural town of 5,000 in the south of Amapa state.

Pastor Furtado, who was released from jail after writing a check for R$109,000 ($70,000), has announced that he lacks the funds to cover the check and is currently seeking public donations to cover his bail.