Brazil's Bolsonaro appears to be taking a tougher stance on protecting the environment. Critics say it's just lip service

Brazilan President Jair Bolsonaro, seen in Brasilia in April.

(CNN)Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's abysmal track record on the environment is long standing, with his policies instrumental in rolling back the country's once-stringent environmental protections and weakening its environmental agencies.

Under Bolsonaro's tenure, destruction of the world's largest rainforest has deepened, with the portion of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest impacted by deforestation in the first three months of this year the highest ever recorded -- measuring to an area nearly the size of Dallas, Texas, according to data from Brazil's National Institute for Space Research.
Meanwhile, more than nearly 700 public servants working in the environmental sector have been let go or dismissed from their positions since 2018, according to data from the Ministry of Economy. Last year, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon reached a 15-year record high.
    But last week, the far-right leader appeared to make a U-turn, signing an environmental decree that establishes higher fines for deforestation, illegal logging, burning, fishing and hunting.
      It also introduces heftier fines on repeat offenders, and changes the rules for "reconciliation" hearings between offenders and environmental agencies by placing a time limit on an offender's ability to engage with the process before proceeding with a judicial hearing.
      The government celebrated the initiative in a statement, calling it "an important step in the environmental law," that is "fundamental to assure that Brazil keeps meeting the commitments made, internally and abroad."
      A deforested section of the Amazon rainforest is seen in Labrea, Amazonas state, Brazil in September 2021.
      The move appears to be the first concrete action that supports Bolsonaro's United Nations COP 26 November promise to enforce environmental protections in Brazil and to end deforestation by 2028.
        But some experts view the measure with skepticism -- pointing out that these mostly procedural changes may be just another way that Bolsonaro can boast to the international community that he's taking positive steps, ahead of his re-election campaign for the October 2022 presidential election.
        Raoni Rajao, Professor in Social Studies at the Federal University of Minas Gerais told CNN that he believes the government is working to rebrand itself as eco-friendly, despite its track record.
        "Although even conservatives recognize that the environmental issue is important, the government manages to convince them (conservative voters) that Brazil is doing a great job in the area," Rajao said.
        Those who criticize Bolsonaro's policies, he said, are considered "unpatriotic" in the eyes of the government, who say that "international criticism is (trying) to impede the country´s development."
        Brazil's Ministry of the Environment told CNN that the decree is "a normative improvement in the fight against illicit environmental activities." It emphasized that the decree significantly increases fines, and defended environmental reconciliation hearings as helping to ensure "more efficiency" in collecting them.
        Since 2019, Bolsonaro has advocated for the practice of reconciliation hearings to speed up the fine process. Prior to the new decree, the environmental agency would have to wait to hear from the offender on whether they wanted to have a hearing to decide if take their case to court -- or if they agreed to simply pay the fine. That process could take months -- or even longer, and created a massive backlog. Now, offenders have been given a time limit of up to 20 days to decide, otherwise the judicial process will be carried out without the reconciliation hearing.
        But environmental defenders say the option for reconciliation should not exist at all. Experts believe it was created by the Bolsonaro government to give a voice to the offender and to slow down the judicial process.