Illegal activity in the Amazon is gaining momentum as the final months of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration are running out, experts tell CNN.
According to specialists and people in the field, loggers, ranchers, miners and others seeking profit are tearing apart the protected region faster than ever, motivated by fears that Bolsonaro’s candidacy for re-election may fail and the next president. can crack down on such activity harder.
From illegal miners openly declaring their support for the resignation of an environment minister after investigations linked him to illegal log smuggling, the Bolsonaro administration is seen as an ally of environmental law breakers in the Amazon.
“The government seems to let people take over public land. Trees are felled and burned to create pastures. They simply continue. Nobody does anything about it, “says Marcelo Horta, a sociologist who works with indigenous peoples in Labrea, a city in the state of Amazonia.
Luciana Gatti, a leading researcher at Brazil’s Space Research Institute (INPE), a government agency that tracks fires in the Amazon, theorises that the country’s political calendar may be the reason.
“If you are an environmental criminal and you see that there is a great chance that whoever is giving you the green light will leave, what would you think? Let me make the most of this because it could be the last year of lawlessness, ”Gatti said.
Since his 2018 election campaign, Bolsonaro has opposed what he sees as excessive environmental legislation and protections that allegedly hinder activities such as agriculture and mining, even in protected indigenous territories.
Although Bolsonaro has passed some laws to protect the environment, his administration has seen both the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment and the environmental protection agency Ibama subject to budget and staff cuts. Ibama’s practice of destroying confiscated equipment used in illegal quarrying and logging has also been publicly condemned by the president.
The president is also a staunch supporter of a series of five bills pending in Congress known by activists as the “destruction package.” These laws include proposals to grant title deeds to land grabbers, allow mining on indigenous lands, and loosen environmental licenses. Although they have not been approved, Bolsonaro’s continued defense of such issues is seen by NGOs and opposition politicians as an incentive for those on the ground.
As a result, the world’s largest rainforest has recorded record after record of deforestation. Between 2019 – when Bolsonaro took office – and 2021, Brazil lost more than 33,800 square kilometers of rainforest in the Amazon according to INPE. This is a larger area than Belgium, with an average of 11,000 square kilometers lost per year.
More than 7,555 square kilometers have been cleared since this year.
Bolsonaro will face former left-wing president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva at the polls in October. Lula, as is well known, recently told CNN Brasil that in his government “there will be no deforestation of the Amazon”.
During Lula’s presidency (2002-2010), deforestation fell by 65% in Brazil, according to INPE.
In the town of Labrea, it’s increasingly common to see cowboy hats and Brazilian country music (sertanejo), symbols of the country’s agri-food culture, says Horta.
“It’s a whole culture taking over,” Horta told CNN. “This year we see more people expressing their support for President Bolsonaro, supporting the opening of roads and the extraction of wood.”
Labrea is located in Amacro, an area defined by the Brazilian government in 2021 as a “special area of sustainable development”. But on the ground, the Amazon rainforest has been pushed back by agriculture, livestock and logging activities, many of them illegal, federal experts and workers say who spoke to CNN.
According to MapBiomas, an independent monitoring initiative, the Amacro region accounted for 12% of the country’s deforestation in 2021.
Labrea, which has a population of less than 50,000 in an area larger than West Virginia, has been on fire in the last few weeks, literally. In the first 12 days of September, INPE satellites recorded 1,570 fires in the municipality, the second highest number in Brazil for the period.
The figure represented a jump of 3,040% from the first 12 days of August, when only 50 fire points were detected.
It is part of a broader trend observed in recent times in the Amazon. Between August 2021 and July 2022, an area of 8,590 km2 – larger than the state of Delaware – was deforested in the Amazon, according to Inpe data.
The INPE data also show that in August the Amazon biome recorded the worst number of fires of the month since 2010: 33,116 registered hotspots, an increase of almost 30% compared to the same month in 2021. This year alone, more than 96,000 hotspots.
The fires are one of the stages in the illegal chain of occupation and exploitation of the Amazon region.
“What we normally see in these areas is the use of fire before or, especially, after the trees have been cut down, so the deforestation is complete,” Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of the NGO Observatorio do Clima, told CNN.
“A mass of forest lies on the floor, dries up and then is set on fire. Sometimes two or three fires are needed in the same area, so it is properly cleared ”.
Bolsonaro hastens to minimize the phenomena of fires. During an interview with Globo TV on August 22, he suggested that the fires were caused by natural events or by traditional communities.
“When we talk about the Amazon, why don’t we also talk about France, which is on fire?” He said, referring to the fires that ravaged France this summer.
“In Brazil it is no different, it happens. Much of it is criminal, some are not criminals. It’s the man along the river who sets his small property on fire, “Bolsonaro said.
Fernando Oliveira, Director of Operations at the Ministry of Justice and Public Safety, oversees Guardiões do Bioma (Biome Guardians), a government task force in which security forces, environmental agencies and local fire brigade teams cooperate to combat deforestation and fires in the Amazon, Cerrado and Pantanal Biomes, among other tasks.
“Our goal is to fight environmental crimes in an area that covers about 60% of the country,” Oliveira told CNN.
To monitor deforestation, the Guardiões operation created only six bases scattered across this vast Amazonian territory. In the state of Amazonas, the size of Mongolia, the operation is based on a single basis.
Oliveira rejects the use of fire by cattle ranchers to clean up the land or any other human activity as a cause of the hotspots in the rainforest.
“Most fires happen naturally, you have high temperatures, low humidity, dry foliage, so any trigger like cigarette butt can start a fire,” he says.
But most experts disagree.
“Decades of studies show that the Amazon does not catch fire naturally. In 99% of cases the fires are caused, there is someone who has lit the match ”, says Astrini.
“Fires caused by natural events in the Amazon, a tropical forest, are a very rare event that can occur every 500 years. Virtually all of the fire we have in the Amazon is anthropogenic (man-made) and is usually associated with deforestation and clearing of pastures, ”Tasso Azevedo, coordinator of the MapBiomas map analysis project, told CNN in August.
The destruction of the Amazon poses a direct threat to the global climate.
“When we deforest we are transforming ourselves [the Amazon[ into an accelerator of climate change because it starts releasing more carbon into the atmosphere, reducing rain and increasing temperatures in Brazil and the world,” Gatti, the INPE researcher, told CNN.
“It is a calamity,” she added.
Both Gatti and Astrini believe that external pressure is key to deter the march of deforestation.
“International trade is a driver of deforestation. If other countries stopped buying the fruits of this activity, destruction would halt,” says Gatti, who adds that there should be a global movement to stop buying wood from Brazil.
It has started to happen. The European Union has advanced a plan to require that products sold in the bloc must not come from deforested or degraded land. The new legislation establishes that companies selling in the EU have to verify items such as cattle, cocoa, coffee, palm-oil, soya and wood have not originated from such areas.
But on the ground, a cultural shift has already taken hold. Daniel Cangussu, a Brazil´s Indigenous Agency staffer who lives in Labrea, told CNN that on the ground there is no sign of a change in the “intense landgrabbing and deforestation” that he has witnessed under Bolsonaro’s presidency
“It’s notorious (in the region), people talk openly about it. It has become something normal.”