Brazil’s Amazon rainforest is burning, with more than one-and-a-half soccer fields worth of rainforest destroyed every minute of every day, according to the country’s space research center.
While the country’s farmers and cattle ranchers have long used slash-and-burn techniques – when blazes clear land to ready it for other purposes – an 80% rise in deforestation since last year signals a disturbing shift in a political ethos. Environmental activists attribute that to one big change: The election of the country’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro.
Responding to international condemnation of the rise in recorded fires in the Amazon, Bolsonaro said that “protecting the forest is our duty, acting to combat illegal deforestation and any other criminal activities that put our Amazon at risk.” He added that his military public service background contributed to his “deep love and respect” for the rainforest.
But a quick look at the president’s economic and environmental policies counter that narrative, with many of his critics arguing that that they have not only abetted this environmental disaster but, in fact, set the stage for it.
Here’s a look at how Brazil got here.
Bolsonaro’s rise to power marked one of the most polarizing and violent political campaigns in Brazil’s history, amid a prolonged recession, rising crime rates and widespread corruption scandals in the world’s fourth-largest democracy.
Capitalizing on the economic concerns of the electorate on the campaign trial, Bolsonaro promised to restore the economy by exploring the Amazon’s economic potential.
Between 2004 and 2012, deforestation fell dramatically, but in recent years it has been increasing, and the powerful agricultural lobby in the Brazilian congress has been pushing for more development of the forest.
That agricultural lobby endorsed Bolsonaro during his election campaign.
As president-elect, Bolsonaro said that farmers are excessively fined for environmental damage, and also proposed merging Brazil’s environment and agriculture ministries – an idea he has since shelved.
While supporters rejoiced in his October 2018 victory win, opponents were quick to voice concerns that his victory could threaten human rights and ecological preservation.
Laying the foundation
Shortly after taking office, Bolsonaro signed an executive order giving the Agricultural Ministry responsibility for certifying indigenous lands as protected territories.
About 13% of Brazil is legally designated as indigenous land, most of which is in the Amazon and reserved for the country’s 900,000 indigenous people (less than 0.5% of the population).
Indigenous groups said the president’s order would lead to “an increase in deforestation and violence against indigenous people.”
Bolsonaro, who has been called the “Trump of the tropics,” defended that decision on Twitter at the time, writing that: “Less than a million people live in these places, isolated from true Brazil, exploited and manipulated by NGOs. Together we will integrate these citizens.”
His hand-picked Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ernesto Araújo, is a firebrand right-wing conservative who has called efforts to combat climate change a conspiratorial power grab by the global left on his blog, titled “Against Globalism.”
In November, the foreign ministry announced it was withdrawing Brazil’s offer to host a 2019 UN climate meeting “in light of the transition process to the recently elected administration” and cited budget concerns.
A controversial environment minister
The country’s minister for the environment, Ricardo Salles, was nominated by Bolsonaro to take office in January, and supported by agriculture and livestock organizations, among others, according to the Brazilian government.
Less than a month before he began his post, Salles was convicted of altering environmental maps to benefit mining companies during his post as Sao Paulo’s Environmental Secretary in 2016.
Salles said at the time that he was planning to appeal the ruling, Reuters reported.
Anthony Pereira, director of the King’s Brazil Institute at King’s College London, said that Salles has “no track record of wanting to preserve the environment – he’s much closer to mining and agricultural interests than anything else.”
In December, Bolsonaro said that he wanted to restrict the ability of IBAMA, the forest protection agency, to fine individuals and companies that illegally deforest and pollute. Salles has supported that push, Pereira said, explaining that the “minister complains about the industry of fines that the forestry agency carries out – very few of which are ever paid.”
“He (Salles) says is there isn’t enough development in the Amazon and you can’t set aside huge swathes of the forest for a small indigenous population. And you have to think about the huge population that are trying to make a living.”
Earlier this week, the political party Rede Sustentabilidad called for Salles to be impeached.
Senator Randolfe Rodrigues of Rede has accused Salles of not acting to prevent the fires, and that his actions have led to the “dismantling” of environmental protection agencies that have led to the “catastrophe we are seeing in the Amazon.”
Since Salles’ appointment, the federal government has eliminated several responsibilities under the Ministry of the Environment.
They include the National Water Agency – previously connected to the Ministry of the Environment – being transferred to the Ministry of Regional Development and the Brazilian Forestry Service (SFB), which was responsible for managing the country’s public forests and agricultural properties, now answering to the Ministry of Agriculture.
The Ministry of the Environment also scrapped the division between the control and prevention of deforestation and climate change.
And so far this year, the inter-ministerial committee in charge of executing the National Policy on Climate Change has not met once, according to Brazilian news outlet Piauí.
Cuts, culls and calls
Since he was sworn into office, pro-business Bolsonaro has made significant cuts to Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency at a cost amounting to $23 million, according to official data sent to CNN by Observatorio do Clima.
Earlier this month, the president fired Ricardo Galvão, the director of Brazil’s National Space and Research Institute (INPE). Galvão said he was terminated after defending satellite data that showed deforestation was 88% higher in June compared to a year ago.
Bolsonaro called the INPE’s findings “lies” and said they were harmful for trade negotiations, according to Agencia Brasil.
Days later, allegedly inspired by Bolsonaro’s rhetoric, farmers organized a coordinated “fire day” to burn land for agriculture.
“We need to show the President that we want to work and the only way is to knock (the forest) down. And to form and clean our pastures, it is with fire,” one of the organizers of the “Fire Day” told a local newspaper.
Brazil is home to two-thirds of the Amazon, often referred to as the “lungs of the world.”
During the first few months of Bolsonaro’s presidency, the rate of rainforest destruction remained stable, according to the INPE. But it began to soar in May and June, the INPE said.
There has been a 49% growth of recorded fire outbreaks since last August, according to the institute.
The headline of this story has been updated to correct the spelling of the Brazilian president’s name.
Journalist Marcia Reverdosa, CNN’s Eliza Mackintosh, Julia Jones, Flora Charner and Mark Tutton contributed to this report.