Illegal activity in the Amazon is gaining momentum as the last months of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration wind down, experts tell CNN.
According to specialists and people on the ground, loggers, ranchers, miners and others seeking profit are tearing apart the protected region faster than ever, motivated by fears that Bolsonaro’s re-election bid could fail – and that the next president could crack down harder on such activity.
From illegal miners openly declaring their support to an environmental minister’s resignation after investigations tying him to illegal log-smuggling, Bolsonaro administration is seen as an ally to environmental law-breakers in the Amazon.
“The government seems to be letting people grab public lands. Trees are being knocked down and burnt in order to create grazing pastures. They just keep going. No one does anything about it,” says Marcelo Horta, a sociologist who works with indigenous peoples in Labrea, a town in Amazonas state.
Luciana Gatti, a leading researcher at Brazil’s Space Research Institute (INPE), a government agency that tracks fires in the Amazon, theorizes that the country’s political calendar could be the reason.
“If you are an environmental criminal, and you see there is a big chance that the one who is giving you the green light will leave, what would you think? Let me make the most out of this as it might be the last year of lawlessness”, said Gatti.
A perceived ally to land grabbers
Since his 2018 electoral campaign, Bolsonaro has advocated against what he sees as excessive environmental legislation and protections that supposedly hinder activities such as agriculture and mining, including in indigenous protected territories.
Although Bolsonaro has passed some laws to protect the environment, his administration has seen both Brazil’s Environment Ministry and environmental protection agency Ibama subjected to budget and staff cuts. Ibama’s practice of destroying confiscated equipment used in illegal mining and tree-chopping has also been publicly condemned by the president.
The President is also a keen supporter of a set of five draft bills going through Congress known by activists as the “destruction package.” These laws include proposals to give property titles to land grabbers, allow mining in indigenous lands and loosen environmental licensing. Although they have not been approved, Bolsonaro’s continuous defense of such issues is seen by NGOs and opposition politicians as an incentive to those on the ground.
As a result, the world´s largest rainforest has been registering record after record of deforestation. Between 2019 - when Bolsonaro took office - and 2021, Brazil lost over 33,800 square kilometers of rainforest in the Amazon according to INPE. That’s an area larger than Belgium, with an average of 11,000 square kilometers lost per year.
In this year to date, over 7,555 square kilometers have been deforested.
Bolsonaro will face leftist former President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva at the polls in October. Lula, as he is widely known, recently told CNN Brasil that in his government “there will be no Amazon deforestation.”
During Lula’s presidency (2002-2010), deforestation shrank 65% in Brazil, according to INPE.
A new culture
In the town of Labrea, it is increasingly common to see cowboy hats and Brazilian country music (sertanejo), symbols of the agribusiness culture in the country, says Horta.
“It’s a whole culture taking over,” Horta told CNN. “This year we see more people voicing 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 zone of sustainable development”. But on the ground, the Amazon forest is being pushed back by agriculture, cattle and logging activities, many of them illegal, say experts and federal workers who spoke to CNN.
According to MapBiomas, an independent monitoring initiative, the Amacro region accounted for 12% of deforestation in the country in 2021.
Labrea, which has a population of less than 50,000 in an area larger than West Virginia, has been on fire in recent 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 3,040% leap in comparison to the first 12 days of August, when only 50 fires spots had been detected.
It’s part of a wider trend being observed in the Amazon of late. 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.
INPE data also shows that in August the Amazon biome recorded its worst number of fires for the month since 2010: 33,116 hotspots registered, an increase of nearly 30% compared to the same month in 2021. This year alone, over 96,000 hotspots were registered.
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, mostly, after trees have been brought down, so deforestation is completed”, says Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of NGO Observatorio do Clima, to CNN.
“A mass of forest lays on the floor, it dries up, and then fire is set to it. Sometimes two or three fires are needed in the same area so it gets properly cleared”.
Bolsonaro is quick to downplay the phenomena of fire events. During an interview with Globo TV in August 22, he suggested 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 wildfires that ravaged France this summer.
“In Brazil, it is no different, it happens. Much of it is criminal, some are not criminal. It’s the riverside man who sets fire to his small property,” Bolsonaro said.
Fernando Oliveira, director of operations at the Justice and Public Security Ministry, oversees Guardiões do Bioma (Guardians of the Biome), a government task force in which security forces, environmental agencies and local firefighter teams cooperate to combat deforestation and fires in the Amazon, Cerrado and Pantanal biomes, among other duties.
“Our focus is the fight of environmental crimes in an area that covers approximately 60% of national territory,” said Oliveira to CNN.
To monitor deforestation, the Guardiões operation has created just six bases spread across in this vast Amazon territory. In the state of Amazonas, which is as big as Mongolia, the operation relies on a single base.
Oliveira dismisses cattle farmers’ use of fire to clear land or any other human activity as causes of the hotspots in the rainforest.
“Most fires happen in a natural way, you have high temperatures, low humidity, dry foliage, so any trigger such as cigarette butt can get the fire going,” he says.
But most experts disagree.
“Decades of studies show that the Amazon doesn’t catch fire naturally. In 99% of the cases, the fires are provoked, there is someone who lit the match,” says Astrini.
“Fires caused by natural events in the Amazon, a tropical forest, are a very rare event that may occur every 500 years. Practically all the fire we have in the Amazon is anthropic (manmade), and it is usually associated with deforestation and the clearing of pasture areas,” said Tasso Azevedo, coordinator of map analysis project MapBiomas, to CNN in August.
A threat to the world’s climate
Destruction of the Amazon poses a direct threat to the global climate.
“When we deforest we are transforming [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.”