Brazil: Deforestation is accelerating in Brazil as Bolsonaro’s first term ends, experts say

São Paulo

Illegal activities in the Amazon are gaining momentum as the final months of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration wind down, experts told CNN.

According to experts and people on the ground, loggers, ranchers, miners and others looking for profit are eroding the protected region faster than ever, fueled by fears that Bolsonaro’s re-election could fail, and that the next president could attack hard. that activity

Since illegal miners are holding up the resignation of an environment minister following investigations linking him to illegal logging, the Bolsonaro administration is seen as an ally of environmental lawbreakers in the Amazon.

“It looks like the government is letting people take over public land. Trees are being felled and burned to create grasslands. They keep going. Nobody does anything,” says Marcelo Horta, a sociologist who works with the indigenous people of Labrea, a town in the state of Amazonas.

Luciana Gatti, lead researcher at Brazil’s Institute for Spatial Research (INPE), the government agency that monitors the fires in the Amazon, theorizes that the country’s political calendar may be to blame.

“If you’re an environmental offender, and you see that the person who gives you the green light is likely to leave, what would you think? Let me make the most of it because it will be the last year of lawlessness”, said Gatti.

Since the 2018 election campaign, Bolsonaro has advocated against what he sees as excessive environmental legislation and protectionism that hinders activities such as agriculture and mining, including on protected indigenous lands.

Although Bolsonaro has passed some laws to protect the environment, his administration has faced budget and staff cuts to Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment and environmental protection agency Ibama. The president has also publicly condemned Ibama’s practice of destroying confiscated equipment used in illegal mining and tree cutting.

The president is a supporter of a package of five bills moving through Congress known to activists as the “destruction package.” These laws include proposals to grant title deeds to land grabbers, permit mining on indigenous lands, and release environmental licenses. Even if they have not been accepted, Bolsonaro’s constant defense on such issues is seen by NGOs and opposition politicians as an incentive for those present.

As a result, the world’s largest rainforest has recorded deforestation records. Between 2019 – when Bolsonaro took office – and 2021, Brazil lost 33,800 square kilometers of rainforest in the Amazon, according to INPE. That’s an area larger than Belgium, which loses an average of 11,000 square kilometers a year.

This year, until today, more than 7,555 square kilometers have been deforested.

Bolsonaro will face former left-wing president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva in the October elections. Lula, as he is widely known, recently told CNN Brasil that under his government “there will be no deforestation in the Amazon.”

During Lula’s presidency (2002-2010), deforestation was reduced by 65% ​​in Brazil, according to INPE.

In the town of Labrea, it is increasingly common to see cowboy hats and Brazilian country music (sertanejo), symbols of the country’s agribusiness culture, says Horta.

“It’s taking over a whole culture,” Horta told CNN. “This year we see more people expressing support for President Bolsonaro, in favor of opening roads and extracting wood.”

Labrea is located in Amacro, an area defined by the Brazilian government as a “special zone of sustainable development” in 2021. But on the ground, the Amazon forest is being decimated by farming, ranching and logging activities, many of them illegal, experts and federal workers who spoke to CNN say.

According to the independent monitoring initiative MapBiomas, the Amacro region accounted for 12% of the country’s deforestation in 2021.

Labrea, with a population of less than 50,000 in an area larger than West Virginia, has literally been on fire in recent weeks. In the first 12 days of September, INPE satellites registered 1,570 fires in the municipality, the second highest number in Brazil during that period.

This number represented a 3,040% jump compared to the first 12 days of August, when only 50 fire points were detected.

It is part of a wider trend seen in the Amazon recently. 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 Impe data.

INPE data also show that in August the Amazon biome had the worst number of fires in a month since 2010: 33,116 outbreaks were recorded, almost 30% more compared to the same month in 2021. This year alone, more than 96,000 spotlights were registered.

The fires are one of the stages in the chain of illegal occupation and exploitation of the Amazon region.

“What we usually see in these areas is that before the trees are felled or, especially, after the trees are felled, the deforestation ends,” Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of the NGO Observatorio do Clima, told CNN.

“A mass of wood is placed on the ground, dried and then set on fire. Sometimes two or three fires are needed in the same area to properly clean it.”

An aerial view of a burned area in Lábrea, southern Amazonas state, Brazil, on September 17, 2022.

Bolsonaro is quick to underestimate the phenomenon of fires. In 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 on fire?” he said, referring to the fires that devastated France this summer.

“In Brazil, it’s not different, it happens. Many are criminal, some are not. It is the man from the river who sets fire to his small property,” said Bolsonaro.

Fernando Oliveira, director of operations at the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, oversees the Guardiões do Bioma (Guardians of the Biome), a government task force in which security forces, environmental agencies and local fire brigades collaborate to fight deforestation and fires in the Amazon. Cerrado and Pantanal biomes, among others.

“Our focus is the fight against environmental crimes in an area that covers about 60% of the national territory,” Oliveira told CNN.

In order to control deforestation, the Guardiões operation has created just six bases spread across this vast territory of the Amazon. In the Amazon state, which is as big as Mongolia, the operation is based on a single base.

Oliveira rules out the use of ranchers to clear the land or any other human activity as the reason for the hot spots in the jungle.

“Most fires happen naturally, you’ve got high temperatures, low humidity, dry foliage, so any trigger like cigarette butts can start a fire,” he says.

But most experts disagree.

“Decades of research show that the Amazon does not catch fire naturally. In 99% of cases, fires are provoked, there is someone who started the match,” says Astrini.

“In the Amazon, in a tropical forest, fires caused by natural events are very rare events that can happen once every 500 years. “Almost all the fire we have in the Amazon is anthropogenic (man-made), and it’s usually associated with deforestation and the clearing of grasslands,” Tasso Azevedo, coordinator of the MapBiomas mapping project, told CNN in August.

The destruction of the Amazon poses a direct threat to the global climate.

“When we clear the forest[Amazonas]we are becoming an accelerator of climate change, because more carbon is starting to be released into the atmosphere, rain is decreasing and temperatures are rising in Brazil and around the world,” INPE researcher Gatti told CNN.

“It’s a calamity,” he added.

Both Gatti and Astrini believe that external pressure is essential to stop the march of deforestation.

“International trade is the driver of deforestation. If other countries stopped buying the fruits of this activity, the destruction would stop,” says Gatti, adding that there should be a global movement to stop buying Brazilian wood.

It’s starting to happen. The European Union has advanced a plan to require that products sold in the bloc do not come from deforested or degraded land. The new legislation stipulates that companies selling in the EU must verify that items such as beef, cocoa, coffee, palm oil, soya and timber do not originate from such areas.

But on the ground, a cultural shift has already taken place. Daniel Cangussu, an employee of Brazil’s Indigenous Agency who lives in Labrea, told CNN that there is no change on the ground in the “intense land acquisition and deforestation” that has taken place under Bolsonaro’s presidency.

“It’s famous (in the region), people talk about it clearly. Something has become normal.”