Amazon rainforest destruction increases rapidly as Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro slashes protections

Country ‘facing risk of runaway deforestation’ with 39 per cent greater loss of forest cover than previous year

Letcia Casado,Ernesto Londoo
Thursday 22 August 2019 10:30
Comments
Since Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro took office, illegal logging and mining have led to hugely increased deforestation
Since Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro took office, illegal logging and mining have led to hugely increased deforestation

The destruction of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil has increased rapidly since the nation’s new far-right president took over and his government scaled back efforts to fight illegal logging, ranching and mining.

Protecting the Amazon was at the heart of Brazil’s environmental policy for much of the past two decades.

At one point, Brazil’s success in slowing the deforestation rate made it an international example of conservation and the effort to fight climate change.

But with the election of Jair Bolsonaro, a populist who has been fined personally for violating environmental regulations, Brazil has changed course substantially, retreating from the efforts it once made to slow global warming by preserving the world’s largest rainforest.

While campaigning for president last year, Mr Bolsonaro declared that Brazil’s vast protected lands were an obstacle to economic growth and promised to open them up to commercial exploitation.

Seven months into his term, that is already happening.

Brazil’s part of the Amazon has lost more than 1,330 square miles of forest cover since Mr Bolsonaro took office in January, a 39 per cent increase over the same period last year, according to the government agency that tracks deforestation.

In June alone, when the cooler, drier season began and cutting trees became easier, the deforestation rate rose drastically, with roughly 80 per cent more forest cover lost than in June of last year.

The deforestation of the Amazon is spiking as Mr Bolsonaro’s government pulls back on enforcement measures like fines, warnings and the seizure or destruction of illegal equipment in protected areas.

A New York Times analysis of public records found that such enforcement actions by Brazil’s main environmental agency fell by 20 per cent during the first six months of the year, compared with the same period in 2018.

The drop means that vast stretches of the rainforest can be torn down with less resistance from the nation’s authorities.

The two trends — the increase in deforestation and the government’s increasing reluctance to confront illegal activity — is alarming researchers, environmentalists and former officials who contend that Mr Bolsonaro’s tenure could lead to staggering losses of one of the world’s most important resources.

“We’re facing the risk of runaway deforestation in the Amazon,” eight former environment ministers in Brazil wrote in a joint letter in May, arguing that Brazil needed to strengthen its environmental protection measures, not weaken them.

Mr Bolsonaro has dismissed the new data on deforestation, calling his own government’s figures “lies” — an assertion experts called baseless.

Donald Trump says he wants Brazil to join Nato under far-right leader Bolsonaro

During a gathering with international journalists last week, the president called the preoccupation with the Amazon a form of “environmental psychosis” and argued that its use should not concern outsiders.

“The Amazon is ours, not yours,” he told a European journalist.

The Bolsonaro government’s stance has drawn sharp criticism from European leaders, injecting an irritant to a trade deal struck last month between the European Union and a bloc of four South American countries, including Brazil.

During a recent visit, Germany’s minister of economic co-operation and development, Gerd Müller, called protecting the Amazon a global imperative, especially given the rainforest’s vital role in absorbing and storing carbon dioxide, essential to the effort to slow global warming.

And when trees are cut, burned or bulldozed, carbon dioxide goes directly back into the atmosphere.

Germany and Norway help finance a £1.05bn Amazon conservation fund, but the Bolsonaro administration has questioned its effectiveness, raising the possibility that the effort could be shut down.

“Without tropical rainforests, there’s no solving the climate” issue, Mr Müller said during an event in São Paulo.

During the campaign, Mr Bolsonaro promised to do away with the ministry of the environment altogether. He ultimately scrapped the plan under pressure from the nation’s agriculture sector, which feared the move would incite a boycott of Brazilian products.

A few weeks before his inauguration, Brazil abruptly pulled out of its commitment to host a global summit on climate change.

Support free-thinking journalism and attend Independent events

Then, once he took office, Mr Bolsonaro’s administration cut the main environmental agency’s budget by 24 per cent, part of a broader cost savings across the government.

He has denounced environmental fines as an “industry” that needs to be shut down.

And his administration has said it plans to weaken the authority of environmental protection agents to burn vehicles and other equipment belonging to loggers and miners in protected areas.

Mr Bolsonaro has brushed off international criticism of his positions, arguing that calls to preserve large parts of Brazil are part of a global plot to hamper his country’s development.

This month, he accused European leaders of pushing for stronger conservation of the Amazon because they hope to develop it themselves in the future.

“Brazil is like a virgin that every pervert from the outside lusts for,” he said.

Brazil had previously tried to portray itself as a leader in protecting the Amazon and fighting global warming.

Rare footage of uncontacted tribe in the Amazon

Between 2004 and 2012, the country created new conservation areas, increased monitoring and took away government credits from rural producers who were caught razing protected areas.

This brought deforestation to the lowest level since record-keeping began.

But it has suffered setbacks before. As the economy plunged into a recession in 2014, the country became more reliant on the agricultural commodities it produces — beef and soy, which are drivers of deforestation — and on the powerful rural lobby. Land clearing began to tick upward again.

Mr Bolsonaro has promised to do away with the remaining barriers to developing protected lands.

He has also spoken derisively about the environmental agency’s enforcement work, which he has experienced firsthand.

On 25 January 2012, environmental agents intercepted a small fishing boat in an ecological reserve in Rio de Janeiro state that Mr Bolsonaro, then a federal lawmaker, was aboard.

He argued with the agents for about an hour and ignored their demands that he leave, said José Augusto Morelli, the agent in charge of the team.

Now Mr Bolsonaro’s environment minister, Ricardo Salles, wants to create a mechanism that would give a government panel the discretion to lower or suspend environmental penalties, worrying former officials who say it would weaken enforcement even further.

Mr Salles, who did not respond to several requests for an interview, has acknowledged the shortcomings of the environmental enforcement agencies tasked with policing commercial activity in protected areas.

Channel 4's Carnival Wars looks at Bolsonaro's impact on the country's LGBT community

But he has argued that the system had been hollowed out by previous governments.

As for the environment, Mr Salles has said that the government is prioritising urban problems, like upgrading waste management and sewage treatment systems, which he said were in a “shameful” state.

Other senior officials in Bolsonaro’s government have responded to the sharp rise in deforestation with a mix of denial and defensiveness.

Taking a different approach, Mr Bolsonaro’s chief of staff, Onyx Lorenzoni, took aim at what he called attempts from abroad to shape Brazil’s environmental policy.

“We’re not naive,” Mr Lorenzoni said. “There’s a view out in the world, sponsored by nongovernmental organisations, that relativises Brazil’s sovereignty over the Amazon.”

But, he warned in a recent meeting with reporters: “Here’s a little message: ‘Don’t play around with us.’”

New York Times

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in