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As 2019 Amazon fires die down, Brazilian deforestation roars ahead

  • This year’s August Amazon fires grabbed headlines around the world. In response, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his administration accused the media of lying and exaggerating the disaster, then finally sent in the army to combat the blazes. As of October, many of the fires were under control.
  • But experts note that the fires are only a symptom of a far greater problem: rampant and rising deforestation. Altogether, 7,604 square kilometers (2,970 square miles) of rainforest were felled during the first nine months of this year, an 85 percent increase over the same period last year.
  • Unscrupulous land speculators are growing rich, say experts, as they mine, log and clear rainforest — operations often conducted illegally on protected lands. Typically, the speculators cut valuable trees, burn the remainder, and sell the cleared land at a heavily marked up price to cattle ranchers or agribusiness.
  • So far, Bolsonaro has done little to inhibit these activities, while doing and saying much to encourage deforestation, mining and agribusiness. The government has de-toothed the nation’s environmental agencies and slashed their budgets, while hampering officials from enforcing environmental laws.
Deforestation caused by an Illegal gold mine and encampment within Yanomami Park, July 2018. An estimated 20,000 illegal goldminers (garimpeiros) have entered Yanomami Park, one of Brazil’s biggest indigenous reserves, located in Roraima and Amazonas states, near the border with Venezuela. Image courtesy of Rogerio Assis / ISA.

In late August, as dramatic images of raging Amazon fires were relayed around the globe, the Brazilian government at first made denials, then finally took action. President Jair Bolsonaro announced his Guarantee of Law and Order Operation (GLO), and the nation’s armed forces were rapidly deployed to implement the plan and control blazes.

A month later the army proclaimed the operation “effective,” having “destroyed 17 illegal camps and apprehended 74 vehicles and over 20,000 liters [3,500 gallons] of fuel.” Most important, the number of forest fires fell by 25.1 percent in September, according to IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency. General Hamilton Mourão, standing in as president while Bolsonaro visited the UN in New York in September, decided to extend the operation for another month.

By the end of October, GLO will have cost 90 million reais (US$22 million) — more than the 76.8 million reais (US$18.7 million) annual 2020 budget earmarked for IBAMA. It is IBAMA that principally fought past Amazon fires with considerable success, but whose budget cuts and disempowerment under presidents Michel Temer, and especially Bolsonaro, have left the agency largely unable to battle this year’s conflagrations.

Now, with fewer dramatic images of out of control fires appearing on the Internet, the Amazon rainforest has again dropped out of the world’s headlines. But what really matters for the long-term survival of the biome are not the wildfires themselves, but the extent to which people are cutting down trees.

Land grabbers set fire to an IBAMA office in Humaitá in Amazonas state in 2017. Ruralist hostility to Brazil’s environmental agency has escalated during the Bolsonaro administration. Image by Raolin Magalhães / Rede Amazônica.RedeBrasilAtual.

Deforestation rising

The deforestation situation in the Brazilian Amazon, far from improving, has dramatically deteriorated. Alerts from the DETER satellite monitoring system, run by the National Institute of Space Research (INPE), indicate that deforestation increased by 222 percent in August, compared with August of last year, and by 96 percent in September, compared with September of 2018.

Altogether, 7,604 square kilometers (2,970 square miles) of rainforest were felled during the first nine months of this year, an 85 percent increase over the same period last year. The Amazon fires were a mere indicator of this massive amount of deforestation, as agribusiness and land grabbers burned away the dried downed trees, creating ash which helps fertilize grass to feed the cattle herds that will move in to replace the forests.

Deforestation rates are rising rapidly again, for two reasons: it is a very profitable activity, and the government is doing little to stop it, say analysts.

Logging, land grabbing and mining, often carried out illegally on protected land, are making some unscrupulous operators very rich. So far, Bolsonaro has done next to nothing to inhibit their activities. Indeed, employees working for IBAMA have told Mongabay on condition of anonymity that the government is encouraging land grabbers to deforest. A closer look at GLO helps back up their accusations.

IBAMA destroys an illegal mine inside Jamanxim National Park in September 2019. Under Bolsonaro, illegal incursions into neighboring Jamanxim National Forest and deforestation have dramatically increased, with the so-called “Day of Fire” seeing many illegal blazes intentionally set within the preserve. Image by VINÍCIUS MENDONÇA (IBAMA).

Military firefighters, meet the deforestation mafia

A Mongabay contributor and co-author of this article was in Pará state and Altamira in August — the municipality with the most reported fires — and witnessed a large number of troops arriving there, supported by sophisticated military hardware including aircraft and vehicles.

The GLO operation in Pará, however, overlooked a crucial factor: geography. Altamira is Brazil’s largest municipality, covering almost 160,000 square kilometers (61,800 square miles), an area bigger than Greece, with much of it rural. While it is true that Altamira saw more fires than anywhere else, most were occurring on the municipality’s edges, hundreds of kilometers away from the city of Altamira itself. In fact, army helicopters deploying from that urban area couldn’t reach the fires without refueling.

Which is why the army next shifted its base to the town of Novo Progresso, in southwest Altamira, much closer to most fires. It was there that the ruralistas — elite land owners and speculators — announced a “day of fire” on 10 August, apparently to demonstrate to Bolsonaro their wish to work. The main target of many illegal acts of burning occurring then was Jamanxim National Forest, a large protected area long targeted by land grabbers.

Paulo de Tarso, a public prosecutor at the Federal Public Ministry (MPF), a group of independent government litigators, commented: “The gang [felling forest in Jamanxim National Forest] has been active in the region for many years. It was dismantled in Operation Castanheira in August 2014, a joint initiative by the Federal Police, the environment agency IBAMA, the Internal Revenue Service, and the MPF. Deforestation and the numbers of fires fell heavily at the time, but the gang survived.”

And it may be seeing a resurgence under Bolsonaro; the MPF is presently investigating the gang’s involvement in this year’s blazes. “The actions seem to have been orchestrated and planned for a long while,” Raquel Dodge, a former Prosecutor-General of the Republic, said at a recent press conference.

While Bolsonaro and others in his administration often claim that much Amazon burning is legally done by small-scale farmers, de Tarso notes instead that the clearing is generally well organized and “done by various groups of criminals. Some fell the forest, others extract and sell the valuable timber, and [still] others set fire to the vegetation and [then] plant pasture. There is yet another group that finds laranjas, stooges, that let their identities be used to register the land,” to get round the legal limits on land ownership by a single individual.

Carrying out this systematic large-scale deforestation does not come cheap — it costs an estimated one million reais (US$243,000) to clear 1,000 hectares (3.9 square miles) of forest. But, as de Tarso explains, the rewards can be enormous: “The group is betting that at some moment in the future the Brazilian state will give into pressure and remove the protected status currently enjoyed by this land. It will then be worth a fortune.”

If necessary, the land grabbers can wait. “Men who carry out ‘speculative deforestation’ are in for the long haul,” explained a Novo Progresso inhabitant, speaking off the record. “They will wait until next year to burn what they are felling this year [if need be]. They’re not interested [in immediately] getting the land to produce, but [rather] in eventually selling it at a huge profit.”

Land grabbers set fire to an IBAMA government vehicle near the Zoró Indigenous Reserve in Rondônia state in July 2019. Image courtesy of RondoniaoVivo.

Indicators of government complicity

Several pieces of evidence seem to indicate that the Bolsonaro administration, while anxious to put out fires and extinguish international outrage, is doing little to combat land speculation linked to deforestation, along with illegal mining, which also brings major environmental harm. On the contrary: IBAMA officials say confidentially that the government is sending clear signs that illegal activities should be tolerated by enforcers.

One indication is the drastic decline in the number and amount of fines imposed by IBAMA for illegal deforestation in 2019 under Bolsonaro, as compared to in 2018 under Temer —data that helps explain this year’s rapid rise in deforestation.

In September 2018, IBAMA issued 258 fines, totaling 139.5 million reais (US$33.8 million) in the Amazon states of Acre, Amazonas, Amapá, Pará, Rondônia and Roraima. This year, in that same month (the first month of GLO) and covering the same states, the number of fines fell to 128, with a total value of 42.9 million reais (US$10.4 million) — that’s a 50 percent drop in number, and a more than 60 percent decline in amount.

Speaking to BBC Brasil, environment minister Ricardo Salles shrugged off the statistics. “Only about 1 percent of the fines were ever paid. And this shows that to impose a large number of fines is not a good policy. It is better to have far fewer, properly investigated fines that are paid.” But, far from ensuring that fines will henceforth be paid, the government has further facilitated non-payment.  In April it passed decree 9,760 that set up “centers of conciliation” which will allow those fined to appeal. They may have their fines reduced or even cancelled. IBAMA officials see this as a further green light to illegal deforestation.

An illegal gold mine destroyed by FUNAI, Brazil’s indigenous agency, in Yanomami Park during Operation Walopali, 23 September to 3 October, 2019. Image courtesy of FUNAI.

De-toothing IBAMA enforcement

Another indication of the administration’s failure to curb illegal activities is the refusal of GLO’s military commanders to offer IBAMA employees protection when combatting illegal mining activities, even when an operation is so dangerous that it can’t be undertaken without army security. This happened on at least three occasions in September alone.

Mongabay saw an internal IBAMA report that explained why: “The Military Commands refused to help because the IBAMA operation could have involved the destruction of assets.” This issue has become a serious bone of contention between IBAMA and land invaders. Speaking to Mongabay off-the-record, the owner of a goldmine near Novo Progress, who has also been involved in illegal logging, said: “The problem arises when they [the environment agencies] destroy [mining and logging] machinery. People aren’t worried by fines — they don’t pay them in any case — but it hurts when they destroy machinery.”

Decree 6,514, passed in 2008 by the federal government, has served for over a decade as a key enforcement tool that IBAMA uses as a last resort against perpetrators. The destruction of illegally deployed mining and logging equipment — expensive trucks, tractors, bulldozers, mining dredges and more — has exposed loggers and land grabbers to major financial risk.

But Bolsonaro is very unhappy with the policy. In a video shot last April and widely circulated among land grabbers and miners, the president said that “nothing should be burnt, not machinery, nor tractors, nothing, that is the instruction I am giving.” However, Decree 6,514 remains an active statute on the books.

Equipment being destroyed at an illegal mine in Yanomami Park by a FUNAI agent in September 2019. President Bolsonaro objects strongly to the currently legal practice of destroying machinery used for illegal purposes in the remote Amazon. Image courtesy of FUNAI.

IBAMA raids called off, FUNAI raid goes forward

One of the planned IBAMA operations that had to be cancelled because of the army’s refusal to provide support was particularly important. It concerned an illegal mine inside the Trincheira Bacajá Indigenous Territory, in the São Félix do Xingu municipality in Pará state. According to the not-for-profit organization, IMAZON, in July and August invaders cut down more forest in this indigenous reserve than in all other reserves in the country, bar one.

Because federal authorities failed to respond to repeated indigenous requests for help there, armed Xicrin warriors organized an expedition in late August to expel the invaders. According to the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper, the intruders, when confronted, agreed to leave but then sent the Indians a threatening WhatsApp message: “Just take a look around you. There are now over 300 men in the forest hunting Indians.” While no loss of life has been reported since, there is a very real risk that this conflict could escalate and erupt in violence.

However, Amazon miners and land grabbers don’t always get it their way. On 23 September, FUNAI, Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency, with the support of the army, launched, a federal and state coordinated 12-day operation to evict the thousands of miners who recently illegally swarmed into the 9.6 million hectare (37,000 square mile) Yanomami Park, in Roraima state. Demarcated in 1992 in the lead up to the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, the birth of this reserve has been hailed as one of the greatest achievements of the indigenous movement in Brazil.

Since the invasion earlier this year the Yanomami leader Davi Kopenawa and others have campaigned ceaselessly for decisive action to evict invaders. Indeed, the army’s decision to support the operation may well be linked to the attention that the international press has paid to the Yanomami case.

FUNAI’s operation led to the destruction of 30 illegal mines, a helicopter, dozens of pieces of expensive equipment, along with an illegal landing strip. In addition, a BAPE (Base of Ethno-environmental Protection) was reopened on the Mucajaí River, which should help FUNAI prevent future illegal mining incursions.

But the intervention in the Yanomami Park remains at present an isolated case. It has done nothing to halt the ongoing campaign organized by some of Bolsonaro’s most fervent supporters, who are urging the president to permanently shut down the nation’s two chief environment agencies — IBAMA and ICMBio (the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation which manages park lands).

On 3 October, as the FUNAI operation in Yanomami Park was finishing, Bolsonaro once again expressed his support for the nation’s miners, saying in his weekly Facebook video address: “I will do all I can — and I depend on Congress — to give miners a free hand to search for gold, diamonds, all over Brazil, provided they preserve the environment and don’t use mercury.”

Meanwhile, violent acts against IBAMA have escalated. In July, illegal loggers burned two bridges across the Transamazonian Highway, and set fire to an IBAMA vehicle after officials attempted to end illegal logging in the Zoró Indigenous Reserve in Espigão d’Oeste municipality, in Rondônia state. In September, miners reacted furiously when IBAMA and ICMBio teams set fire to backhoes — land moving equipment — at an illegal mine in Crepori National Forest in Pará state. The miners sent angry messages on WhatApp and via other social media. One of them shot a video in which a miner stood in front of a burning backhoe shouting: “I want you, Bolsonaro, to see this video and explain to Brazil what is happening! You said that this wouldn’t happen anymore.”

On 18 September, the government hastily organized a meeting with a delegation of miners. In attendance were top officials, including Environment Minister Ricardo Salles; Presidential Chief-of-Staff, Onyx Lorenzoni; and Chief-of-Staff for Institutional Security, General Augusto Heleno. The administration listened to the miners’ complaints and promised to soon find “a structural, long-term solution for their demands.”

One attending miner said afterward that they’d been told that never before had so many ministers been present at a meeting of this type. He boasted: “We achieved a great deal with our actions. We should all congratulate ourselves.”

The government’s sympathetic reaction to miners’ demands angered IBAMA staff: “The same people who practice environmental crimes and invade indigenous land are asking for protection from the army and the president,” Denis Riva, President of the National Association of Civil Servants Specialized in the Environment (ASCEMA), told Mongabay. “At the very least, that leaves us in a very awkward position.”

Banner image caption: A FUNAI agent looks out over deforestation resulting from illegal gold mining in Yanomami Park. The miners were expelled from the indigenous territory in a September 2019 raid conducted by the Bolsonaro government. Image courtesy of FUNAI.

If you’re interested in learning more about protests against the fires in Brazil, watch here:

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