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Brazil’s Xingu River Basin feels the heat from Bolsonaro’s fiery rhetoric

Garimpo no limite nordeste da TI KayapÛ. Cerca de 800 hectares foram abertos dentro de Terras IndÌgenas (TIs) e Unidades de ConservaÁ„o (UCs), pressionando o meio ambiente e os povos que ali vivem. Essas ·reas protegidas formam o Corredor Xingu de Diversidade Socioambiental e s„o fundamentais para a proteÁ„o das florestas e dos territÛrios tradicionalmente ocupados. O desmatamento fora dessas ·reas tambÈm impressiona: foram mais de 5 mil hectares em regiıes muito prÛximas aos limites do Corredor

  • An area six times larger than New York City has been destroyed by loggers, land grabbers and illegal miners from 2018 to 2020 in the basin straddling the states of Pará and Mato Grosso.
  • A green corridor of Indigenous reserves and conservation units risks being severed in two with land grabbers advancing on both sides from municipalities with high levels of deforestation.
  • Experts say the dramatic increase of destruction reflects a generalized sense of impunity in the region, fueled by the anti-Indigenous and anti-environmental rhetoric of President Jair Bolsonaro.
  • Suspension of environmental inspections led to a notable uptick in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon; the number of fines imposed for environmental crimes fell by 34% in the first year of the Bolsonaro administration.

The Xingu River Basin, one of the most biodiverse regions of the Brazilian Amazon, is reeling from an explosion of illegal deforestation that has coincided with the rise and presidency of far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro.

According to a recent report by the Xingu+ Network, based on its Sirad deforestation monitoring system, between 2018 and 2020, loggers, land grabbers and illegal miners destroyed 513,500 hectares (1.27 million acres) of forest — an area six times larger than New York City. Sirad is a near-real-time deforestation radar monitoring system using a series of algorithms that process information from the Sentinel-1 satellite on the Google Earth Engine (GEE) platform, monitored by analysts from the Xingu+ Network.

Experts have detected what they say is an alarming uptick of deforestation inside the 23 Indigenous reserves and nine protected forest areas that form a “green corridor” along the basin that straddles the states of Pará and Mato Grosso; the former is home to most of the recent destruction.  

While much of the illegal activity inside these protected areas long predates the Bolsonaro era — logging and illegal mining inside the Cachoeira Seca and Kayapó Indigenous reserves, for example — experts interviewed by Mongabay said the sudden escalation from 2018 onward demonstrates a large increase in a historical sense of impunity in the region.

“The increase of deforestation inside these protected areas clearly reflects the expectation that they may be reduced or reverted,” said Biviany Rojas, Xingu program coordinator at Brazil’s Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA). One of the main concerns highlighted in the report is that the Xingu Basin corridor could be severed in two.

Satellite image shows mining near the village of Turedjam in the Kayapó Indigenous Territory, Pará state. Image courtesy of Xingu+ Network.

‘There are no rules’

Deforestation has advanced through Iriri State Forest, with land grabbers illegally invading on both sides from São Félix do Xingu, the Brazilian municipality that’s home to the most head of cattle — 2.2 million, according to the latest figures from Brazil’s Institute of Geography and Statistics — and Novo Progresso, from the BR-163 highway, site of 2019’s infamous “day of fire.”

These two fronts of deforestation are now less than 50 kilometers (30 miles) apart. “If this happens, the corridor will be cut in two,” said Ricardo Abad, a geoprocessing analyst at ISA. “It would be breaking an ecological corridor that is very important for the region — and the planet.”

According to the report, in 2012, six years after the creation of Iriri State Forest, there were 39 properties registered inside the area with Brazil’s Rural Environmental Registry (CAR), covering 57,254 hectares (141,478 acres) of land. That represented more than one-eighth of the ostensibly protected park’s total area.

Today, there are 201 properties illegally claimed and registered with CAR in Iriri State Forest, covering 396,882 hectares (980,717 acres) of land, an area nearly half the size of Puerto Rico and covering 90% of the territory.

The Triunfo do Xingu Environmental Protection Area (APA), which borders Iriri State Forest, remains the worst-hit conservation unit in the basin, with 93,276 hectares (230,490 acres) of forest and native vegetation destroyed from 2018 to 2020.

According to the report, the sheer scale of deforestation registered inside the conservation unit, with areas as large as 1,400 hectares (3,460 acres) being cleared at a time, illustrates the economic and political power and capacity of the groups responsible.

A truck loaded with suspected illegal timber on the Trans-Iriri road, Rio Iriri Extractive Reserve, Pará state. Image by Lilo Clareto/ISA.

Nearly 40% of the conservation unit’s forest cover has already been cleared, mostly for cattle ranching. While the reserve’s status does permit economic activities, analysts say that lack of planning for sustainable production and a drop in inspections mean that deforestation has continued at an intense pace.

“It’s as if there are no rules,” said Abad, the geoprocessing analyst.

Altogether, from 2018-2020, some 120,000 hectares (297,000 acres) of deforestation were detected in conservation units in the Xingu Basin, while 66,000 hectares (163,000 acres) of deforestation were detected inside Indigenous reserves in the region.

In 2019, the first year of Bolsonaro’s presidency, there was a 38% increase in deforestation within Indigenous reserves and 50% within conservation units in the basin.

Since he began campaigning in 2018 and throughout his presidency, Bolsonaro has frequently blasted what he sees as an excessive amount of land in Brazil’s Amazon allocated for Indigenous reserves or protected forest areas. 

He blames this situation for stifling the growth of the agribusiness sector, despite the fact that protected areas in Brazil account for 29% of the country’s total territory, compared to 37% for agriculture, according to data from the Brazilian NGO MapBiomas. 

“Here in Rondônia there are 53 conservation units and 25 Indigenous lands,” Bolsonaro said during a 2018 campaign stop in Porto Velho, capital of Rondônia, one of the Amazon’s most deforested states and a bastion of his support base. “It’s ridiculous what is done in Brazil, in the name of the environment.”

Area being deforested inside the Apyterewa Indigenous Territory belonging to the Parakanã people, Pará state. Image by Kaworé Parakanã.

The start of his presidency in January 2019 also ushered in legislation calling for amnesty for land grabbers and legalization of wildcat mining on Indigenous reserves, while at the same time undoing restrictions on exports of Amazonian timber.

Meanwhile, agencies like IBAMA, the federal environmental protection body, have suffered from budget cuts, dismissals of senior officials, and intimidation, affecting their abilities to carry out complex operations to dismantle organized criminal networks across the Amazon and in the Xingu region, said the ISA’s Rojas.

“The numbers show that, when these operations are suspended, there is an immediate effect of deforestation increasing,” she said, pointing to examples in the Xingu region.

In April last year, IBAMA’s environmental protection director and two enforcement coordinators were fired and operations suspended in the Xingu region after video showing illegal mining equipment on Indigenous reserves being destroyed was aired on the primetime news program Fantástico.

Up until then, law enforcement operations had succeeded in driving deforestation rates down. But they surged again from that point in the Xingu region’s Cachoeira Seca, Trincheira Bacajá and Apyterewa Indigenous reserves.

Despite the trend, there have been some signs of a pushback against deforestation. IBAMA recently imposed a 106 million reais (nearly $20 million) fine on a man accused of heading a gang responsible for land grabbing inside the Ituna/Itatá Indigenous Territory and causing 21,000 hectares (51,900 acres) of deforestation since 2018. And earlier this month, federal police raided properties linked to Bolsonaro’s environment minister, Ricardo Salles, as part of an investigation into illegal logging.

Banner Image: Illegal mining on the northeastern boundary of the Kayapó Indigenous Territory in Pará state. Image courtesy of Xingu+ Network.

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