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Story Publication logo August 26, 2019

Brazilian Farmers Believe They Have the Right to Burn the Amazon


Image Courtesy of Jesse Hyde. 

The Amazon rainforest is at a tipping point, with wide swaths of the forest being chopped down. As...

Aerial picture showing a fire raging in the Amazon rainforest about 65 km from Porto Velho, in the state of Rondonia, in northern Brazil, on August 23, 2019. Image by Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images. Brazil, 2019.
Aerial picture showing a fire raging in the Amazon rainforest about 65 km from Porto Velho, in the state of Rondonia, in northern Brazil, on August 23, 2019. Image by Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images. Brazil, 2019.

On Monday, at about 3 p.m., the sky in Sao Paulo turned dark.

As rain began to fall in South America's largest city, Leandro Matozo, a television reporter who lives on the city's east side, noticed that the rain pooling in his mother's garden was filled with soot. He filled up a plastic soda bottle with the rainwater and took a picture, which later went viral on Twitter. The water was black.

Satellite images from the European Space Agency would reveal a river of smoke from forest fires burning across the Amazon rainforest. Photographs taken above the tree cover are even more terrifying. They show a forest that is rapidly vanishing: Since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January, trees in the Brazilian Amazon have been disappearing at the rate of two Manhattans a week. There have been 39,601 fires so far this year, a 77 percent increase over 2018, according to INPE, Brazil's space research center.

Bolsonaro is often called the Trump of the Tropics, and he has the same authoritarian streak, penchant for racist rhetoric, and disdain for science. This week, he claimed the fires were likely started by non-governmental organizations to "call attention" to the fact that their funding has been cut. His chief of staff said European nations lie about deforestation in Brazil and that he had no plans to visit the burning swaths of forest. "I'll go see something more important," he said. And amid growing international alarm, Bolosonaro rebuffed offers of help from world leaders, calling it an attempt to interfere with Brazil's national sovereignty. When Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, said, "our house is burning" and urged the G7 to prioritize the crisis when it meets this weekend, Bolsonaro brushed him back as a colonialist. 

From the time he campaigned for president, Bolsonaro vowed to open the Amazon to development, finishing hydroelectric dams and paving roads that cut through the forest. I traveled to the region in June for Rolling Stone on a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting to witness firsthand the battle over the forest's future. Emboldened by the election of Bolsonaro, farmers were already burning forest to clear more land for soy farms and cattle ranches. Bolsonaro owes his election largely to a relatively new coalition in Brazil known as the Beef, Bible and Bullets caucus, which pressured his predecessor, Michel Temer, to open the Amazon for development to stave off a scandal that threatened to engulf his presidency. According to documents leaked earlier this week, Bolsonaro has been implementing a strategy to "occupy" the Amazon with development projects — including the Trombetas River hydroelectric plant and the Obidos bridge over the Amazon River — and to prevent conservation.

FUNAI, the government agency charged with protecting indigenous land, has had its budget cut in half, and IBAMA, the agency that cracks down on those destroying the forest, has had dozens of its bases shut down. Bolsonaro installed a climate-change denier as environmental minister and tried to put FUNAI under the agriculture department, which would have opened indigenous land to development had it not been blocked by congress. 

The tragedy of all of this is that for over a decade, Brazil was the world's leader in stopping deforestation. Under the leftist Worker's Party, deforestation in Brazil dropped by 85 percent between 2004 and 2015 due to a series of aggressive reforms and the demarcation of national forest, conservation units, and indigenous reserves. IBAMA functioned as a sort of elite environmental commando unit, choppering into cleared land where, by law, they were empowered to seize tractors and bulldozers, or torch them so they couldn't be used again.

Now, the agencies are stripped of power and resources and barely able to function in some places. "Our operations have nearly ground to a halt," an IBAMA agent tells me. "There's a sense of impunity that nothing will happen if the forest is cleared. It's open season."

Nowhere is that more evident than along BR 163, a highway that winds through the Xingu basin for over 1,000 miles, from the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil's breadbasket, to the port city of Santarem, which sit on a tributary of the Amazon. The road is often called the "soy highway" because it is filled with hundreds of trucks a day carrying loads of soy to the port, where it is then shipped up the Amazon and out to the Atlantic Ocean, destined for Europe and China. 

The burning season was just getting started when I visited, and in the city of Novo Progresso, in the southwest corner of Para, not far from Mato Grosso, cattle ranchers and land speculators told me they were thrilled by Bolsonaro's election. As they saw it, the Brazilian government had sent them there in the 1970s to develop the Amazon, and then turned on them with fines and the confiscation of equipment. Under Bolsonaro, they were hoping things would return to how they had once been, when the Amazon was a lawless frontier with few rules.

"We came here because this same government, which now calls us bandits and criminals, sent us here," Agemenon Menezes, the local president of the rural syndicate, or farmer's association, told me. "The people in the big cities of Sao Paulo and Rio, they want us to live on picking Brazil nuts," Menezes told me. "That doesn't put anyone's kid in college."

Under Bolsonaro, IBAMA agents have already been reined in, he said.

"Now, because of Bolsonaro, they have been taught to have manners," Menezes said. "They came over here and talked to me the other day, with respect, and told me they've been taught how the government should act."

When I visited the IBAMA office on the edge of town, which sits behind a walled compound and is guarded by police armed with assault rifles, a supervisor told me he wasn't allowing his agents to leave the base. They'd had their trucks torched and had once been overrun by a mob from town, which tied down the rotors of a helicopter with steel cables to prevent it from leaving on a mission. 

There was a sense of panic and desperation among the rainforest advocates I met during my three-week long trip. Jose Sarney Filho, who served as environmental minister under two presidents, says Bolsonaro is systematically dismantling environmental protections. "What is happening is unprecedented," Sarney Filho says. "This new government is trying to destroy what we built over 30 years."

The stakes couldn't be higher. The Amazon contains 40 percent of the world's rainforest and more biodiversity than any other place on the planet. Already 17 percent of the forest is gone. According to Carlos Nobre, one of Brazil's top climate scientists, even a slight uptick in deforestation could trigger something called dieback, in which the forest heats up, resulting in droughts, floods, and wildfires. Nobre worries we're nearing a tipping point and that if we reach a 20 to 25 percent threshold of deforestation, more than half the rainforest could die permanently. Weather patterns would change all over South America, and billions of tons of carbon would be released into the atmosphere.

Already, Nobre says we are seeing the "first flickers" of permanent change, pointing to three severe droughts in the last 15 years. The most recent, in 2015, caused massive wildfires near the city of Santarem, turning the sky an acrid haze.

When I talked to Marina Silva, the former environmental minister and Brazilian presidential candidate, she sounded despondent. She's worried that everything they'd accomplished is being wiped out in a matter of months. "We need the whole world to pay attention," she says. "Because this is not just Brazil's problem. We need international attention and pressure to stop what's happening now."