Brazil launches military operations in the Amazon rain forest

By Jake Spring

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazil launched a military deployment to protect the Amazon rainforest on Monday, Vice President Hamilton Mourao said, in response to surging deforestation this year with the high season for forest fires still approaching.

The military – along with environmental authorities, police and other government agencies – began with an operation to stop illegal environmental destruction in a national forest in the state of Rondonia near the Bolivian border, Mourao said at a press conference alongside other government ministers.

Defense Minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva said authorities are establishing bases of operation in three Amazon cities, with 3,800 troops mobilized to begin raids against illegal logging and other crimes, with initial operational costs of 60 million reais ($10.32 million).

Government data released on Friday showed that deforestation rose 55% in the first four months of the year, compared to the same period a year ago, to 1,202 square kilometers (464 square miles). That comes on top of last year’s destruction rising to an 11-year high, provoking international outcry that not enough was being done to protect the world’s largest rainforest.

President Jair Bolsonaro issued a decree last week deploying the military to the region, repeating a move he made last year to send in the armed forces after forest fires and deforestation surged. This year troops are being sent in three months earlier than in 2019.

($1 = 5.8160 reais)

(Reporting by Jake Spring; Editing by Sandra Maler and Aurora Ellis)

Brazil Amazon deforestation soars to 11-year high under Bolsonaro

By Marcelo Teixeira

SAO JOSE DOS CAMPOS, Brazil (Reuters) – Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest rose to its highest in over a decade this year, government data on Monday showed, confirming a sharp increase under the leadership of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro.

The data from Brazil’s INPE space research agency, which showed deforestation soaring 29.5% to 9,762 square kilometers for the 12 months through July 2019, sparked an uncharacteristic admission by the government that something needed to be done to stem the tide.

It was the worst level of deforestation since 2008, heaping further pressure on the environmental policy of Bolsonaro who favors developing the Amazon region economically.

The Amazon is the world’s largest tropical rainforest and is considered key to the fight against climate change because of the vast amounts of carbon dioxide it absorbs.

Risks to the forest drew global concern in August when fires raged through the Amazon, drawing sharp criticism from France’s President Emmanuel Macron.

At a briefing to discuss the numbers, Environment Minister Ricardo Salles said the rise in deforestation showed the need for a new strategy to combat the illegal logging, mining and land grabbing which he said were to blame.

Environmentalists and nongovernmental organizations placed the blame squarely on the government, saying that Bolsonaro’s strong pro-development rhetoric and policies to weaken environmental enforcement are behind the rise in illegal activity.

“The Bolsonaro government is responsible for every inch of forest destroyed. This government today is the worst enemy of the Amazon,” said Marcio Astrini, public policy coordinator for Greenpeace, in a statement.

Bolsonaro’s office directed Reuters to remarks made by Salles and another official and did not comment further on the issue.

In August, Reuters reported Bolsonaro’s government had systematically weakened environmental agency Ibama, grounding a team of elite enforcement commandos and forbidding agents from destroying machinery used to illegally deforest.

Brazil’s Climate Observatory, a network of nongovernmental organizations, said the 2019 increase in deforestation was the fastest in percentage terms since the 1990s and the third fastest of all-time.

In response to the numbers, Salles vowed to roll out a series of measures to counter the rising deforestation, including stepping up enforcement efforts assisted by high-resolution satellite imaging.

The minister said he would meet governors of Amazon states on Wednesday to discuss tactics to counter deforestation.

All options are on the table, according to Salles, including mobilizing the military for use in environmental enforcement operations.

GOVERNMENT REVERSAL

Salles’ recognition that deforestation is indeed on the rise comes after months of the government casting doubt on preliminary monthly data showing destruction was skyrocketing.

At multiple press briefings earlier this year, Salles alleged the monthly data was unreliable and contained inconsistencies. He had urged journalists not to report the monthly figures and wait for the annual data, announced Monday.

Bolsonaro had accused the INPE space research agency of lying about the monthly data. In a high-profile dispute, then-INPE chief Ricardo Galvao stood by the data and called Bolsonaro “a joke of a 14-year-old boy that is not suitable for a president of Brazil.” Galvao was later fired.

The annual figure accounts for seven months under Bolsonaro, but also measures five months under the previous government.

It also does not account for destruction after July. Preliminary data for August to October shows deforestation more than doubled compared to the same period a year-prior to 3,704 square kilometers.

NGOs say they fear that protections could be weakened further as the government considers allowing commercial agriculture on native reserves, expanding wildcat mining and allowing for illegally occupied land to be “regularized.”

Beef prices are also at record highs in Brazil, leading some environmentalists to fear it could fuel land grabbing for cattle ranching – one of the biggest drivers of deforestation.

“The coming years could be even worse,” said Carlos Rittl, executive-secretary for Climate Observatory.

 

(Reporting by Marcelo Teixeira; Writing by Jake Spring and Stephen Eisenhammer; Editing by Alex Richardson and Andrea Ricci)

Years after nun’s murder, church activists face threats in lawless Amazon

By Nacho Doce and Pablo Garcia

ANAPU, Brazil (Reuters) – Fourteen years ago, on a dirt road near a remote settlement in northern Brazil, a gunman paid by local cattle ranchers executed a U.S. nun who had spent much of her life fighting to save the Amazon rainforest and advocating for the rural poor.

The 2005 killing of 73-year-old Dorothy Stang, who was shot six times in the chest, back and head, shocked the world.

Her former colleagues, who still live near the town of Anapu in the state of Para where she worked, say the area remains as lawless and as dangerous as ever.

“The people here are eager to plant trees, to preserve the forest, to keep it standing and defend it, even with their lives,” said Sister Jane Dwyer, as she held a photo of her murdered colleague. “Because there are people here who have fled from gunmen and from threats.”

Their situation highlights the problem of policing the vast Amazon, where this year loggers, cattle ranchers, and farmers have been accused of triggering a sharp rise in fires and deforestation.

Dwyer and other nuns have recorded 18 deaths of local subsistence farmers in the region since 2015. They say the farmers were murdered over land disputes and that at least 40 people have left the area after receiving threats.

The Para state attorney general’s office did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the allegations.

The Amazon fires have created a major crisis for far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who reacted with fury to global accusations that he was not doing enough to protect one of the world’s key bulwarks against climate change.

Critics said his election victory emboldened his gun-toting supporters to ignore environmental regulations. He has denied that, but he took office in January vowing to bring progress to the Amazon, and has long criticized indigenous reservations and environmental fines as a brake on development.

Bolsonaro is also a long-time skeptic of non-governmental organizations, including the Roman Catholic church, that work in the Amazon, arguing that they are seeking to curtail Brazil’s sovereignty. When the news of the blazes first broke, he even accused NGOs of starting the fires, without providing evidence.

His approach has caused tensions with global leaders, including Pope Francis. The first Latin American pontiff said this month that rapid deforestation should not be treated as a local issue since it threatened the future of the planet.

Next month, the Vatican will host a synod with bishops and other representatives, including indigenous peoples from across South America. The issue of protecting the Amazon will likely loom large.

‘WE’RE SCARED’

Deep in the rainforest and far away from the corridors of power, protecting the Amazon is a lonely, challenging and increasingly dangerous task, say those at the frontline.

In Anapu, the federal government terminated a contract last month with a local security firm that was designed to provide protection for residents and the surrounding forest from invaders, residents said. The contract was not renewed due to a lack of funding, residents said they were told. INCRA, the government agency involved, did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters. The security contractor referred questions to INCRA.

Vinicius da Silva, 37, who leads an environmental conservation society in a local reserve and said he has faced threats from loggers, decried the lack of support.

“We have no protection,” he said. “We’re scared. We don’t know who comes into the reserve and what they’ll do inside it. We know they’re doing bad things in there, but when we ask the government to help, they come to look at the environmental damage and they say we did it.”

Brazil’s environment ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Bolsonaro has said that Brazil, facing a steep budget shortfall after years of recession, does not have the resources to police the vast Amazon.

But Father Amaro Lopes de Souza, who like Stang has fought for landless rights and environmental preservation in the region, said the president had not done enough to protect the people or the forest.

“Those who are destroying the Amazon are the big farms, and it’s those big farmers who made (Bolsonaro) president. Now, they think they can deforest and burn and devour everything,” he said.

(Reporting by Nacho Doce and Pablo Garcia, Writing and additional reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)