Deforestation in the world’s largest rainforest, an important buffer against climate change, has soared under President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil.
RIO DE JANEIRO—When the smoke cleared, the Amazon could breathe easy again.
For months, black clouds had hung over the rainforest as work crews burned and chain-sawed through it. Now the rainy season had arrived, offering a respite to the jungle and a clearer view of the damage to the world.
The picture that emerged was anything but reassuring: Brazil’s space agency reported that in one year, more than 3,700 square miles of the Amazon had been razed — a swath of jungle nearly the size of Lebanon torn from the world’s largest rainforest.
It was the highest loss in Brazilian rainforest in a decade, and stark evidence of just how badly the Amazon, an important buffer against global warming, has fared in Brazil’s first year under President Jair Bolsonaro.
He has vowed to open the rainforest to industry and scale back its protections, and his government has followed through, cutting funds and staffing to weaken the enforcement of environmental laws. In the absence of federal agents, waves of loggers, ranchers and miners moved in, emboldened by the president and eager to satisfy global demand.
Deforestation soared, up almost 30 percent from the year before.
He warned that the Amazon may soon cross a tipping point and begin to self-destruct. “Law enforcement has reached its minimum effectiveness in a decade,” he said. “It is a worrying warning for the future.”
Mr. Bolsonaro’s government has made some nods to combating illegal clear-cutting, but the president has reaffirmed his longstanding position of disdain toward conservation work. He once said that Brazil’s environmental policy was “suffocating the country”; he vowed on the campaign trail that not “a square centimeter” of land would be designated for Indigenous people; and last month he brushed aside official data about deforestation.
His stance has been widely noted on the Amazon frontier, where the rainforest is transformed into land for cattle, soybeans and other crops in a process that can be murky, sometimes illegal and frequently violent.
“Deforestation and fires have always been a problem, but this is the first time it has happened thanks to the discourse and activities of the federal government,” said Marina Silva, who as environment minister in the mid-2000s cracked down on illegal activity in the Amazon, contributing to an 83 percent fall in deforestation from 2004 to 2012.
Around 2014, Brazil started sliding into a deep recession, and deforestation began to rise as ranchers and loggers searched for new land to exploit. The Amazon, relied on for centuries for rubber trees, minerals and fertile land, was the obvious place to go.
Agribusiness, always a force in Brazil, gained even more economic and political power: It now represents nearly a quarter of the country’s G.D.P., and the Amazon region supports soybean farms, gold and iron ore mines and ranches holding more than 50 million cattle.
These industries found an ally in Mr. Bolsonaro, a far-right, pro-business lawmaker before he shot to the presidency last year. His government, Ms. Silva said, “is not fighting to preserve environmental governance.”
Deforestation began to rise before Mr. Bolsonaro took office in January. By the height of the dry season in July and August, some experts feared that criminal loggers and ranchers, who use fire to prepare land for crops and pasture, were clearing the Amazon with impunity.
Their fires drew international attention, especially as images spread online of jungle blazes, charred trees and the smoke-darkened sky over Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo, 1,800 miles southeast of the rainforest. More than 80,000 fires were detected since the start of the year, according to government data.
The fires turned into a major diplomatic crisis for Mr. Bolsonaro, pitting him against a global backlash of politicians, celebrities and popular opinion. France threatened to block a major trade deal, and Norway and Germany halted donations to protect the rainforest.
After initially remaining defiant, Mr. Bolsonaro mobilized the military to tackle the flames and issued a decree banning fires in the Amazon for 60 days.
The furor reached such a pitch that Brazil’s businesses became worried about the potential impact. “Did we have our image harmed? Yes. Can we recover it? Yes. The government has to align its discourse to what the world wants,” said Blairo Maggi, a billionaire soybean producer and former agriculture minister known as the Soy King.
“The farmers, associations and industry will have to redo what has been lost,” he said. “We retreated 10 steps; we will have to work to get back to where we were.”
The people who work the land have expressed conflicting feelings about the deforestation. For some, the fires are a dual threat, spewing dangerous smoke and destroying a forest that has always provided a livelihood. For others, the fires create much-needed jobs, all the more valuable amid Brazil’s sluggish economy.
The push into the Amazon has also been driven by demand from abroad. Every year, Brazil exports nearly 15 million tons of soy, much of it to China, and more than $6 billion worth of beef — more than any other country in history. Cattle ranches account for up to 80 percent of deforested land in the Amazon, according to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
Major beef and soy firms have been fined millions for buying commodities sourced from illegally deforested land, but such rules have proved difficult to enforce.
Last week, the environment minister, Ricardo Salles, said that the authorities needed a new strategy to stop illegal logging and mining, but he has not outlined a plan.
And despite the more conciliatory tone taken by Mr. Salles and businessmen like Mr. Maggi, Mr. Bolsonaro has again voiced an aggressive, nationalistic view of the Amazon, describing the rainforest as a resource to be exploited.
Last week, he falsely accused the actor Leonardo DiCaprio of bankrolling fires in the Amazon, and for months he has also dismissed Indigenous people’s concerns about increasing invasions of protected land by loggers and miners, even as Indigenous groups have pleaded with the government for protection from growing violence.
Many environmentalists directly blame Mr. Bolsonaro for the increase in deforestation, citing his firing of key officials at the main environmental regulator, IBAMA, and his refusal to endorse anti-logging operations.
“If the federal government does not profoundly change its stance on the issue,” said Mauricio Voivodic, the executive director of WWF Brasil, deforestation “will grow even more next year, causing the country to go back 30 years in terms of protecting the Amazon.”
The Amazon’s future may depend on whether that happens, with serious implications for global warming.
Enforcement actions by IBAMA fell by 20 percent in the first half of 2018.
The rainforest stores a huge volume of carbon dioxide, which is unleashed through the fires. From January through July, deforestation and fires in the Brazilian Amazon released between 115 and 155 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions — roughly the total for the state of North Carolina — according to an analysis by the Woods Hole Research Center and IPAM-Amazônia.
“Deforestation data for the last three months also shows a very sharp increase,” said Mr. Nobre, the climate scientist.
Scientists also warn that decades of destruction have brought the forest close to a tipping point, in which lower rainfall and longer dry seasons would turn most of it into savanna.
According to research by Mr. Nobre, the tipping point will likely be reached at 20 to 25 percent of deforestation across the Amazon basin — or even sooner, depending on the rate of climate change. There is no accurate measure of deforestation across the nine countries containing the Amazon, but many researchers believe about 17 percent of the forest has been lost already.
Whether this year’s figures represent an acceleration of that process or an exception to the trend will only become evident next summer, when the dry season returns.
Speaking to reporters last month, Mr. Bolsonaro predicted smoke would be back with it. “Deforestation and fires will never end,” he said. “It’s cultural.”
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Photo: The burning rainforest in Rondônia state in September. Source: Victor Moriyama.