By Ana Ionova*
In a corner of Brazil’s Mato Grosso state, a handful of clandestine roads neatly slice the dense jungle canopy into rectangles. From the sky, an entourage of bulldozers can be spotted wading deeper into the Amazon along these makeshift routes. The vast Wawi Indigenous Territory lies just beyond, emerald green stretching as far as the eye can see.
Two weeks earlier, authorities raided this very region of Querência, a municipality 960 kilometers (597 miles) east of the state capital, Cuiabá. In a highly publicized operation in mid-May led by the state, agents slapped embargoes on 700 hectares of land being deforested illegally. They confiscated tractors and handed out R$4.2 million ($780,990) in fines to the perpetrators.
But just a few days after the flashy operation, indigenous people living nearby reported hearing the whirring sound of electric chainsaws as the invaders picked up right where they had left off. Local sources said it appeared as if they were carving roads into the still-lush territory as a way of demarcating and opening it up to heavy machinery, which could then easily raze down large swaths of forest.
Following a complaint by environmental advocates, a helicopter that appeared to belong to federal forces swept above the region in early June, local sources say. But it appears the invaders were undeterred: they were still clearing forest as recently as June 11, according to local sources and satellite images of the area.
“It’s an affront, it’s a form of betting on impunity,” said Ricardo Abad, an analyst at the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), an NGO that defends environmental diversity and the rights of indigenous and traditional people. “The person knows that nothing will happen.”
More than 30,000 deforestation alerts have been recorded in Querência since the start of this year, according to satellite data from the University of Maryland visualized on Global Forest Watch. Much of the deforestation has been clustered around the point where the Rio das Pacas river flows into the larger Rio Suiá Missu, at the doorstep of the Wawi Indigenous Territory that is home to the Kisêdjê and Tapayuna people. The incursion has raised alarm that outsiders could bring COVID-19 into this region and infect the vulnerable communities that live there.
“It raises huge concerns,” said Helcio Souza, coordinator of conservation strategy in indigenous lands at the The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a nonprofit focused on environmental conservation. “And we could very well see a rise in Covid in these indigenous territories – and even inside this region of Querência.”
Signal from the top
The brazen invasion into Querência is also emblematic of a broader rise in illegal deforestation across the Amazon this year. As Brazil became an epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, environmental groups say the health crisis provided the perfect cover for invaders and left them mostly free to clear forest, as all eyes remained fixed on the pandemic. Across Brazil’s Amazon, some 2,032 sq km have been cleared since the start of this year – the highest level in five years. This is a third higher than in the same period last year, which already marked an alarming surge in deforestation that caught the world’s attention.
Environmentalists say the federal government’s rhetoric has played a key role in emboldening illegal encroachment into the Amazon. Far-right president Jair Bolsonaro has sharply criticized forest protections, vowed to open up indigenous lands to wildcat mining, and railed against efforts to crack down on invaders. The government has also been mulling a law that would encourage land-grabbing in the Amazon by allowing squatters to self-declare as the rightful owners of land, although the process was put on hold following an international outcry.
“Landgrabbers and deforesters are not working from home, they are not in quarantine,” said Paulo Moutinho, senior scientist at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM). “And they are getting a stronger signal day by day from the federal government, saying ‘go ahead because we are working on a bill that could legalize what you are doing’.”
In May, environment minister Ricardo Salles also came under fire, after a video of a cabinet meeting showed him urging the government to take advantage of the “distraction” of the coronavirus crisis to quietly weaken protections of the Amazon, “changing all the rules and simplifying standards.”
Enforcement of environmental laws has been dealt a blow too under Bolsonaro’s government. Federal environmental agency Ibama saw its budget slashed repeatedly last year. The president has also tried to stop agents tasked with protecting the forest from destroying the equipment they confiscate during operations. In April, three high-ranking Ibama officials were fired, just weeks after their agents carried out a mass operation against illegal miners in an indigenous territory, burning their equipment during the raid.
Amid mounting criticism that it was enabling and even encouraging deforestation, the federal government sent a military operation into the Amazon in early May. The one-month effort, dubbed Operation Green Brazil 2, mobilized 3,800 military agents across several states in the Amazon – at an eye-watering cost of R$60 million ($11.3 million). The mission was due to end on June 10 but president Bolsonaro extended the operation by another month, with a focus on the upcoming fire season.
The Ministry of Defense, which is leading the military actions in the Amazon, said the operation had resulted in 934 fines totaling R$175.4 million ($33.4 million) as of June 18. Some 31,880 hectares (319 sq km or 123 sq mi) were embargoed, 116 people were arrested and 104 pieces of equipment were dismantled, including mining engines, tractors and excavators. Agents seized vehicles, drugs and illegal timber, a spokesperson said in a statement.
Yet critics say that the extravagant operation has done little to halt the destruction of the rainforest, despite an initial budget corresponding to roughly 90% of what Ibama spends on enforcement for a whole year.
“So far, we’re not seeing the result,” said Romulo Batista, Greenpeace Brazil’s Amazon campaigner. “The government thinks that it can simply bring in the military to combat deforestation… and then it doesn’t have to do anything the rest of the year. You don’t combat deforestation with a one-month activity.”
The Ministry of Defense said it had not taken any action in Querência but confirmed an army helicopter carried out an aerial inspection of a nearby area on June 5. The spokesperson noted its agents had carried out other missions combating deforestation and illegal mining across Mato Grosso, resulting in 83 arrests, fines totaling R$129 million ($24.3 million) and the destruction of equipment.
The ministry also rejected claims that its broader crackdown across the Amazon had fallen short, in light of the mission’s “extensive results” so far, “including notices, fines and dismantlement” of equipment.
Yet the concern is that, as large-scale emergency operations like Green Brazil 2 replace year-round heavy policing by agencies like Ibama and ICMBio, federal enforcement is turning into a series of sporadic responses to urgent crises, Moutinho said. “But after you leave the area, you also leave behind all the conditions to re-activate the deforestation. So this is not enforcement.”
Deforestation with an address
The vast state of Mato Grosso is an agricultural powerhouse, churning out a huge chunk of Brazil’s soy, corn and beef production. The state has also become a frontier for deforestation: it registered the country’s second highest rate of clearing between August 2018 and July 2019, losing some 256,000 hectares of native vegetation.
Querência – one of Brazil’s top soy-growing municipalities – also has a long history of deforestation but it seemed to be turning a corner in recent years. In 2011, it was removed from a list of worst offenders among Brazilian municipalities after it managed to slash deforestation by 95 percent over the course of a decade. But now, there are signs those gains are unravelling at the hands of soy farmers.
“The region of Querência is an old frontier for deforestation,” Souza said. “It’s an area that has more of a tradition of livestock – but now there has been an intensification of soy planting.”
The vast majority of the clearing in Querência has occurred in rural settlements made up of plots that were distributed to smallholder farmers by Incra, Brazil’s National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform. These settlements make up just 5.5 percent of the region, but satellite data shows they are driving about 62 percent of its deforestation, said Vinicius Silgueiro, territorial intelligence coordinator at the Instituto Centro de Vida (ICV), a Cuiaba-based nonprofit focused on sustainable agriculture and forestry.
Large-scale farmers are behind another 33 percent of the destruction, with most clearing hefty chunks of 50 acres or more, according to an ICV analysis of data from INPE, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. The majority are already registered in the national system, known as Sistema de Cadastro Ambiental Rural (CAR), but are deforesting far more than they are permitted, Silgueiro noted. Landowners in the Amazon are only allowed to develop a part of their property with prior authorization and typically must keep as much as 80 percent of the forest intact.
“There’s very little land there that is not private rural property and that hasn’t been registered,” Silgueiro said. “And more than half of the clearing occurs in locations where it’s already possible to identify the owner. The deforestation already has an address, with a large part of them well-known farms.”
But, for the most part, efforts by authorities have been focused elsewhere, according to Silgueiro. Most federal operations have targeted deforestation within regions that are under official government protection – but they have ignored the illegal razing of forests outside these areas, even though it adds pressure along the frontiers of indigenous lands.
“The actions have been focused on indigenous territories or conservation units – and the data shows they do not correspond to the majority of deforestation,” Silgueiro said. “To tackle the problem of deforestation here in Mato Grosso, we need to look at the private rural properties.”
There is also a lack of punishment doled out to the powerful actors driving large-scale deforestation, Moutinho noted. Hiring a tractor or bulldozer to raze down a large swath of the Amazon can cost thousands of reais – making it prohibitive for most small-scale agricultural producers.
“The financing of deforestation is not being addressed,” he said. “It’s not smallholders paying these sums of money to deforest. It’s someone else with resources paying for that.”
To compensate for dwindling federal enforcement, state authorities in Mato Grosso have stepped up their attempts to combat deforestation. Last year, the state rolled out a new monitoring system using detailed imaging and weekly alerts of deforestation. The hope was that this would allow a more rapid response to illegal deforestation.
Yet some critics argue the very methods used by both state and federal authorities to punish invaders are falling short. Often, enforcement agents place land embargoes on areas and hand out fines to those clearing them. But the vast majority of fines are never paid: a recent analysis by Human Rights Watch showed that, while authorities handed out thousands of fines for deforestation in the Amazon between October 2019 and May 2020, just five of those were paid.
Meanwhile, more costly forms of punishment – like prison sentences or confiscation of equipment – are unpopular and rarely applied, Silgueiro noted. “They are not burning the machines that were confiscated. So the following week, they are already back, continuing to commit the same infractions.”
A deadly threat
The Wawi Indigenous Territory, which straddles the municipalities of Querência and São Félix do Araguaia, has managed to remain lush even as ever larger chunks of forest have been cleared along its eastern frontier. The territory was created in the late 1990s as a way of addressing growing pressure on the Kisêdjê and Tapayuna indigenous people. But, as deforestation has crept closer, rights groups worry it could spell disaster for the communities that call it home.
A key concern has been the impact of industrial agriculture on Rio das Pacas, a key source of water for indigenous people in the region. Farmers often harvest soybeans using agro-toxins that can have serious health impacts, with some even linked to cancer. As forest and topsoil are removed, riverbanks weaken and allow chemicals and sediment to flow into the water.
“The deforestation is happening exactly on the other side of the river,” said Abad. “And it’s the same river where they go to fish, to bathe, to draw drinking water. So the impact on the indigenous people is huge.”
The encroachment into the Amazon – and into indigenous areas – carries even greater risks now as COVID-19 ravages through Brazil. The virus has already caused 332 deaths and infected 7,208 people across 110 indigenous groups. So far, cases have been registered across a number of states – including Mato Grosso – but activists worry the virus will only spread further and deeper into the Amazon as more outsiders invade remote areas.
“It’s already started reaching indigenous lands,” Batista said. “Those deforesting illegally don’t only bring in their equipment – they also bring in the disease with them.”
Indigenous people infected by COVID-19 are dying at a higher rate than the average seen across Brazil, according to a recent IPAM report. Because of their relative isolation, indigenous people tend to be more vulnerable to even common diseases. With a highly infectious and deadly virus like COVID-19, the risks are even greater for these populations, which have a history of being decimated by disease brought in from the outside.
Their vulnerability has led many indigenous people to isolate even further in a bid to protect their communities against COVID-19. But this has also meant that they are unable to patrol and protect their lands against this new affront by invaders.
“The indigenous communities play a huge role in the surveillance of their lands,” Souza said. “And in the context of COVID…we can see more pressure on their lands at a time when they can’t do the same job of protecting the region.”
Across the Amazon, there are also growing concerns around the upcoming dry season, which could only deepen the crisis in the region. While burning – related to both crop clearing and fresh deforestation – happens across the Amazon each year, the surge in flames across in 2019 drew worldwide attention. The government responded with a similar military operation, which helped curb the fires at the time. But there were some 450,900 hectares ready to burn by late April and the area could expand to 900,000 hectares by the end of this year’s dry season, an IPAM analysis shows.
Moutinho says the burning is likely to trigger a wave of hospitalizations of indigenous people sickened by the ash and smoke, which last year darkened the skies of Sao Paulo, thousands of kilometers away from the Amazon. He noted that a moratorium on burning this season is badly needed to prevent a catastrophe, at a time when Covid-19 is already overwhelming the healthcare system in the region.
“This could be a disaster for those seeking treatment in hospitals or already infected in remote indigenous villages,” Moutinho said. “All the hospitals are already at their limit. More people looking for treatment would only create a perfect storm.”
Editor’s note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.
*About the author: Ana Ionova is a freelance multimedia journalist covering the environment, human rights and politics in Brazil. Her work has been published by Reuters, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera and others. She has previously worked in Argentina, the Balkans and the Middle East.
Source: This article was published by Mongabay