Tree felling in the Amazon rainforest has increased dramatically since this aerial view was taken five years ago, with 870sq km of forest destroyed last month. Picture: AFP
Bolsonaro ignores fears for Amazon amid record land-grab
By Lucinda Elliott
A record amount of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest was cut down or destroyed last month, fuelling fears about the growing exploitation of one of the world’s most important natural environments.
The figures confirm concerns that, under President Jair Bolsonaro, illegal miners and farmers are involved in a free-for-all land grab. About 870sq km of forest was cleared last month, according to the National Institute for Space Research. It is the highest level of destruction recorded since the institute began analysing satellite images in 2014.
Mr Bolsonaro has repeatedly criticised the institute and claims that the figures are misleading. He advocates “reasonable” exploitation of an ecosystem many scientists believe is fundamental to the world’s climate.
He dismissed the preliminary July data as “a lie” and last week sacked the head of the agency, Ricardo Galvao, who he accused of being “in the service” of environmental lobby groups and charities. He replaced him with Darcton Policarpo Damiao, a former air force officer who said that he was sceptical about global warming and admitted that it “wasn’t his thing”.
Mr Bolsonaro, 64, is a fierce critic of environmental regulations that he claims are biased against economic development.
In April his Environment Minister, Ricardo Salles, sacked 21 of 27 state heads of the environmental protection agency after the President ordered a clearout.
A fifth of the Amazon forest, an area the size of Britain and France combined, has been lost in the past 30 years.
The task of rescuing Brazil’s economy from the brink of yet another recession is a significant factor behind Mr Bolsonaro’s approach. He campaigned on a pledge to turn around the country’s fortunes. With 13 million people out of work, exploiting the forest offers jobs and income.
He has appealed to international business groups to help to develop the Amazon.
His administration plans to create roads, approve more infrastructure projects and allow mining on protected indigenous reserves — activity outlawed in 1998.
The proposals, however, have met some resistance: last week the Supreme Court blocked the President from transferring responsibility for indigenous lands from the Indian Protection Agency and the Justice Ministry to the Ministry of Agriculture.
Mr Bolsonaro supporters from the conservative Free Brazil Movement plan to march along a 650km dirt road from Humaita, in Amazonas state, to the state capital Manaus at the weekend.
They are demanding the road be paved for improved access. Previous governments have refused to do so, fearing it would allow greater access to the forest and facilitate its destruction.