Brazil is letting the Amazon rainforest become lawless

Brazilian officials have long fought claims they are not doing enough to combat the deforestation of the Amazon. The reality is they have let crime fester in the precious rainforest, making any efforts to preserve it even more difficult, analysts and environmentalists say.

The murders this month of Dom Phillips, a British journalist and Financial Times contributor, and Bruno Pereira, a Brazilian indigenous peoples expert, in the remote Javari valley near the border with Peru have shed light on this increasing problem. Police have arrested four men — suspected illegal fishermen — and are probing whether a larger crime syndicate is behind the killings.

Brazil leads the world in the number of murders linked to land rights and environmental issues, with most of them occurring in the Amazon, an area almost the size of the continental US. Between 2012 and 2020, 317 such killings were reported in Brazil, according to Global Witness.

In Amazonas state, where Phillips and Pereira were killed, the number of murders increased more than 50 per cent last year from the previous year. This contrasts with a 7 per cent drop in homicides nationwide. Crime syndicates, who use the region’s waterways to ship narcotics, are increasingly involved in illegal gold mining, investigators say.

Simultaneously, deforestation in the Amazon has soared to a 15-year high. Every day rainforest equivalent in size to 2,000 football pitches is razed, according to Imazon, a non-profit government monitoring group. This is despite government promises last year to end illegal deforestation by 2028.

For many in the international community, this mix of growing environmental crime and violence is a toxic combination. The OECD has said that Brazil’s accession to the group — a central objective of the Bolsonaro administration — hinged on it tamping down on deforestation. The recent murders will make this objective harder to achieve.

“The shocking murders of Pereira and Phillips are but the latest example of an ongoing tragedy,” said Åsa Wallenberg, chief executive of Storebrand Fonder, a Swedish asset manager. “Violent criminal networks have become emboldened in their attacks on forest defenders and this radically undermines confidence in the current government which has continued to promote anti-environmental legislation.”

Bruno Carazza, a professor at the Dom Cabral Foundation, sees a direct connection between cuts to Brazil’s environmental enforcement agencies, such as Ibama, and growing deforestation and violence.

“The murder of Phillips and Pereira is not an episodic event. There is a chronic problem of security and justice in the Amazon region,” he said. “We need state bodies to impose fines on [illegal] activities in protected areas. But those institutions are being weakened with smaller budgets, fewer personnel and the appointment of top bosses who don’t care about the environment.”

Adding fuel to the fire, president Jair Bolsonaro, elected in 2018, has signalled he tolerates the illegal gold miners, loggers and land grabbers who environmentalists say are behind the destruction of the forest.

For Bolsonaro, the rainforest should be used for commercial gain, pointing out that the region is one of Brazil’s poorest. But the result of his rhetoric is a growing sense of impunity among illegal actors, soaring rates of deforestation and growing violence against indigenous communities and non-government organisations.

“Bolsonaro’s support for predatory activities served as a stimulus — a ‘soft licence’ — for land grabbing, illegal gold mining, deforestation and violence,” said Natalie Unterstell, president of Talanoa, an environment-focused think-tank.

Brazilian officials argue that they are still striving to protect the environment. They point out that almost 80 per cent of the electricity matrix is renewable and the country preserves more than 65 per cent of its native vegetation.

But Larissa Rodrigues, a portfolio manager with the Escolhas Institute that investigates illegal gold mining in the Amazon, says such arguments hold little water when placed against violent environmental crime.

“Investors will now see that if a renowned British journalist is not secure here, then nobody is, because it is crime that controls the Amazon.”

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