Special Report: How Brazil's military failed at defending the Amazon

Two years ago, the Amazon was aflame, ravaged by arsonists and loggers.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro went to war.

[Jair Bolsonaro - Brazilian President] “I authorize an operation of an environmental effort of law and order, with personnel and equipment of the armed forces.”

The effort - in August 2019 - launched an unprecedented and costly military deployment,

mobilizing roughly 3,800 soldiers, 110 vehicles, and 12 aircraft.

[Brazilian army colonel, Renaldo] "Land and air patrols will be intensified, awareness campaigns in the schools, and there will be troop reinforcement."

Bolsonaro called it Operation Green Brazil.

The mission: to save a jungle larger than Western Europe that scientists consider a crucial buffer against climate change.

But after 19 fruitless months, the military has failed to safeguard the Amazon.

Government data shows deforestation last year surged to a 12-year high.

Areas equal to seven times the size of London were destroyed.

Here’s a look at what went wrong.

According to environmental agents who accompanied military chieftains during the deployment the failure was all but inevitable.

Their reports portray a military both ill-prepared and reluctant with neither the tools, mentality or structure to target and pursue those responsible for the destruction.

Its primary objective - national defence - shares few similarities with the law-enforcement expertise and forestry know-how required deep in the jungle.

They say the mobilization of soldiers slowed operations.

Instead of rapid raids, outings with the military required big convoys of slow, heavy vehicles.

Environmental agents say they’ve been flabbergasted by military decisions.

Last year for example – troops set up field operations in the Mato Grosso State.

But the most intense clearing at the time was 275 km northwest, agents told Reuters.

By the time the troops moved closer, areas nearly twice the size of Washington, D.C. had been cleared, according to satellite data.

Officers also nixed many of the ideas and tactics usually employed to stop deforestation like the destruction of logging equipment.

Officers were also accused of ignoring intelligence from Ibama - the civilian environmental-protection agency the deployment had bigfooted, despite its history of success stemming deforestation.

Brazil’s government has now announced that efforts to protect the rainforest will soon revert back to Ibama.

Brazil’s Defense Ministry, however, has called the mission a success.

Destruction in recent months has been slightly lower than a year earlier,

although still near historic highs.

For the far-right president and former army captain, military deployment was always part of the Bolsonaro toolkit.

[Jair Bolsonaro - Brazilian President] “From my military training and in my career as a public servant, I have a deep love and respect for the Amazon.”

What’s more, many of Brazil’s military, as well as Bolsonaro himself, have called for developing the Amazon - touting the rainforest’s potential as a driver of economic growth.

Upon his inauguration in January 2019, Bolsonaro stacked his cabinet with military men

and dusted off old dictatorship-era projects to cultivate its natural resources.

Bolsonaro’s desire to pursue projects emboldened many.

By May, loggers and arsonists took to the forest -

and by July, deforestation had soared to levels not seen in well over a decade,

prompting international outrage and criticism from foreign leaders.

[Emmanuel Macron, French President] “I have a lot of respect and friendship for the Brazilian people. I hope very much that they soon have a president who behaves like one.”

The president was defiant.

On the same day that he launched Operation Green Brazil he tweeted:

“The fire that burns most is our sovereignty,”

warning foreigners to butt out of Brazil’s business.