Jair Bolsonaro blamed for turning a blind eye to degradation in the name of 'progress'

Joe Shute
Mr Bolsonaro has decried the fact that 15 per cent of Brazil’s territory is reserved for indigenous tribes - REUTERS

During a recent visit to the Amazon where he proposed opening up mining in an ecological reserve the size of Denmark, the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro summarised his approach to the rainforest.

“Let’s use the riches that God gave us for the well-being of our population,” Mr Bolsonaro said, before adding to any would-be prospectors: “You won’t get any trouble…”

Ever since he took office in January this evangelism, populism, and total disregard for the vital ecological role the Amazon serves have been the hallmarks of Mr Bolsonaro’s tenure.

The apocalyptic wildfires of recent days – more than 9,000 individual blazes have been recorded across the Amazon in the past week alone – are being blamed largely on the approach taken to the world’s largest rainforest by the man nicknamed ‘Captain Chainsaw’.

To put the destruction into context: this year there have been more than 70,000 wildfires recorded in Brazil, an 84 per cent increase on the same period last year. In the past month alone some 1,000 square kilometres (386 square miles) of the rainforest has been engulfed by wildfire. 

Mr Bolsonaro has decried the fact that 15 per cent of Brazil’s territory is reserved for indigenous tribes Credit: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

During the dry season in Brazil – the largest country in Latin America which contains 60 per cent of the Amazon – it is common for wildfires to occur in the rainforest but experts say the current rate is unprecedented and the direct result of demons unleashed by Mr Bolsonaro in his pledges to turn a blind eye to environmental degradation in the name of economic progress.

“It is absolutely clear those who are starting these fires are doing so because they feel empowered by the rhetoric they have heard from the Brazilian president,” says Mike Barrett, WWF-UK’s executive director of science and conservation.

Mr Bolsonaro, a 64-year-old former army captain, was elected on the back of the country’s worst recession in history. During his controversial campaign he successfully courted the support of Brazil’s powerful evangelical churches - who were attracted by his ultra-conservative messages - and ran on a ticket of removing environmental red tape and attracting development to previously protected parts of the country. 

Official data has shown an 84 per cent increase in wildfires in the Amazon this year Credit: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

Lands belonging to Brazil’s indigenous tribes have in particular provoked his ire. Mr Bolsonaro has decried the fact that 15 per cent of Brazil’s territory is reserved for indigenous tribes despite their numbers adding up to fewer than 1m people.

“Let us together integrate these citizens and bring value to all Brazilians" he tweeted in January.  The previous month he had bluntly told reporters: “Why in Brazil do we have to keep them as inmates in reserves, as if they were animals in a zoo?”

Since taking office Mr Bolsonaro has handed control of the country’s indigenous affairs to its Ministry of Agriculture and slashed the budget of Brazil’s environmental protection agency by 24 percent.  There have been numerous accounts of unpermitted development and land grabs on indigenous reserves, while the environmental regulatory issued fewer fines than at any point since 1995 during the first two months of his presidency.

The president has suggested Brazilian tribes should be taken out of reserves and "integrated" into society Credit: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

In a statement released on Friday, the Coordination of Indigenous Organisations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB) expressed its “extreme concern” about the rapid destruction of the Amazon rainforest, adding: “Loggers are taking our land and irresponsible landlords are taking advantage of the weakening of environmental surveillance to advance into our homes.”

In July a tribal chief from the Amapa region was murdered. According to media reports, witnesses saw a number of gold miners enter the protected reserve of the Wajãpi community, then stab their leader to death.

In response to the incident the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, decried the killing and characterised it as part of a larger issue of “encroachment on indigenous land". 

Mr Bolsonaro’s response was typical, suggesting the victim may not have been murdered at all. 

Mr Bolsonaro has claimed NGOs may be responsible for setting the fires in order to tarnish Brazil's image, but has provided no evidence when pressed Credit: Rio Branco Firefighters/REX

Such pugnaciousness is a hallmark of a president determined to face down any perceived criticism. Earlier this month the director of Brazil’s National Space Research Institute (INPE) – which has provided the data showing the rise in deforestation – was fired by Mr Bolsonaro who dismissed its findings as “lies” designed to harm Brazil. 

Striking a similarly aggressive tone, this week he has sought to blame the wildfires on NGOs operating in the Amazon whom he has previously accused of “sticking their noses into Brazil”. When pressed he admitted he could not provide any evidence to confirm his claims.

As the forest burns, and miners, loggers and cattle ranchers move in to exploit the land, Mr Bolsonaro has also reopened the door to a series of new hydroelectric dam projects in the Amazon, reversing a decision taken by the previous administration due to the feared ecological impact on the forest.

Yet it is wrong to blame all the Amazon’s current woes on Mr Bolsonaro. Certainly the recent deforestation is a problem far from confined to Brazil.  After a decade or so of gradual progress, deforestation has suddenly exploded across the Amazon, which spans nine countries containing 40 per cent of earth’s rainforest and 10-15 per cent of all its terrestrial species.

Weather satellites have shown the extent of the wildfires from space Credit: NASA/NOAA/Reuters

Cattle ranchers are believed to account for roughly 80 per cent of deforestation in the region, with Brazil's Amazon one of the world's largest exporters of beef.

Experts warn a tipping point could soon be reached where the deforestation becomes irreversible and much of the Amazon turns into dry savannah, transforming from a vital sink for global emissions to releasing an estimated tens of billions of tonnes of carbon into the air.

Last week the Telegraph reported from the Colombian Amazon where deforestation has rapidly increased from 124,000 hectares in 2015 to 197,000 hectares in 2018, 66 per cent of which is concentrated in the Amazon region.

There, as in Brazil, starting fires is deemed the quickest way of levelling swathes of land to turn into cattle pastures. The animals are left to graze among charred stumps standing as headstones to the pristine forest that once stood there.

Despite rising international condemnation of the destruction, Mr Bolsonaro’s approach remains resolute. “Brazil does not owe the world anything when it comes to environmental protection”, he said in March.

The Amazon, Captain Chainsaw insists, is his to do with as he pleases.