Deforestation and land-grabbing at full steam during Covid-19

. May 12, 2020
land-grabbing amazon Photo: MS/Ibama

With a significant number of people isolating at home, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought many industries to their knees. However, illegal land-grabbing, mining, logging, and poaching in the Brazilian Amazon continue at full steam, with criminals using the pandemic period to ramp up deforestation in the region.

According to data from the National Institute of Space Research (Inpe) and its real-time deforestation detection system

, <a href="">alerts of deforestation in the Amazon increased</a> 63.75 percent in April, compared to last year. This uptick in forest destruction is also affecting indigenous and preserved areas of the region, with alerts in these territories rising 59 percent in the first four months of 2020.</p> <p>The increase in Amazon deforestation is a long-lasting trend that dates back to before President Jair Bolsonaro took office, but his government has consistently taken a stance in favor of the so-called &#8220;economic utilization&#8221; of the region, with a message that empowers those who seek to deforest land and set up agricultural, mining, and energy projects.</p> <p>Furthermore, Brazil&#8217;s Covid-19 epidemic has seen a winding down of surveillance and oversight measures on behalf of the country&#8217;s environmental protection authorities, with initiatives postponed and public servants furloughed or working remotely. As a result, deforestation is more likely to go unpunished.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/2362598" data-url=""><script src=""></script></div> <h2>Keeping up appearances</h2> <p>Keen to avoid the public relations disaster that was last year&#8217;s <a href="">Amazon fires crisis</a>, the Brazilian government announced the sending of 3,800 troops to three locations in the region. The launch of &#8220;Operation Green Brazil 2&#8221; foresees the use of &#8220;preventive and repressive actions&#8221; against environmental infractions related to deforestation and forest fires and will run until June 10.</p> <p>Each of the military bases will be oriented by chemical warfare specialists in order to avoid spreading Covid-19 during the anti-deforestation efforts.</p> <p>&#8220;We don&#8217;t want Brazil to be seen in the rest of the world as a villain,&#8221; said Vice President Hamilton Mourão, who leads the government&#8217;s Amazon Council — a panel hastily cobbled together at the height of the 2019 fire crisis.</p> <p>Experts, meanwhile, are doubtful over the administration’s sincerity in combating deforestation and question the efficacy of the latest announcements. The deployment of troops will cost an estimated BRL 60 million, which, along with the funds allocated to environmental protection agency Ibama for oversight measures in 2020, add up to little over BRL 175 million – 36 percent less than was earmarked for fighting deforestation in 2020.</p> <h2>A land-grabbing paradise</h2> <p>Indeed, much of the Bolsonaro government&#8217;s moves have been to <a href="">reduce protections</a> on the Amazon, empowering land-grabbers and other <a href="">illegal industries</a> in the region. Issued in December of last year, a provisional decree <a href="">loosened a number of regulations on land ownership</a>, making it possible for land-grabbers to simply self-declare their ownership of a given piece of territory. The move was called a &#8220;land-grabbing amnesty&#8221; by former Environment Minister Marina Silva.</p> <p>Now, this legislation is set to go to a vote in Congress. The Executive branch has the power to issue provisional decrees which come into force immediately but must subsequently be approved by the House and Senate in order to be ratified as permanent law.</p> <p>Speaking at the launch of Operation Green Brazil 2 on Monday, Vice President Mourão urged for the approval of the decree, saying that without land regulation in the Amazon, &#8220;Brazil will continue to live in this eternal game of cat and mouse between elements of the government in charge of oversight, and those people who dedicate themselves to practicing some form of illegality.&#8221; In other words, the government has no interest in chasing environmental criminals.</p> <p>Amid the hubbub, Brazil&#8217;s indigenous affairs agency Funai issued its own rule change that could <a href="">open up some 100,000 square kilometers of indigenous land</a> to outside interests. Previously, when applying for rural property ownership, non-indigenous people required an official declaration attesting that the territory in question did not include any indigenous land, claimed, recognized, or otherwise.</p> <p>Now, <a href="">Funai has turned this system on its head</a>, establishing that rural property may be awarded when it is on indigenous land that is in the lengthy process of official recognition — corresponding to around 100,000 square kilometers across the Amazon Basin.

Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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