The Amazon Is Fast Approaching a Point of No Return

Brazil’s rainforest is being stolen and cleared at an accelerating pace, and the Bolsonaro government is fanning the flames.

In April, lawmakers in the Brazilian state of Rondônia gathered for a hasty vote in a squat cube of a building that had sat largely empty for months. Few places on Earth had been hit harder by Covid-19 than Porto Velho, the concrete capital city, which, like everything else in the region, has been carved out of the Amazon rainforest. But on that rainy afternoon, while the city was in lockdown, the legislators felt they couldn’t wait any longer.

They needed to pass a bill that would slash the size of a state rainforest reserve known as Jaci-Paraná and another park farther south. Once a vast expanse of sinuous streams and soaring stands of mahogany and castanha trees, Jaci-Paraná Extractive Reserve has been largely transformed into pasture for cattle. Roads cut into the bright red mud crisscross the reserve, connecting hundreds of ranches where 120,000 cattle graze. The ranches are illegal. The new law would change that. The owners would no longer have to hide the origin of their livestock to sell to big beef producers. More important, the land grabbers would have a path to legal title. Almost half the state legislators are ranchers or got elected with agribusiness money. They’d long wanted to wipe the slate clean for their rural base, and now they had support all the way up to the presidential palace in Brasilia.
In a few days, President Jair Bolsonaro would appear at a U.S.-sponsored climate summit to defend Brazil’s record on the Amazon. For two years, Donald Trump had been a friend as Bolsonaro dismantled protections for the rainforest. President Joe Biden most certainly would not be. The lawmakers’ plan could fall apart if Biden ratcheted up the pressure. “Listen well,” Ezequiel Neiva, a rancher and lawmaker, told his colleagues. “This is one of our last chances to vote.” The bill passed unanimously. Coronel Marcos Rocha, Rondônia’s governor and one of Bolsonaro’s staunchest allies, signed it into law on May 20. (It’s being challenged in court.) Jaci-Paraná, formerly large enough to swallow Mexico City, was slashed in size by 89%, leaving only a sliver of terrain along its western edge. The other state reserve mentioned in the bill, Guajará-Mirim, lost 50,000 hectares, or 124,000 acres.
Two days after the Rondônia law passed, Bolsonaro didn’t let down the ranchers. He was defiant when he spoke via video link to Biden and other heads of state at the Leaders Summit on Climate. Bolsonaro praised Brazil’s work in protecting the Amazon, while pointing a finger at the developed world’s addiction to fossil fuels as the key culprit in climate change. Above all he lamented the “Amazonian paradox.” The rainforest is one of the globe’s greatest natural resources—in both the commodities it holds and its role in producing oxygen and cleaning the world’s air—and yet most of the 24 million people living in and around it are poor.

“The value of the standing forest” must be acknowledged Bolsonaro said. “There must be fair payment for environmental services provided by our biomes to the planet at large.” The message to the world was clear: Pay us to leave the Amazon alone, or Brazil will find its own way to extract that value.
There’s ample evidence that the government is already doing that. A review of thousands of public documents and dozens of interviews with prosecutors, forest rangers, and members of Bolsonaro’s inner circle show that Brazil’s government is engaged in an active campaign to open up the Amazon to privatization and development—first by turning a blind eye as public and protected lands are raided and cleared, and then by systematically pardoning the people responsible and granting them legal title to the stolen lands.

Bolsonaro’s government didn’t invent the practice. It’s rooted in the nation’s 1988 constitution, and two presidents before Bolsonaro rammed through changes that essentially amnestied about 25,000 people who’d been squatting on public properties, a review of Brazilian land records shows. But Bolsonaro and his team want to accelerate the process like never before by making it easier for big ranchers to get in on the game. “All that land that’s been cleared in the Amazon, the law allowed it,” says Luiz Antônio Nabhan Garcia, Bolsonaro’s land-policy czar. “That’s how it happened in the United States. It happened in Australia. When colonizers first went out and took that virgin land, all of it came from the state.”
Nabhan Garcia, 63, is himself a rancher. He and his boss came of age during the 1970s, when the military government in Brazil viewed turning the wild expanses of the Amazon into cities, farms, and mines as an imperative of national security. The dictatorship, which endured until 1985, built military bases, power plants, and a network of roadways throughout the thick jungle. Those infrastructure projects fueled what’s known as the “Brazilian Miracle,” a period of 10% annual economic growth that still stands out in many minds as the nation’s golden era. But these were some of the darkest days for the rainforest itself. Millions of people migrated inland from coastal cities, carving homesteads and huge industrial hubs out of the jungle. In 40 years, the Amazon has lost an area as big as California to deforestation. Some scientists suggest the Amazon is now close to a tipping point, at which it will become a savanna rather than a rainforest. It will pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere instead of pulling them down, and so-called flying rivers—bands of moisture in the air that bring rainfall to the continent—will dry up. As many as 10,000 species may be at risk of dying off.
Since taking office in January 2019, Bolsonaro, a former army captain, has revived the 50-year-old worldview that Amazon development and Brazilian prosperity go hand in hand. And he’s stacked key land management and environment agencies with farmers and ranchers who share his vision. Jaci-Paraná is the latest example of that vision’s realization, but it’s far from the only one.
União Bandeirantes, located east of Jaci-Paraná, is a dusty blip of a farming community, a crosshatch of dirt roads and a few dozen structures surrounded by coffee plantations and cattle pastures. A little more than two decades ago, it didn’t exist. No roads. No ranchers. Just rainforest. Today, it’s something of a model for would-be land-grabbers across Rondônia.

Edmo Ferreira Pinto, 49, is proud to take credit for the transformation. Wearing trim jeans and a fitted button-down shirt, he’s intense and energetic as he sits in a trendy wine bar on a recent evening in Porto Velho recounting how he and his friends hacked their way through the jungle and divvied up land that wasn’t theirs. He fancies himself a modern-day Robin Hood who stole from the state to give to the poor. “I still look back and can’t believe we pulled it off,” Ferreira Pinto says.
Known as Dim-Dim (pronounced jeen-jeen), Ferreira Pinto was only 12 when he, his parents, four siblings, and two other families piled into the back of an open-air fruit truck and traveled the 2,500 kilometers (1,500 miles) from coastal Bahia state to Rondônia. It was the mid-1980s, and the truck’s owner made a living charging a few bucks per head to ferry migrants such as them to the Amazon. For years government ads on TV and radio and in newspapers had promised plots and prosperity for anyone willing to make the journey. The Amazon was “a land without men for men without land,” the ads declared. Millions answered the call to conquer the “green hell,” and the population of Rondônia swelled from about 115,000 people in 1970 to more than 1.1 million in 1990. Behind the boom was the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform, or Incra, a government agency the military regime created to speed Brazil’s industrial revolution.
The trip took a week. They sat on wooden benches, a tarp offering shade from the scorching sun. Like the millions of others making their way to Brazil’s Wild West, they followed a highway built as part of a World Bank-backed push to thread roads through the jungle. Once in Rondônia the family moved in with an uncle who’d made the same trek a decade earlier. He’d been rewarded with land, but by the time Ferreira Pinto arrived, everything had changed.
After the military dictatorship gave way to a democracy, Incra was given a new mission. Instead of colonizing the Amazon with industrial farms and factories, the agency was told to reclaim whatever hadn’t yet been developed, dice it up into tiny lots, and hand those out to Brazil’s poor for subsistence farming. It was one of the largest social welfare giveaways of all time. But the execution was bungled. No longer backed by the power of the military, Incra couldn’t enforce its rules when conflicts over land broke out. People rushed to claim whatever plots appeared to be free. Wealthy owners stripped of their properties fought in court to save their stakes, tying the land up for decades. Documents were easily forged or altered to make bogus titles look legitimate. A resale black market for the dubious claims proliferated. Some falsified documents have now changed hands so many times that it’s impossible to determine the real owners of some parcels.

A decade after they arrived, Ferreira Pinto’s parents found their way to an Incra settlement on a massive farm that had been granted to a conglomerate during the dictatorship, then confiscated after the company failed to develop the land. Ferreira Pinto looked around at people who’d been there for years. They were still living in tarp-covered shacks without water or electricity while waiting for Incra to tell them which plot was theirs. “You see that, and it hurts,” Ferreira Pinto says. “I don’t think my father ever really let it get to him, or at least he didn’t show it. But me, it hurt.” By then he and his friends, who’d also come with their parents in search of land, had been waiting for most of their lives. When they heard about a strip of terrain standing free to the east of Jaci-Paraná, they hatched a plan.

On Dec. 3, 1999, which locals still remember as an independence day of sorts, Ferreira Pinto and three busloads of people drove to the edge of the rainforest and set up camp. They built small huts, then started cutting out roads, knocking down trees everywhere they went. It took a year to hack through the rainforest to the spot that is now the heart of União Bandeirantes, which translates as Pioneers Union. Along the way they recruited topographers, lawyers, builders, and administrators, all of them eager to fill the vacuum left by the government—and grab a slice of public land for themselves. Ferreira Pinto was arrested twice for conflicts and invasions but was never convicted of a crime. In the end, he estimates, his group settled some 1,800 families. Current law allows anyone who developed land as recently as 2008 to apply for amnesty. The people of União Bandeirantes made a bet, and it paid off.

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