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Brazil's Amazon Rainforest Is Disappearing Under President Jair Bolsonaro


The world is increasingly worried about the future of the Amazon rainforest. Deforestation there has soared since Brazil's far-right President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January.


And that is alarming news for the planet's climate. The rainforest stores vast amounts of carbon. NPR's Philip Reeves went to the Amazon and sent this report from a place with a long history of fighting to preserve the natural environment.


PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: It's been some 30 years since Raimundo de Barros' cousin was murdered. His weather-beaten face fills with sadness when he thinks about that day.

RAIMUNDO DE BARROS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "It's still painful to talk about," he says.

De Barros is 74. He's spent his life here in the forest, subsisting by tapping rubber from its trees. His murdered cousin was also a rubber tapper and a famous environmental activist. His name is Chico Mendes.

In 1988, Mendes was shot dead by illegal cattle ranchers whom he'd sought to block from invading forest land. By then, he'd won worldwide recognition for his fight to protect the Amazon rainforest and the rights of rubber tappers who live within it.

DE BARROS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "The forest around here wouldn't exist if Chico Mendes hadn't defended it," says de Barros, who's sitting among the trees outside his cabin. We're on the western flank of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil in a reserve named after Chico Mendes. The reserve's slightly larger than Puerto Rico. It's supposed to have extra environmental protection, yet we've heard that even here, deforestation's picking up pace. De Barros has heard this, too.

DE BARROS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: He tells us where to look. We set out through the trees in a pickup truck. After a while, we reach a wide river and cross it on board a ferry and take a dirt road through the forest, picking our way around enormous potholes gouged out by rain.

We've been traveling into the rainforest for about an hour, and we've just noticed in front of us an area of forest that has been burnt down, and so I'm just going to jump out of the car and see if I can find out who did it.

His name is Leonardo da Costa. We find him in a nearby wood cabin. Da Costa says he and his family are subsistence farmers living off the land. The other day, he decided the family needed a little more land. He sprinkled around some gasoline a few hundred yards away and set light to the jungle. Did da Costa ask anyone's permission?

LEONARDO DA COSTA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "No," he says.

Aren't you worried that you might get into trouble for doing that?

DA COSTA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Da Costa says he isn't worried. "I didn't deforest much," he says, "and I only did it to grow corn to feed my chickens." He clams up when asked exactly how much forest he burned, so I go out to take a look.

I'm just walking into the area that's been burnt down. It's a large area. I mean, we're talking about maybe 15 football fields, at least. I'm surrounded by charred areas. I mean, I can see charred tree trunks, a lot of ferns.

We set out again along the dirt road. Da Costa is not the only one taking a bite out of the forest around here.

Just looking up there, look; there's smoke up there right ahead.

Outside another cabin, there's a big patch of scorched Earth and a fire that's spreading into the jungle. All this is completely...


REEVES: ...Illegal, says Julio Barbosa. Barbosa is a community leader for some of the several thousand people scattered around the reserve. He says he knows all about the destruction we've just seen along the road. He's head of the local residents association.

BARBOSA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "The association's filed a report with the authorities urging them to prosecute," he says. Barbosa doesn't believe the land in question is being cleared for corn. He says it's for grazing cattle to sell to wealthy illegal ranchers outside the reserve.

BARBOSA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "That's becoming a big problem around here," he explains.

Brazil has a government agency tasked with protecting this reserve. It's officially known as the Chico Mendes Institute for the Conservation of Biodiversity. Fluvio Mascarenhas works there in the nearby city of Rio Branco. He says its mission's become almost impossible since Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro took office. Environmental enforcement agents in Brazil rarely talk publicly for fear of reprisals. Mascarenhas agrees to do so because he's so worried.

FLUVIO MASCARENHAS: (Through interpreter) Every time you look at a satellite image of the forest, you see another little piece missing.

REEVES: According to Bolsonaro, Brazil's environmental laws obstruct economic development. He's downgraded agencies that enforce these laws by cutting budgets. Senior staff have been fired or sidelined. Mascarenhas says the agency he works for used to conduct at least four major operations each year, targeting illegal loggers and ranchers destroying the forest and hitting them with hefty fines

MASCARENHAS: (Through interpreter) This year, we haven't had a single operation inside the Chico Mendes Reserve.

REEVES: Deforestation in the reserve has ticked upwards in recent years, well before Bolsonaro came along. Yet, Mascarenhas says, this year...

MASCARENHAS: (Through interpreter) It'll be more than double. It'll be triple, or even quadruple.

REEVES: This is happening across the entire Amazon rainforest. Preliminary data from Brazil's Space Research Institute shows deforestation this July was up nearly 300% on July last year. Bolsonaro's called the institute's data lies. He's replaced its chief with a military official. Mascarenhas says when illegal ranchers, loggers and miners see Brazil's president doing stuff like that...

MASCARENHAS: (Through interpreter) They feel emboldened to carry out more deforestation.

REEVES: Mascarenhas believes everyone should worry about this.

MASCARENHAS: (Through interpreter) The consequences are going to be global. We have no doubt about that.

REEVES: Brazilians campaigning to save the rainforest are deeply alarmed. When Chico Mendes was murdered some 30 years ago, songs were written in his honor.



REEVES: Many still revere him as a national hero who brought the plight of the Amazon to the attention of the world. Since his death, the forest has lost an area larger than Germany. At his cabin inside the forest, his cousin Raimundo de Barros has decorated his porch with pictures of Mendes. De Barros worries about the forest's younger generation of rubber tappers and subsistence farmers.

DE BARROS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: He thinks they're too easily lured by illegal ranchers into felling trees for cattle pasture because it's easy money. Things would be different if Chico Mendes were still alive, says de Barros.

DE BARROS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Chico would be doing everything in his power," he says, "to protect the Amazon from the onslaught it's suffering today."

Philip Reeves, NPR News, in the Amazon rainforest.

(SOUNDBITE OF PABLO NOUVELLE'S "TAMATERT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.