Deforestation of the Brazilian rainforest knows no bounds under President Jair Bolsonaro. Farmers, organized gangs and illegal gold miners continue to exploit the Amazon, as exclusive satellite images show. Disagreeable reporters live dangerously.
The search lasted two weeks, then the fears became certainty: The British journalist Dom Phillips and the Brazilian Bruno Pereira, who worked for decades for indigenous peoples in the Amazon, are dead. Found murdered in the depths of the rainforest, in a scarcely developed area – and yet highly dangerous.
Murders are nothing new in this largest of all forest areas. Criminal gangs, illegal gold prospectors and big industrialists – they are all driven by the hope of good business. What is unusual, however, is that the criminals now did not stop at the murder of a foreigner. Philipps and Pereira got caught between the fronts of a battle between indigenous people, whose land is actually protected by law in Brazil, and those who are illegally encroaching further and further into these spaces.
The escalation of violence is a new high point in the development – or destruction – of the Amazon. Deforestation has reached extreme levels, as shown by exclusive satellite images from LiveEO. And Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has played a significant role in it.
One of the states where deforestation has been particularly severe in recent years is Rondônia. Whereas at the beginning of the millennium no more than 20 percent of the area was settled and cultivated, this figure has now risen to well over two-thirds.
The pattern of development is always similar: first, aisles are cut for roads that appear like narrow strips in the photos. Larger cultivation areas are then created along these roads.
Besides mining and fires due to drought or arson to create space, livestock and agriculture is the main reason for the disappearance of the Amazon. It is Brazil’s most important export sector. Land used for agriculture accounts for about 20 percent of South America’s land area. The agricultural industry is also one of the largest employers: “With 40 percent of the active population working in the fields, agriculture is an industrial sector of central importance to the South American economy,” says Roberto Maldonado of the conservation organization WWF. The main crops are barley, grapes, corn, potatoes, soybeans, wheat, sugar cane and coffee.
Cereal products in particular have been more sought after than ever since the start of the Ukraine war. Agricultural prices have risen to record highs. This has benefited large landowners in the Amazon region and Brazil’s economy as such. Investment banks expect a trade surplus of around $80 billion in 2022 – that would be twice as much as in 2021.
The Amazon state not only has agricultural goods on offer, the prices of which have risen sharply as a result of the crisis, but also industrial raw materials such as iron ore, aluminum or the rare niobium, and above all: energy raw materials such as oil and ethanol, which are in great demand on the world market.
The current Brazilian President Bolsonaro, a right-wing ex-military man, is not necessarily an advocate of radical global free trade. It is not least due to him that the agreement between the EU and the alliance of South American states Mercosur has not really borne fruit to date. He is exploiting the rich treasures of the Amazon with an aggressive strategy. Bolsonaro has entered into an unholy alliance with gold prospectors, soy farmers and loggers that has multiplied fires and deforestation in the Amazon. During his term in office, deforestation has once again increased sharply.
This makes cooperation between the West and Brazil more difficult. The president wants to open up indigenous protected areas for the mining of fertilizers and potassium, for example. Environmentalists see this as a serious encroachment on nature – and human rights activists see it as an encroachment on the territories of indigenous people, who enjoy special protection in Brazil. Some tribes still live so remotely that they have little or no contact with the outside world.
Hugo Loss, former head of environmental investigation at the Brazilian Nature Conservation Agency, recently declared the Amazon a war zone in a “Zeit” interview. Loss explained that the very area where Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips were staying was dangerous.
According to Loss’ descriptions, parts of the Amazon have become lawless spaces where organized crime gangs and illegal gold miners defy laws and orders.
Logging is throwing the Amazon out of balance. In some months, the Brazilian space agency registers 200 square kilometers of destroyed forest in Brazil. This is roughly equivalent to the area of Hanover. In Venezuela, 140,000 hectares of forest have been lost in the past four years, according to monitoring by the Andean Amazon Project. In southern Colombia, land area and land use have also changed significantly.
The change in vegetation can also be easily observed in the tri-border area between Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay, east of the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz. Almost half of the area no longer consists of virgin forest, but of agricultural land and settlements. Things looked very different in the mid-eighties.
About 22 percent of South America’s land area is still covered by forests, according to WWF. These represent more than a quarter of the global forest cover. However, rainforest deforestation has an impact on entire ecosystems, says Brazil expert Roberto Maldonado. “Because of it, rainfall is reduced and runoff is lost.” As a result, people in countries such as Brazil, Venezuela and Bolivia have less water, which in turn harms economic activities that are supposed to continue growing because of the developed land. Maldonado says, “Less rain can lead to droughts, which can drastically reduce livestock production.” A vicious cycle.
Images: LiveEO/Google Earth
Jair Bolsonaro is standing for re-election in October. His more left-leaning challenger and former president Lula da Silva is ahead in the polls. Just one of the questions Brazilians will have to deal with before casting their ballots: Which candidate is willing to restore the balance between economic potential and the protection of the rainforest and all who live and work in it?