The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Activists feared Brazil’s Bolsonaro would accelerate Amazon deforestation. Now they think it’s already happening.

Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro attends the graduation of officers of the Military Academy of Agulhas Negras in Resende, Brazil, on Dec. 1. (Paulo Whitaker/Reuters)

SAO PAULO — Loggers in the Amazon are not waiting for Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s right-wing president-elect, to take office Jan. 1 to expand their footprint in the Amazon jungle.

The rate of deforestation in the Amazon, the world’s largest rain forest, leaped 50 percent from August through October as Bolsonaro emerged as a favorite in the country’s presidential election, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, which keeps tabs on the destruction of the rain forest through satellite images.

Bolsonaro rode a populist wave of disgust with Brazil’s traditional political parties to a presidential victory in October, waving off concerns about the environment with speeches about economic development in the rain forest. The former army captain has promised to reap the Amazon’s riches for Brazil and suggested that he would cut back on indigenous rights. He criticized the government’s environmental protection agency as an “industry of fines.”

That talk has quickly translated to action. Brazil withdrew its offer to host a 2019 United Nations climate-change conference, and Bolsonaro has threatened to pull Brazil out of the Paris accord on climate change. He has also pondered placing the environmental ministry under the ministry of agriculture, a department critics say is swayed by Brazil’s powerful farm lobby, historically opposed to indigenous rights.

As his foreign minister, Bolsonaro has tapped Ernesto Araujo, a Trump-loving diplomat who wrote in an October blog post that climate change is a “dogma” that serves to stymie democratic capitalist countries.

“Environmental politics can’t muddle with Brazil’s development,” Bolsonaro said last week. “Today, the economy is almost back on track thanks to agribusiness, and they are suffocated by environmental questions.”

Activists are learning that when it comes to the Amazon, the president’s talk is not cheap. Even before he can implement these policies, Bolsonaro’s statements are having an effect. During the last few months of the campaign, the Amazon lost 600 square miles of forest — an area two times the size of New York City. Some areas of the jungle saw deforestation rates nearly triple during the last few months of the campaign, compared with this time last year.

Logging is an expensive and risky business. Because the forest is so dense, it can cost tens of millions of dollars to bring the labor and equipment necessary to cut down a few hectares of lucrative lumber in the Amazon. Brazil’s illegal loggers pay close attention to developments in Brasilia before investing in deforestation projects that can be thwarted by authorities. They have interpreted Bolsonaro’s statements as a green light to start chopping, according to Greenpeace.

“We measure deforestation through satellite images from the Amazon, but if we had a satellite measuring the cause of that deforestation, it would be pointed at Brasilia,” said Marcio Astrini, a public policy coordinator at Greenpeace.

Deforestation rates hit a 10-year high last year and are expected to drastically expand under a Bolsonaro administration, according to analysts.

Deforestation is considered the second-largest contributor to climate change, after fossil fuel use, accounting for about 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Forests act as sponges for carbon dioxide, soaking it up and converting it into plant material. When trees are cut down or burned, they release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

“When we are talking about illegal logging, the message is often more important than the law,” Astrini said. “And the message that is being sent is that deforestation is permitted.”

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