Takeaways from The Post’s investigation of deforestation in the Amazon

The Ituí and Itaquaí rivers in the Javari Valley Indigenous Territory in Brazil's Amazonas state. (Rafael Vilela for The Washington Post)
4 min

The lawless destruction of the Amazon rainforest is an emergency that touches us all: A unique resource seen as vital to averting catastrophic global warming is being decimated. Under Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, deforestation is at a 15-year high. The forest is racing toward what scientists warn is a tipping point, when it can no longer maintain its base ecology and suffers a spreading dieback. In this series, The Washington Post travels to some of the Amazon’s most remote and dangerous regions to reveal how crime, corruption and greed are leading to its systematic dismantling — and how Brazil, and the world, are failing to ensure the integrity of the planet’s largest rainforest.

Here are the key takeaways:

1. Beef is the killer — and America is complicit.

The Amazon rainforest is being destroyed to make room for cattle pasture. Brazil is the world’s biggest exporter of beef, and much of it has come at the expense of the Amazon. One of the biggest buyers is the United States, where companies import hundreds of millions of pounds of Brazilian beef every year and are under no obligation to warn the American consumer of its origin. By analyzing thousands of cattle shipment and purchase logs, The Post traced deforestation-tainted beef from the rainforest to the United States and exposed the broken system that enables the trade.

2. Brazil has the tools to make the beef industry less destructive, but has declined to use them.

Brazil’s leading meatpackers, under pressure from federal attorneys, have largely prohibited the purchase of cattle from farms that have been accused of illegal deforestation. But this has only pushed the destruction out of sight. Ranchers routinely shuffle cattle from farm to farm to avoid the detection system, and meatpackers look the other way. The system has a potential fix: Each time cattle are moved, an animal transfer record is created. The government or meatpackers could use that information to determine whether cattle come from illegally deforested land. But the Brazilian government has blocked access to the records.

3. Those accused of destroying the forest are often the very ones charged with protecting it.

People accused of environmental wrongdoing have won public office in the Amazon more than 1,900 times, according to a Post analysis of thousands of federal infractions and candidate records. Those facing such accusations have pumped nearly $37 million into the coffers of politicians who frequently call for the loosening of environmental restrictions. In the Amazon, environmental wrongdoers get rich — and the rich win public office.

4. Brazil has lost nearly a fifth of its Amazon rainforest, but few have been held accountable.

The law enforcement system created to fight illegal deforestation is failing at virtually every level. Agencies gutted during the Bolsonaro administration fail to detect the majority of deforestation. The few fines that are assessed are rarely paid. Illegal deforestation is punishable by prison, but in the rare instances that offenders are convicted, few are sentenced. The Post analyzed a year’s worth of criminal cases and was unable to find a single person imprisoned for illegal deforestation.

5. Killing accompanies illegal deforestation — and is done with impunity.

The Amazon is a land of conflict, contested by many: Indigenous peoples, cattle ranchers, river dwellers and criminals. The disputes that erupt among them often lead to killings, but the vast majority of deaths go unsolved. Illegal land grabbers invade territory with the intent of “flipping” it — transforming it from pristine forest with little economic value to deforested land that can be sold with fraudulent papers and put to agricultural use. The people who get in the way of that plan, who are overwhelmingly poor or Indigenous, are often killed. In June, activist Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips were shot dead after visiting an Indigenous surveillance team monitoring illegal poaching in the remote Javari Valley Indigenous Territory.

The Post's Terrence McCoy traveled to the location where journalist Dom Phillips and activist Bruno Pereira were killed, to investigate their deaths. (Video: Rafael Vilela, Terrence McCoy, Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)

6. Many of the problems preceded Bolsonaro, but they have intensified during his administration.

Brazil has long struggled to bring order to the Amazon, a vast territory with little state presence. Many law enforcement agencies have for years complained of insufficient resources and nettlesome bureaucracy. But the challenges have deepened significantly during Bolsonaro’s four years in office. The president has repeatedly assailed the institutions charged with protecting the Amazon and its Indigenous communities. Ibama, the chief environmental law enforcement agency, issues just a fraction of the environment infractions it once did. Funai, the government’s Indigenous affairs agency, has become so weakened that poachers in the remote Javari Valley Indigenous Territory have attacked its surveillance base repeatedly.