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Brazil’s Bolsonaro calls Amazon deforestation ‘cultural,’ says it ‘will never end’

Deforestation in the Nascentes da Serra do Cachimbo Biological Reserve in Altamira, Brazil, seen in August. (Joao Laet/AFP/Getty Images)

SAO PAULO, Brazil — Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro shrugged off a government report that deforestation in the Amazon reached an 11-year high on his watch, saying Wednesday he expects the destruction of the world’s largest tropical rainforest to continue.

“Deforestation and fires will never end,” the pro-development president told reporters in Brasilia. “It’s cultural.”

The comments were quickly condemned by environmentalists, who fear that the Amazon is approaching a tipping point at which large swaths of the rainforest will be irrevocably lost.

“About 90 percent of the destruction of the forest occurs illegally,” said Marcio Astrini, public policy coordinator at Greenpeace Brazil. “Therefore, the only cultural aspect of deforestation in the Amazon is the culture of forest crime, which the government does not seem to want to confront.”

The Brazilian Amazon lost 3,769 square miles of rainforest between August 2018 and July 2019, Brazil’s National Space Research Institute reported this week, an area almost 1½ times the size of Delaware. That was up 30 percent from the previous year.

Why Brazilian farmers are burning the rainforest — and why it’s so hard for Bolsonaro to stop them

Brazil’s deforestation rate spiked in the 1990s but began to drop as the country’s environmental protection agency, called IBAMA for its initials in Portuguese, cracked down on illegal logging and mining. The rate began climbing again in 2012; the increase has accelerated under Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro campaigned for president last year on promises to open up the Amazon to more agriculture and mining; he took office in January pledging to end IBAMA’s “industry of fines.”

Critics accuse him of weakening environmental protections and enforcement. His policies drew international scrutiny this summer as fires in the rainforest spiked. Most of the fires are set by ranchers to clear land for pasture.

As the Amazon burns, it seems like everyone is in search of someone to blame. Nearly 100,000 fires have been detected, but who or what is to blame? (Video: Sarah Cahlan, Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

Environmental Minister Ricardo Salles blamed the region’s “illegal economy” for the spike. He called a meeting next week to discuss ways to stem deforestation, including transferring teams that monitor the forest from Brasilia to the Amazon region.

Brazilian ranchers have long used fires to clear land. But analysts say Bolsonaro’s permissive rhetoric and lax enforcement have inspired more such activity.

This has been a year of environmental catastrophes for the country. In January, a tailings dam at an iron ore mine collapsed, burying hundreds of people under toxic waste. In August, 25,000 fires spread throughout the Amazon, a nine-year high. Since September, a mysterious oil spill has sullied hundreds of miles of pristine beaches along the country’s northeast coast. And this month, fires ravaged the country’s wetlands, destroying 50,000 hectares of vegetation.

Still, IBAMA issued its lowest number of fines from January through September since 2000, and 22 percent less than last year, according to news site Poder360.

Thousands of barrels of oil are contaminating Brazil’s pristine coastline. Authorities don’t know where it’s coming from.

Bolsonaro’s approach to the environment has isolated him internationally. Germany and Norway froze millions of dollars in aid to the Amazon over his policies in August, and French President Emmanuel Macron threatened to pull out of a long-sought trade deal between Europe and South America.

In September, a group of 200 investment funds called on companies to reduce their reliance on deforestation, saying Brazil’s policies were exposing businesses to compliance risk. Several companies have called for boycotts of Brazilian beef and leather.

Bolsonaro has accused the National Space Research Institute of manipulating its data and had its chief fired. He has dismissed concerns about the Amazon as overblown and characterized international interest in the rainforest as an assault on Brazil’s sovereignty.

Bolsonaro’s government is now proposing a plan to legalize mining activity in indigenous territories and issue government permits to people who move onto and take over land, fulfilling one of his top campaign promises.

[As loggers destroy the Amazon, this ‘guardian’ stood in their way. Now he’s been killed.]

Tension in the region is increasing as emboldened miners and loggers venture further into indigenous territory. A well-known indigenous “Guardian of the Forest” in northeastern Brazil was shot dead this month by five armed men, allegedly loggers, in the forest he spent years protecting. The killing of Paulo Paulino Guajajara sent shock waves throughout the country.

“Our lands are being invaded, our leaders murdered, attacked and criminalized, and the Brazilian state is abandoning indigenous peoples to their fate with the ongoing dismantling of environmental and indigenous policies,” the association of Brazilian indigenous peoples said after Guajajara’s death. “The Bolsonaro government has indigenous blood on their hands.”

Schools in meat-loving rural Brazil went vegan. The community revolted.

This Brazilian island wants to show the way to a green future. Businesses, backed by Bolsonaro, see the next Cozumel.

Arsonists are torching the Amazon. This elite team of firefighters stands in their way.

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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