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

An aerial view of a burned tract of the Amazon rainforest as it was cleared by loggers and farmers near Porto Velho, Brazil, on Aug. 29. (Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)
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SAO PAULO — Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, under international pressure to curb the fires now spiking across the Amazon, is trying to crack down on the farmers and loggers who clear land by burning the rainforest.

But he’s up against long-standing traditions, practices, laws — and some of his own rhetoric.

Farmers in Brazil use fire to clear land. A decades-old law encourages them to invade the Amazon. And Bolsonaro, backed by Brazil’s powerful agricultural lobby, campaigned on promises to open the rainforest to more farming, logging and mining — and against what he called “an industry of fines” at Ibama, the environmental protection agency.

“I won’t allow Ibama to go around issuing fines left and right,” the climate-change skeptic said shortly after his election last year. “The party is going to end.”

And he delivered: Since he took office in January, the agency says it has issued 29.4 percent fewer fines for violations, including illegal burning and deforestation.

But now Bolsonaro is trying to apply the brakes. He has declared a 60-day ban on the fires. He has sent troops to northern Brazil to crack down on deforestation. And authorities are investigating reports of coordinated arsons last month in what farmers and loggers on social media called a “Day of Fire.”

But there, again, is the conundrum for Bolsonaro: Rural leaders in the Amazon of Pará state allegedly organized the fires along a highway across the rainforest to show support for Bolsonaro’s loosening of environmental restrictions, the newspaper Globo Rural reported.

Farmers have long used fire to cut through jungle too dense for machines. The burned vegetation makes the soil fertile and cuts down on pests. But fire also plays a key role in illegal deforestation.

Why the Amazon is burning, and why it’s likely to get worse

“Fires mark one of the last stages in deforestation,” said Raoni Rajão, a professor of environmental management at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. “First, the expensive wood is removed. Then, the bush is left to dry. Finally, fires are set to clear the land before grass can be planted for pasture.”

Brazilian farmers say they’re being blamed unfairly for the fires. Marcos da Rosa, a former president of Brazil’s Soy Producers Association, said they’re often caused by inexperienced settlers, who use fires to clear land without understanding the risks.

“The guy sparks a fire to clear one or two hectares outside his house and the wind comes and spreads it,” said da Rosa, a soy and cattle farmer. “Suddenly, it takes over his whole pasture.”

More experienced farmers stopped using fire to clear land decades ago because it can be so difficult to manage, he said.

Drone footage captures smoke and fire in Brazil's Amazon behind a trail of desolation. (Video: Reuters)

Brazil has long provided incentives for farmers to move into, burn and develop the Amazon.

The government owns vast, uninhabited swaths of the rainforest. In an effort to settle that land in the 1970s, lawmakers approved legislation that allows squatters who can establish economic activity on a parcel for five years to buy the title at a discount.

Fire allows farmers to clear land for pasture quickly and cheaply.

“There is this Wild West logic to the law in the Amazon,” Rajão said. “The idea was that Brazil must integrate the Amazon to maintain control over it.”

In 2017, pressured by the country’s agricultural lobby, lawmakers expanded the law to allow for the privatization of larger patches of land. Last year, the government issued 90,000 such land titles throughout the country, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. 

As the Amazon burns, breathing problems spike

Speculation has also fueled deforestation. The risk of being fined by Ibama pales in comparison to the potential profits. Deforested land in the Amazon that has been converted to pasture can be sold at up to six times the price paid to the government, Rajão said.

“On the one hand, you give concrete incentives for deforestation, and even subsidize it,” he said. “On the other, you fine people who get caught doing it. It creates a logic of outsmarting the system.”

Farmers take advantage during periods of lax government oversight to grab and deforest more land. The activity has grown under Bolsonaro: Through July, deforestation was up 40 percent, compared with the same period last year, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research reported last month.

In an open letter to the government, more than 400 Ibama employees warned that the country’s environmental protection system was on the brink of collapse — and blamed the fires on cuts in resources. They said the agency’s budget was cut by 45 percent from 2010 to 2019.

“We cannot dissociate these factors from the clear increase in deforestation and fires,” they wrote.

Putting out the Amazon fires isn’t just a physical challenge — it’s a political one

Now Brazilian police are investigating reports that more than 70 farmers and loggers used a WhatsApp group to organize the Day of Fire on Aug. 10.

More than 30,000 fires burned in the rainforest in August alone, a nine-year high, according to the space research institute.

The fires have prompted activists to call for boycotts of Brazilian goods. Fifteen fashion labels, including Vans, Kipling and Timberland, have said they will not import Brazilian leather. Finland has called for a ban on Brazilian beef imports to the European Union. 

Now Bolsonaro is under pressure from the agricultural lobby that helped get him elected to ease tensions with the international community before boycotts affect their profits.

Bolsonaro has said farmers and loggers would no longer be allowed to use fires to clear land. But critics said the efforts would be hard to enforce without changes. Ibama is unable to effectively patrol a rainforest that covers 60 percent of Brazil’s territory.

Governors of the Amazon states have warned that land ownership laws must be rewritten before they can clamp down on deforestation. 

“Without land reform, we have great difficulty holding accountable the people who commit this crime,” Wilson Lima, governor of Amazonas state, told Bolsonaro in a meeting last month. “We don’t know exactly whose land it is.”

Brazil’s Bolsonaro says he might accept G-7 offer to help fight Amazon fires — if Macron apologizes

The world wants to save the Amazon rainforest. Brazil’s Bolsonaro says hands off.

The Amazon is burning. Bolsonaro says his critics are setting the fires, to make him look bad.

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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