A deforested patch of land in the Chico Mendes preserve: "Cattle are our life insurance."

A deforested patch of land in the Chico Mendes preserve: "Cattle are our life insurance."

Foto:

Alexandre Cruz-Noronha / DER SPIEGEL

The Fight for the Amazon Ongoing Deforestation in Brazil a Huge Challenge for Lula and the World

The Brazilian state of Acre in the Amazon rainforest region was once considered a model of environmentalism. Under Bolsonaro, though, deforestation accelerated. Can the country's new president get things back on track?
By Jens Glüsing in Acre, Brazil

It is on the shoulders of men like Marinildo Nascimento de Brito, 39, that the fate of the world's largest rainforest rests. The small farmer lives with his wife and two daughters in the Reserva Extrativista Chico Mendes, a nature preserve in the Brazilian state of Acre, located in the Amazon region. Like his parents before him, he taps caoutchouc and collects Brazil nuts, which fall from majestic castanheiras, a tree that has become the symbol of the Amazon in Brazil.

The drive from the provincial capital of Rio Branco to Nascimento de Brito’s home takes three hours. The sign marking the boundary of the protected area is charred, with only the posts still standing. The route leads along dusty forest tracks, with cattle grazing among tree stumps, some of which are smoldering. The ashen-gray skeletons of castanheiras jut into the sky like claws, the ground beneath them blackened by soot. Smoke is rising from a fire that appears to have been set just a few hours earlier.

Nascimento de Brito, who lives in a wooden shack in the middle of grazing land, arrives from the fields on a motorcycle. He is carrying a machete under his arm, a tool that nobody in the area leaves home without. His hands are calloused, and his face burned by the jungle sun.

Farmer Marinildo Nascimento de Brito with his wife: "Our community is divided."

Farmer Marinildo Nascimento de Brito with his wife: "Our community is divided."

Foto: Alexandre Cruz-Noronha / DER SPIEGEL

The reserve, almost twice the size of the U.S. state of Delaware, is named for the environmentalist and rubber tapper Chico Mendes, who was murdered in front of his home in 1988 by a contract killer hired by large land owners. Mendes grew up here. He was instrumental in organizing caoutchouc tappers into a union and became a global symbol of the fight against the deforestation of the Amazon. His violent death turned him into a martyr. His fellow campaigner, Marina Silva, who also grew up in Acre, was tapped as environment minister by leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2003 when he was first elected to office. Now, with Lula having won election to a second term last week, she could take over the portfolio once again. She is an icon in the fight against the destruction of the rainforest.

A Base for Bolsonaro

But caoutchouc tapper Nascimento de Brito, whose parents joined Chico Mendes in his struggle, has a more nuanced view of the environmental hero. "For some, he was good, for others, he was bad," he says. "Those he didn’t like were excluded from the union." Nascimento de Brito himself would likely have run into trouble with Mendes: Four years ago, he voted for Jair Bolsonaro, and he told DER SPIEGEL a few weeks prior to the most recent election that he was planning on doing so again.

He's not alone in the region with his political views. In Acre, home of Chico Mendes and Marina Silvan, over 70 percent of the electorate voted for Bolsonaro, and the governor of the state, a follower of Bolsonaro, was re-elected in the first round of voting. Bolsonaro received a similarly high share of the vote four years ago in the area despite wanting to open up the preserve – originally set up for the protection of the rainforest and indigenous populations – to mining and farming, and vilifies foreign NGOs as communists. It is precisely for those attitudes that he is celebrated in Acre like a folk hero. Statistics show that he received the most votes in areas where deforestation is proceeding the quickest.

Hatred of environmentalists has grown so intense that unidentified vandals even knocked a statue of Chico Mendes from its plinth in the provincial capital a few months ago. His home in the rainforest village of Xapuri, which was turned into a small museum after his death, has been closed since 2019 and is slowly falling into disrepair. Environmental activists who are continuing Mendes’ fight must fear for their lives and receive frequent death threats.

A mural in Chico Mendes' birth village of Xapuri. The house of the environmental hero was once a museum, but now it is falling into disrepair.

A mural in Chico Mendes' birth village of Xapuri. The house of the environmental hero was once a museum, but now it is falling into disrepair.

Foto: Alexandre Cruz-Noronha / DER SPIEGEL

Meanwhile, the slashing and burning has expanded dramatically. Across the country, 1,455 square kilometers of rainforest were destroyed in the month of September, according to researchers from the Observatorio do Clima, an organization that focuses on climate protection. That is almost 50 percent more than the same month one year ago. Over 2 billion trees, up to 3.8 million monkeys and almost 90 million birds were destroyed in the Amazon during Bolsonaro’s term in office, according to an estimate by the internet platform Sumaúma, which specializes in issues pertaining to the Amazon region.

In Acre, some 13,038 square kilometers of rainforest were destroyed, almost twice as much as in 2018, when Bolsonaro was elected president. No other Brazilian state has seen a greater share of its forest destroyed, according to the research institute IPAM. At the peak of the dry period in September, a thick cloud of smoke hung over Rio Branco, with the color of the sky shifting between a milky gray and sulfuric yellow. Residents had trouble breathing. "Before the new president takes office, farmers are clearing as much forest as they can," says Miguel Scarcello, general secretary of the environmental protection organization SOS Amazonia.

A Free Pass for Loggers and Arsonists

Environmentalists can only watch helplessly as a mafia of loggers, cattlemen and soy farmers take advantage of the power vacuum until Lula is sworn in on January 1 to destroy as much rainforest as possible. The newspaper O Globo reported that the director of the agency ICMBio, which is responsible for the administration and control of conservation areas, sent an internal mail just a few days after the election in which he ordered that all inspections and operations aimed at fighting deforestation be suspended for two weeks due to a lack of funding – essentially a free pass for all loggers and arsonists.

A purposely set fire in the Chico Mendes reserve. Satellite images show that 223 square kilometers of rainforest were destroyed in the Chico Mendes reserve between 2019 and 2021 alone.

A purposely set fire in the Chico Mendes reserve. Satellite images show that 223 square kilometers of rainforest were destroyed in the Chico Mendes reserve between 2019 and 2021 alone.

Foto: Alexandre Cruz-Noronha / DER SPIEGEL

The financial difficulties faced by ICMBio are part of government policy. Bolsonaro has systematically underfunded all agencies charged with protecting the environment and appointed loyal military leaders to numerous positions of responsibility. "The president and the directors of ICMBio are in bed with the cattle ranchers and farmers," says Roberta Graf, president of the employee organization for ICMBio in Acre. "Those who stand up to them are fired."

Fluvio Mascarenhas is one of those who lost his job. He was head of the Chico Mendes reservation until July, but was then relieved of his duties. "I was on the side of the forest and its residents," he says. "They fired me because I was allegedly campaigning for Lula’s Worker’s Party inside the reserve." He says he has received a total of six death threats on his mobile phone, adding that he isn’t the only ICMBio functionary to have been targeted. "Many have seen the same." His job was handed to an official with no experience. Seven functionaries are responsible for the surveillance of all of the state’s protected areas, and they have neither helicopters nor airplanes available. "It is incredibly dangerous work," says Graf.

Satellite images from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) show that 223 square kilometers of rainforest were destroyed in the Chico Mendes reserve between 2019 and 2021 alone. Some 57 percent of the destruction has occurred in the last three years. Nine percent of the region has thus far been destroyed, putting Reserva Chico Mendes in second place among Amazon reserves.

Bolsonaro followers in the Amazon region (in April 2020): "We want prosperity for our population."

Bolsonaro followers in the Amazon region (in April 2020): "We want prosperity for our population."

Foto: BRUNO KELLY/ REUTERS

Mostly, it is residents themselves who are responsible for the slashing-and-burning, doing so to create grazing land for their cattle. Around half of the roughly 15,000 residents are Bolsonaro supporters, says rubber tapper Nascimento de Brito. "Our community is divided." The reason? "Our faith," he quickly responds. "Most here belong to an evangelical church." He is a pastor himself, delivering sermons in the small forest church in the evenings. Most evangelicals in Brazil support Bolsonaro, believing that he represents the same values they do. "He is against abortion and supports families," says Nascimento de Brito.

But it is clear that other issues play a role as well: More and more caoutchouc tappers and Brazil nut collectors are turning to cattle ranching. "We can’t live from caoutchouc and Brazil nuts alone," says neighbor Walmir Brito da Silva. "So, many have clearcut the forest for grazing land." He owns 50 head of cattle himself, but others, he says, have herds of up to 1,000.

Rubber tapper Walmir da Silva: "So many have clearcut the forest for grazing land."

Rubber tapper Walmir da Silva: "So many have clearcut the forest for grazing land."

Foto: Alexandre Cruz-Noronha / DER SPIEGEL

Some residents lease their land to farmers from outside the region or they sell their parcels, even though doing so is not allowed. "The buyers are small farmers, not wealthy landowners," says Mascarenhas, the former head of the reserve from ICMBio. "They clearcut the forest and remain for a short time before dividing up the land into parcels and selling it. Then, the cattle show up." And once someone has taken control of a piece of property, it is difficult to push them off again. "The judiciary is extremely slow. It normally takes 14 years until a final decision is made."

Nowhere in the Brazilian Amazon is the destruction of the rainforest as shocking as it is in Acre. For 20 years, from 1999 to 2019, the state, which shares a border with Bolivia and Peru, was governed by Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT). During that period, almost 50 percent of the state’s area was placed under environmental protection and Acre was celebrated around the world as a model for the preservation of the rainforest. It was seen as a laboratory for new climate protection concepts.

The state of Acre was once considered a model of environmental protection.

The state of Acre was once considered a model of environmental protection.

Foto: Alexandre Cruz-Noronha / DER SPIEGEL
Many in the Amazon region threw their support behind Bolsonaro because protection of the rainforest did not lead to improved prosperity.

Many in the Amazon region threw their support behind Bolsonaro because protection of the rainforest did not lead to improved prosperity.

Foto: Alexandre Cruz-Noronha / DER SPIEGEL

Yet leftist politicians in Brazil failed to live up to their promise that protecting the forest translates to greater prosperity and a better quality of life. For most of the population, protecting the rainforest did not lead to an improvement of living conditions, despite the fact that millions of aid money flowed into projects for indigenous tribes, caoutchouc harvesters and Brazil nut collectors.

Money from Abroad

Since 2012, 35 million euros have been pledged by Germany alone for forest and climate protection projects in Acre, with 32.5 million of that already having been paid out to the state. On top of that, Germany’s KfW Development Bank is managing an additional 17.8 million British pounds dedicated to forest conservation on behalf of the UK government, of which 10.5 million have been paid out.

"At least 70 percent of the funds" have been "deployed at the local level and directly benefit the target groups (small farmers, riverbank residents, indigenous tribes, rubber tappers, traditional populations) through projects or aid money," a KfW spokeswoman said in a statement, adding that "extractivism” was the primary target of such funding. The collection of rainforest products by hand and through small, family-run businesses is considered to be sustainable and not harmful to the environment.

The concept sounds attractive: Caoutchouc tappers sell the rubber they collect at subsidized prices to a state-run factory producing condoms. The Health Ministry pledged to purchase the entire production for dispersal during the Carnival celebration as part of the government’s AIDS prevention strategy.

But the factory, established in 2008, was shut down four years ago, never having been able to make a profit. Today, a French shoe company buys the rubber harvested by the caoutchouc tappers, turning it into natural-rubber soles for sneakers. "Prices for caoutchouc and Brazil nuts are better than for beef," says rubber tapper Brito da Silva. "But the work is hard and dangerous, and young people don’t want to do it." Caoutchouc tappers are frequently bitten by poisonous snakes and the trees are often located several kilometers apart. And the castanheiras only produce Brazil nuts a few months out of the year.

In contrast to natural products, which can frequently only be harvested a few months out of the year, income from cattle ranching is constant, says Brito da Silva. Intermediaries purchase the cattle from small farmers and fatten them up for slaughter. "Cattle are our life insurance."

"We Didn't Get Any of It"

Does that mean that the concept of agrarian extractivism has failed? Have aid organizations and environmentalists spent millions of euros on an illusion?

Without the widespread disappointment created by the failed environmental policies of Lula’s PT government and the expectations they awakened, it is difficult to explain Bolsonaro’s stronghold on Acre. "We don’t know where the money from Germany went," says Brito da Silva. "We didn’t get any of it."

In the provincial capital of Rio Branco, brand new SUVs emblazoned with the KfW logo (for the German state-owned investment and development bank) can be seen plying the roads, purchased with international aid money. "Expensive cars and stylish offices are the most visible signs of the international aid," says Scarcello, the head of SOS Amazonia. "The money is administered by the state government, and it’s use is not transparent." The fact that a Bolsonaro ally has governed the state for the last four years doesn’t make things any easier.

For Bolsonaro and his followers, the projects aimed at protecting the forest and the climate have failed. Former Environment Minister Ricardo Salles complains that the rubber tappers were used by the left as "guinea pigs." "The PT government romanticized and glamorized the forest," says Assuero Doca Veronez, president of the cattle farming and agricultural association of Acre. "Extractivism is not viable from an economic perspective. It doesn’t produce prosperity and can only survive with subsidies." Acre, he says, remains one of the poorest states in Brazil. "We are potentially the richest region but have the poorest population," says Doca Veronez.

Raising cattle in an environmental reserve. How can prosperity be guaranteed in the region without destroying the forest?

Raising cattle in an environmental reserve. How can prosperity be guaranteed in the region without destroying the forest?

Foto: Alexandre Cruz-Noronha / DER SPIEGEL

Scarcello also admits that numerous environmental projects have not achieved their goals. "There has been no continuity," he says. There have, he criticizes, been too few ideas for how the rainforest can be used to produce returns. "How can residents earn money with the forest remaining intact?" he asks. "How can higher profits be achieved?"

Large-scale farmers have a simple answer to this question: "We have to open up new areas for the agricultural industry,” says association president Doca Veronez. He cites the example of the neighboring state of Rondonia, where 40 percent of the forest has been logged to create space for agriculture. "In Acre, its only 15 percent. That is too little to develop large-scale agriculture."

Bolsonaro campaigning in São Paulo. Under his leadership, agencies assigned with monitoring deforestation were starved of funding.

Bolsonaro campaigning in São Paulo. Under his leadership, agencies assigned with monitoring deforestation were starved of funding.

Foto: Amanda Perobelli / REUTERS

A Drought in the Rainforest

Parliamentarian Mara Rocha, a Bolsonaro loyalist, has therefore introduced a draft law in Congress calling for the reduction of the Chico Mendes Reserve by 22,000 hectares. An additional protected area on the border with Peru would lose its status as a national park if the law was passed. "The best soil can be found in the Chico Mendes Reserve," says Rocha. "Those who want to tap caoutchouc and collect Brazil nuts should do so. But those who want to raise cattle or farm soy should be able to do so as well. We could be the world’s breadbasket."

Bolsonaro and his followers have played down the negative effects of deforestation.

Bolsonaro and his followers have played down the negative effects of deforestation.

Foto: Alexandre Cruz-Noronha / DER SPIEGEL

Until recently, Acre was suffering from a deep and prolonged drought, which experts believe can be traced back to deforestation. Wells in some districts of Rio Branco dried up and the Acre River, a vital lifeline for the state, was lower than ever before. But Bolsonaro followers play down the role of deforestation. "Human activity only has an effect on the local level," says Doca Veronez. He claims that it is mostly Bolivians who are responsible for slashing and burning. "The smoke comes across the border."

The left-wing and right-wing political camps do agree on one thing: If the rainforest is to be saved, industrialized countries will have to pay for it. "We aren’t receiving a single cent in compensation for protecting the forest," says lawmaker Rocha. "We no longer want to be the hostage of misguided environmental protection. We want prosperity for our population." The European Union, only passes "bans and limits," laments agricultural association president Doca Veronez. "We need a mechanism for compensation."

Former Brazilian President Lula campaigning in September in Belem, which is located in the Amazon region. He won the election and has promised a total halt to deforestation.

Former Brazilian President Lula campaigning in September in Belem, which is located in the Amazon region. He won the election and has promised a total halt to deforestation.

Foto: Raimundo Pacco / AP

Recently elected President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said during the campaign that he wanted to renegotiate the controversial free-trade agreement between the South American economic alliance MERCOSUR and the EU. Ratification of the deal has been held up in numerous European capitals because many lawmakers in the EU don’t believe the measures contained in the treaty for the protection of the Amazon rainforest go far enough. Lula is likely to demand that stricter environmental protection measures be coupled with a compensation mechanism. He will be traveling to the COP27 summit in Egypt next week, where that issue will be a major focus.

The Approaching Tipping Point

Angela Mendes is familiar with the discussion on both sides of the Atlantic. The eldest daughter of Chico Mendes is the only one of his three children to carry on the environmental icon’s battle. She was recently in Brussels, where she met with European parliamentarians to discuss Amazon policy. The EU is planning to restrict imports to only those products that can be clearly proven not to have come from a deforested area. Bolsonaro’s allies in the region have condemned such plans as "blackmail" and "colonialist."

Environmental activist Angela Mendes holding a picture of her father: "We are running out of time."

Environmental activist Angela Mendes holding a picture of her father: "We are running out of time."

Foto: Alexandre Cruz-Noronha / DER SPIEGEL

Mendes is also skeptical of such plans, but for different reasons. "Brazil has no efficient controls to separate legal products from illegal products," she says. "The agencies responsible have been weakened, illegally logged trees are furnished with falsified documents."

That's why she would like to see a complete ban on all further deforestation. "We are running out of time," she says. "The destruction of the Amazon rainforest is approaching a point where it can no longer be saved." She has already been partially successful: Lula intends to make climate protection a priority of his government. In response to pressure from environmental protectionists, he has announced a complete halt to all deforestation in the Amazon region.

The question remains, however, how he intends to enforce it.

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