How Brazil's rainforest pays heavy price of politics
As Brazil faces its most unpredictable elections in decades, the FT's Brazil bureau chief Andres Schipani takes a close look at the type of environmental crimes that flourish in times of political uncertainty
Written and filmed by Andres Schipani and Joseph Leahy; Produced and edited by James Sandy
The FT's Sao Paolo Bureau recently shadowed a state ranger working with special forces investigating the operations of a cassiterite mine bordering the Jamari National Park in the Amazon state of Rondonia in north-west Brazil. This state is part of an area which has seen massive deforestation over the past 40 years. And while deforestation in Brazil remains much lower than at its peak in 2004, when an area bigger than Macedonia was cut down, activity has increased since 2012 here and across Brazil's rainforest.
Now, activists believe the rate of environmental crime is likely to increase even further, as political uncertainty has strengthened conservative elements in Brazil's congress, particularly the so-called ruralistas, politicians who operate in seats of power, like Brasilia, but who represent rural interests in the Amazon. Critics argue the ruralistas have benefited under President Michel Temer after they helped him survive two congressional votes over corruption scandals last year.
Historically, this can be seen as a much wider trend in which deforestation has tended to spike at times of political uncertainty in Brazil, most notably in the 2000s, ahead of the election of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. A few years later, when environmentalist Marina Silva left his government and before Lula launched an international fund to finance conservation in the Amazon, and more recently in 2016 around the impeachment of former president Dima Rousseff.
This trend could easily continue this year. As the country awaits the results of the most unpredictable election in decades, the illegal miners, ranchers, and loggers are not waiting to find out who the next president will be. They seem to be making the most of the current dearth of regulation and enforcement. Whoever wins the presidency in the October elections will have to work with a fractured congress and a powerful agribusiness lobby. With the deforestation now moving into nature, and into reserves, and ranger numbers in the red those looking to protect the rainforest don't hold out much hope for the Amazon.