Criminal Gangs Are Behind the Destruction of the Brazilian Amazon

Photo: AP

Criminals, violence, and illegal activity drive deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, according to a new report. This is a brutal reminder that the people setting the Amazon rainforest on fire will do so at any cost—even human life.

Human Rights Watch on Tuesday published the 165-page report “Rainforest Mafias: How Violence and Impunity Fuel Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon,” outlining the ways gangs exhibiting this illegal, criminal behavior not only threatens the world’s largest rainforest but also the people who live in and around it.

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Destruction in the Amazon has dominated international headlines for weeks as the forest fires grew so severe that São Paolo, Brazil, turned dark in the middle of the day last month. As data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research shows, more than 123,000 fires have burned in the country so far this year, a 52 percent increase from last year this time.

Criminals cut down trees in the Amazon and burn the rest of it to help make room for cattle pastures or croplands. The Guardian reported Tuesday that Marfrig, a Brazilian meat supplier for companies like McDonald’s and Burger King, sourced meat from a farmer who’s used deforested land. And the people most at risk when these fires burn are the indigenous tribes who live in and depend on the rainforest to survive. Many have equated these intentional fires to genocide. Coincidentally, indigenous Amazonians delivered a letter to Congress on Tuesday demanding U.S. leaders take action to protect their blazing home and endangered lives.

Now, this latest report highlights just how relentless the individuals behind this massive deforestation can be—especially under Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, whose far-right ideals on privatizing the forest have emboldened these criminals. Amnesty International put out a similar report earlier this year, and its findings aligned with Human Rights Watch: The number of death threats is rising under Bolsonaro, and the threat to the forest—and its inhabitants—is real.

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Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 170 people to reach its conclusions, including 60 members of indigenous communities and local residents in the states of Maranhão, Pará, and Rondônia. Report investigators also managed to speak to dozens of unnamed government officials who agreed that Bolsonaro’s racist rhetoric is influencing the behavior from loggers. Many murders, attacks, and death threats go without investigation or arrest.

“This lack of accountability is largely due to the failure by police to conduct proper investigations into the crimes, according to federal and state prosecutors, and environmental officials,” the report states.

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The report is also clear, however, that these dangers stretch back far before Bolsonaro ruled Brazil. This criminal network has existed for years, resulting in at least 28 deaths Human Rights Watch could confirm—most of which occurred in the last five years, including a state police sergeant and an indigenous leader in 2017. Just earlier this month, a veteran indigenous environmental defender was killed in Brazil. Environmental defenders around the world suffer incredible murder rates: At least 684 have been killed around the world in the last 15 years, according to Nature Sustainability study published this year.

These latest findings from the Human Rights Watch aren’t necessarily surprising; we know environmental activists are dying without justice. But this report offers further evidence that the Amazon is under threat and tells us who’s responsible. And it urges the Brazilian government to ramp up protections for the people who live there.

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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