Swathes of the Amazon rainforest have been burning at a rate not seen in a decade. Matthew Campbell joins the police and indigenous people fighting for their lives and land.
It has rained heavily overnight and the back of our pick-up swings about like a motorboat on the muddy track. Iridescent blue butterflies flicker against the vegetal walls on either side of the path. A flash of red marks the startled flight of a macaw. For the past several hours we have been scouring the back roads of the Brazilian Amazon on a mission against illegal loggers who have bulldozed their way into the jungle in search of valuable hardwoods. Now the radio crackles into life again: "If you try and arrest us, we'll fight," says a voice.
With a pistol at his belt, Abilio Ikerziri, 34, the environmental police officer supervising this mission, seems unperturbed. "They sometimes fire a few shots," he warns. "I've been in firefights. Usually they run away, leaving their tractors behind."
The Bolsonaro effect
The struggle to protect the world's largest tropical rainforest seems at times like a war against well-organised jungle insurgents, who strike and then vanish into the emerald wilderness. Recently these insurgents, in the Jamari National Forest in the northwestern state of Rondonia, have become more brazen, threatening and insulting their pursuers over the radio — "vultures" and "pigs" are the taunts they have hurled at us today. They can be much more threatening.
Since Jair Bolsonaro, cheerleader-in-chief for development of the Amazon rainforest, became president in January, "the risks to our lives have increased" , Ikerziri says. Recently, he and his wife were relocated to Rondonia from a neighbouring state after his office was burnt down and he narrowly escaped being killed by gunmen lying in wait. The loggers, he believes, sense that Bolsonaro is on their side: "Now they feel empowered to do whatever they want."
He hands me his phone, pointing to a blue pin in the middle of a Google Maps image that shows where the loggers are working. "Only two kilometres away," he says. But we can find no sign of the track the loggers used to get into the forest — and the path we are on seems to be leading us away from their location. "They sometimes disguise their tracks," Ikerziri says. "We need to keep looking." Our convoy rumbles on.
Images of the Amazon forest in flames have provoked international uproar and climate protests, with calls from some countries for a boycott of Brazilian produce. Experts warn that deforestation is pushing the Amazon, 60% of which is in Brazil, ever closer to a "tipping point" beyond which it will not recover — and with potentially devastating consequences for the global environment.
Bolsonaro dismissed evidence of a big increase in illegal forest clearing this year as "lies" and sacked the director of the national research institute responsible for statistics showing almost twice as much deforestation as in 2018. In a speech to the United Nations he suggested, improbably, that environmentalists, the "new communists", he calls them, were setting fires in the forest in a conspiracy against his government.
Brazil tree cover loss from 2001 to 2008
Source: Global Forest Watch
Flaunting his support from America's president, Donald Trump, Bolsonaro makes no secret of his desire to open the Amazon to loggers, miners and cattle ranchers. The "Trump of the tropics" seems intent on dismantling the environmental police. He has sacked 21 of its 27 state superintendents as well as top officials at Brazil's indigenous affairs agency, Funai, the guardian of Indian lands. He has also called on environmental field agents to stop destroying tractors and bulldozers belonging to illegal loggers.
Bolsonaro's words and actions "have effectively given a green light to the criminal networks involved in illegal logging", according to a recent Human Rights Watch report that also warned of an increased risk to an already embattled group of activists trying to save the forest — 300 have been killed over the past decade.
"Human rights have always been more of an ambition than a reality in Brazil," says Jurema Werneck, director of Amnesty International in the country, when I visit her in Rio de Janeiro. "But since this president came to power, the situation became much more dangerous."
The communities under threat
To discover what is happening on the front line of this conflict, I have flown 3,200km northwest of Rio to Rondonia. From the air, the main road crossing the state looks like a fish bone, with countless tracks branching out on either side into the jungle — arteries for the illegal logging, soya and ranching businesses on which the local economy is built. The riches culled from the forest are on display everywhere in Porto Velho, the steamy state capital of 500,000 inhabitants, which sports a brand-new shopping mall, fast-food restaurants and a Lego shop. A painted sign on a flyover sums up the region's proud frontier spirit: "We are fearless pioneers".
It is quite different from my last visit to the Amazon, in the early 1980s: on a rickety bus from Manaus to the Venezuelan border, an armed security guard sitting next to the driver warned passengers that arrows might be fired from Indians hidden in the jungle as we passed by — and to duck if necessary. Since then, about 170,000 square miles of forest — an area twice the size of Britain — has been cleared, most of it illegally, to make way for timber yards, cattle ranches, soy farms and burgeoning new towns; and the Indians who lived in it have been killed, assimilated or pushed further into the shrinking forest.
Astonishing as it may seem, however, there are still at least 27 "uncontacted" tribes — people who have never had any form of communication with the outside world. They live deep in the forest, observing the same rituals and traditions as ancestors going back hundreds of years.
"These isolated tribes have never been under greater threat," says Scott Wallace, a professor at the University of Connecticut and author of The Unconquered, a book about the so-called Arrow People, an uncontacted tribe. "As the frontier advances deeper into the forest, how much longer can they hold out? Some already have been forced into a pattern of flight from chainsaws and bulldozers. They could be annihilated without the outside world ever knowing."
Logging is forbidden on what has been enshrined in Brazilian law as indigenous land, an area about 1½ times the size of France, or 12 per cent of Brazil's territory. An estimated 900,000 people of indigenous descent live in it, a fraction of Brazil's 211m population. But Bolsonaro is eager to strip back such protections, expressing scorn for the idea that indigenous people might choose to live as they have for centuries in one of the most unspoilt regions on earth. His mining minister recently announced that draft legislation allowing mining and agriculture on indigenous lands will soon be ready.
The Indians have paid a high price for contact with the outside world, killed in violent clashes or by diseases brought by "the whites" from which they have no immunity. The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau tribe, who live on the edge of Rondonia state, are an example. At the entrance to their reserve, after a journey of several hours from Porto Velho over increasingly remote red dirt roads, a sign reads "Protected land. Access forbidden". Further on is a village with a few thatched buildings, where Tari, the chief, greets me with a friendly smile. He and a dozen or so others lounging in hammocks slung under a thatched shelter are remnants of a tribe once numbering more than 200.
"In the old days, things were much better," says Tari, 80, speaking through a translator in his native language. "We had a big communal house for our parties." He remembers the days before "the whites" arrived when he wore a loincloth rather than the shorts, camouflage jacket and flip-flops that make up his entire wardrobe today. The first invaders he saw were rubber tappers. At this point, Yuripi, the chief's son, gives a nervous chuckle: "My father killed many of them with his bow."
The chief then springs up to pull his weapon from where it is tucked in the rafters and produces an arrow, with a brightly coloured feather quill. He places the arrow on the string and draws back the bow to demonstrate his prowess. (When I have a go later, I can hardly bend it at all.)
Reprisals against the tribe by the rubber tappers in the 1960s were ferocious and 20 of them were killed. "My sister still has a bullet in her back," says the chief, cracking open a Brazil nut with his teeth.
Then came Funai, the indigenous affairs agency. Today the policy is not to contact isolated tribes, but back in the 1970s they brought blankets, clothes — and diseases. "Many people in the village died," Tari says. "Now we are facing other invaders — people who want to steal our land and our forest."
At the mention of Bolsonaro, Tari frowns. "We are afraid he will end up destroying the forest," he says. "The air has been filled with smoke from the fires. And it is not nice to clear so much forest, it is where we have always lived. We want to keep this land for our grandchildren and theirs."
The Indians clear only small areas for their crops. They still hunt with bows and arrows and gather plants in the forest. But some tribal traditions have lapsed. "Our kids go to the same school as the whites now," Yuripi says. When I ask Tari about the faded black lines tattooed on his face to mark his coming of age, he tells me, with a mournful look: "The young people don't want to do it any more, especially the girls."
An illegal logger "invasion"
Tari, it turns out, has a taste for television, inviting me into his hut to show off a flatscreen — "So we can watch Bolsonaro," he jokes. He fiddles with a satellite dish outside to improve reception: "It's not been working too well on account of the rain."
He then tells me of the "other people" who live in the forest nearby but who he has not seen for decades, a still uncontacted tribe. "We used to fight them," he says.
Bitate, a younger villager, leads us along a forest path to the site of the latest "invasion" by loggers, recalling how he had heard chainsaws coming from the forest one day earlier this year and had gone to investigate.
"We asked them what they were doing," he says. "They said, 'We're just following orders.' They were cutting down trees. We reported it to the authorities and the men had to leave."
A pile of bones litters a forest path made by the loggers — "a wild pig they killed for their lunch," Bitate explains.
Such invasions have been going on for decades. "There's nothing new about it, it's just that the world is suddenly paying attention because of our new president," says Caio Santos, 20, the son of a Baptist missionary. Santos grew up among the Indians and used to play football with them — "they're small but incredibly fast," he says. He tells me his uncle was a rancher who "did exactly the same thing as today's loggers. He cut down the trees to make his farm and he was arrested a few times and fined. Now he has a horse ranch."
Back in Porto Velho, Daniel Lobo, a state prosecutor, says things are far worse today. "With his rhetoric, the president is encouraging criminal activity," he says. "People use his speeches as an excuse. They think they can do anything they want."
Lobo refers to what he describes as a "well-organised" mafia of loggers whose network of helpers includes armed "muscle", spies, scouts and corrupt officials to produce documents that purport to show the wood has come from licensed, sustainably managed forests and that the cleared land is legally owned.
Alfredo Sirkis, a co-founder of Brazil's Green Party, has been at the forefront of efforts to save the Amazon for a long time. He is just as alarmed at Bolsonaro's role in encouraging the destruction of the forest. His "crazy nationalist discourse" amounts to saying "the Amazon is ours, so we can do what we want with it — even burn it down". But the people doing the burning, he maintains, are not the big "agribusinesses" routinely accused by the left of turning the forest into hamburgers. "That would have been true about two decades ago," Sirkis says. "But more than 80% of the deforestation these days is being done by land grabbers — speculators who take the land, deforest it and then put some skinny cow on it as a mark of possession. The price of land goes up, they sell it and do the same shit somewhere else. Bolsonaro identifies with them.
"Agribusiness is very unhappy with the scale of the forest fires. They're concerned with their international image and what could happen to sales. The only thing that can moderate Bolsonaro now is the outcry of exporters who are telling him, 'You're f****** up our business, don't do this.' "
The race to find the loggers
At the end of June, after years of food safety and corruption scandals in its huge meat sector, Brazil and its partners in South America signed a trade deal with the EU — but barely a month later the Amazon fires sparked outrage in Europe, with France, Ireland and Finland threatening to scrap the agreement, and Finland advocating a ban on Brazilian beef. Norway and Germany stopped donations to a Brazilian fund proposing projects for deforestation when Bolsonaro closed down its steering committee. Norway had donated more than £900m over the past decade. Bolsonaro then got into a bitter dispute with Emmanuel Macron, one of his fiercest European critics. He mocked the appearance of Brigitte, the French president's wife, on Facebook. Macron called it "extraordinarily rude" and said he hoped Brazil would soon have a worthier leader. In Britain, climate campaigners have urged the government to put the Amazon at the forefront of any negotiations with Brazil over a post-Brexit trade deal, although China, a big importer of Brazilian products, may emerge as the ultimate arbiter in the Amazon.
In a sign that, in spite of his bluster, Bolsonaro may be sensitive to the economic arguments, he recently declared a 60-day ban on forest fires. He also deployed a detachment of army troops to Rondonia "to make it look as though he is doing something to stop deforestation", Sirkis says, "even if the exact opposite is really true".
Rondonia's environmental police headquarters is based in a jungle reserve down the road from Porto Velho. In some ways it resembles a giant scrapyard, filled with dozens of rusting bulldozers, lorries and tractors confiscated from loggers and miners. Piled nearby are hundreds of confiscated tree trunks.
Sometimes field agents destroy the vehicles and machinery — "but only if we can't get them safely back here", says Abilio Ikerziri, whose operation in the Jamari National Forest I witnessed. He works for the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation, a wing of the environmental police named after a human rights activist who fought to save the forest and was assassinated by a rancher in 1988.
The morning I meet Ikerziri, he has received intelligence — a satellite image relayed to his office — that loggers have illegally entered the forest. He is about to lead the mission to apprehend them and I join him and his men, who are accompanied by three military police officers and a handful of soldiers.
A lot of the logging goes on undetected — the culprits cut narrow trails under the forest canopy to reach valuable trees, chop them down and tow them away without it being visible on satellite images. They sometimes camouflage their vehicles with paint and foliage and move them to safety when they know that police are on the way.
The group we are pursuing, however, is stuck in the forest: they cannot get their lorries and timber out on the path they dug on their way in because of heavy rain the night before. "We have a good chance of catching them," Ikerziri says.
Our mission does not get off to a promising start: we are held up for half an hour at a padlocked gate on the edge of the base — the army, recently deployed by Bolsonaro to lend Ikerziri's men a hand, has changed the lock without any warning and we have to wait for a sergeant to bring us a key.
Then, after turning off a main road, our convoy is halted at another padlocked gate, this one belonging to a rancher who is likely to be in cahoots with the loggers. One of Ikerziri's young assistants leaps from the back of the pick-up armed with a chainsaw, waiting for the order to slice through the obstacle.
But Ikerziri tells him "there is no evidence of a crime" — explaining that he needs a warrant in order to knock down the gate. We try another track into the forest and are halted at yet another padlocked gate.
According to Ikerziri's phone, we are only about a mile away from the loggers — but the path they used to get into the jungle is nowhere to be seen. Have they camouflaged the entrance? As we slide along the track, the radio hisses again: "Hold on, looks like they're leaving."
A man in an orange shirt has just passed us on a motorbike: is he relaying our movements to the loggers? "He may be one of their scouts," Ikerziri says. We follow him to a wooden shack, where he stops.
Chickens peck at the red dirt. A dog barks at us. Ikerziri asks the man if he is working with the loggers. "No, I gave all that up a year ago," he replies. He denies he is in radio contact with anyone. We have reached a dead end.
Back at the base, Ikerziri starts to plan a nocturnal stakeout with his men to try to catch the loggers shifting their cargo to an illegal sawmill.
"It's very frustrating that we couldn't find them," he says. He is not giving up. "Those trees are a national treasure for us. That's why we defend them."
The rainforest in retreat — and why it matters
1. How bad are the fires?
There were about twice as many fires in the Brazilian Amazon between January and August 2019 as in the whole of 2018. In the early 2000s, the scale of burning was higher, but international pressure and government action achieved a reduction. Since President Bolsonaro came to power, funding to prevent forest fires has been cut by almost 25 per cent.
2. How much of the Amazon rainforest has already been lost?
About 17 per cent has disappeared over the past 50 years, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature. The Amazon forest covers about 2.1m square miles, about 60 per cent of it in Brazil. The Brazilian part covers about 1.3m square miles now, compared with about 1.5m square miles in the 1970s.
3. How much oxygen does the Amazon rainforest produce?
It is often said that the Amazon produces 20 per cent of the world's oxygen, but its net contribution is small. Trees produce oxygen through photosynthesis, but they also consume oxygen when the sun isn't shining and when they decompose. And tree biomes — the plants and microbes living in them — also consume oxygen.
4. If not from the Amazon, where does the oxygen in the atmosphere come from?
The gas accumulated over billions of years when plant matter became buried, principally in the oceans, before it could consume oxygen while decomposing. This buried matter left a net surplus of oxygen that gradually built up to the levels we have today.
5. So why is the Amazon so important to our planet?
The forest is a huge store of carbon, albeit one that is constantly changing. Burning it releases carbon into the atmosphere, just like burning fossil fuels. The forest also absorbs and emits vast quantities of water that influence the climate. Destroying it could affect global cloud creation and rainfall.