Bolsonaro’s Words Are the Sparks as Brazil’s Farmers Burn Amazonia

(Bloomberg) -- Down a dusty road an hour outside the Brazilian city of Porto Velho, Irany Paradela used a flimsy rake to clear a charred plot. The fire she and her husband set “became a real beast,” the 48-year-old homesteader said. “We had no way to put it out.”

The size may have been unintended, but it wasn’t entirely unwanted. “Sometimes you need to set a fire,” Paradela said. “Who has the machinery to clear the land?”

The Amazon has been burning for weeks, and many fires in one of Brazil’s most ravaged states, Rondonia, were lit by small farmers like Paradela who eke out a precarious living on the jungle’s fringes with slash-and-burn agriculture. Isolated and independent, they are largely immune to pressure from Brasilia and beyond. And President Jair Bolsonaro’s explicit endorsement emboldened them to burn more than they had in years.

Bolsonaro’s Words Are the Sparks as Brazil’s Farmers Burn Amazonia

In the first eight months of 2019, Brazil has had almost 94,000 fires, the most since 2010. More than half have been in the Amazon biome, a hotbed of biodiversity whose preservation is essential to arresting climate change.

Bolsonaro has said that local economic development takes precedence over global concerns. No matter the outpouring of outrage from environmentalists in wealthy corners of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo -- not to mention France and the U.S. -- Bolsonaro believes he has the backing of the region and the tacit support of many countrymen.

“He’s taking our side,” said Valeria Souza, a 27-year-old sawmill secretary in the dusty town of Vila Samuel. Giovani Rabel, who rents out heavy equipment there, recalled weeping for joy when he voted for Bolsonaro. The 44-year-old rejoiced in a government that celebrates the brutal work of developing the world’s largest rainforest.

Much of Amazonia was settled during the military dictatorship that ran from 1964 to 1985. Under the slogan “a land without men for men without land,” sharecroppers were encouraged to venture to states like northwestern Rondonia, where they had to make lots productive to earn their deeds. Still today, about 80% of properties in Rondonia are smaller than 100 hectares (250 acres), according to Moises Fernandes, an environmental consultant and agronomist whose parents migrated to the Amazon from Brazil’s south.

“Colonization was done with chainsaw, fire and cow hoof,” he said in an interview in Porto Velho, Rondonia’s capital.

Today, the government provides such smallholders virtually nothing in the way of subsidies, credit, technical assistance, technology or equipment, he said.

“Fire is a type of desperation,” said Luis Novoa, a professor at Rondonia’s Federal University who leads a research group on Amazon territories. Farmers are attempting “to make a living or to get rich -- that mirage of coming to Amazonia and getting rich.”

Bolsonaro’s Words Are the Sparks as Brazil’s Farmers Burn Amazonia

Previous Brazilian governments directed billions of reais in credit to the agricultural sector as it pushed back the forest’s frontiers to free space for soybeans and cattle pasture. But they also empowered environmental regulators and demarcated areas for conservation. Those initiatives preserved essential rainforest, leaving many pioneers feeling dispossessed and abandoned.

Bolsonaro hasn’t attempted to strike such a balance, instead resurrecting the dictatorship-era vision of opening the Amazon’s protected areas for development. He championed farmers, who he said can’t earn an honest living in the face of oppressive environmental restrictions.

A Datafolha poll published Sunday showed that most Brazilians disapprove of the president’s policies in the Amazon. Notably, however, Bolsonaro scored a slightly higher approval rating in the north, where Amazonia is.

The region’s governors convened an emergency meeting last week to address the fires. Some questioned Bolsonaro’s style but none challenged his decision to prioritize economic development.

“There are needy people in these states,” said Rondonia’s governor, Marcos Rocha. “We’ve always had presidents worried about preserving the environment. Now we have a president who cares about the people.”

Within the region, indigenous communities are feeling the most pressure from Bolsonaro’s development plans.

Bolsonaro’s Words Are the Sparks as Brazil’s Farmers Burn Amazonia

Invasions by would-be farmers have become increasingly frequent since 2015, according to Adriano Karipuna, a tribal leader and spokesman in Porto Velho, but they’ve stepped up since people came to believe Bolsonaro would win last year’s election.

Land grabbers torched the security post on the outskirts of Karipuna territory -- the leader shares a name with his tribe -- and occupied the only road to their village.

“Bolsonaro is exploiting a desire that was in their mind for a long time,” he said.

The renewed rhetoric of expansion has unleashed a pent-up desire to confront regulators, said Tatiana Versiani, a prosecutor on the 15-member Amazon Task Force, which handles environmental crimes. She spoke between coughing fits in an interview in an office in Rondonia: The smoke was so intense that she had contracted pneumonia.

Brazil’s regulations are among the world’s most rigorous, but enforcement is Sisyphean in this huge, inaccessible region. Some large farms burn and deforest, but those that export can’t afford to risk their reputations and markets, Novoa said. Still, they benefit in the long run, buying up smaller players’ fire-cleared plots.

For Andre Lino Dias de Carvalho, 69, a small farmer in Rondonia, the threat of sanctions from the environmental agencies is laughable. Two years ago, he and his wife bought 100 hectares thick with forest, and he invited loggers to remove dozens of truckloads of timber. Then he set the brush on fire, he said as he gave a tour of the property, balancing on scorched tree trunks.

“When God expelled man from Eden, he said, ‘Thou shall descend to the land, thou shall till the land, and with sweat on your face produce your daily bread,”’ Lino said. “How are you going to harvest if you don’t have a place to plant?”

Bolsonaro’s Words Are the Sparks as Brazil’s Farmers Burn Amazonia

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