How crime drives deforestation in Brazil's Amazon | FT Film
The battle against deforestation in President Jair Bolsonaro's Brazil is also a fight against criminal networks and corruption, drawing in politicians, militias and drugs gangs. The FT follows the fight as it cycles from the cities to the rainforest, and meets the indigenous people trying to save their land
Produced, filmed and edited by Joe Sinclair; produced and reported by Andres Schipani; associate producer Sam Cowie; graphics by Russell Birkett; translations by Persis Love and Carolina Pulice; additional footage from Reuters
You can enable subtitles (captions) in the video player
The reality right now is the Amazon is under threat. It's being plundered from all sides, because the Amazon is an ecosystem of extraordinary riches-- of timber, of gold, of coltan, of animals and livestock. And right now, there is a gold rush, a scramble, a plundering under way of all of its vast resources.
Under the current administration, all bets are off. There is an opening up of deregulations. There is an incentivization of land grabbing. There is an easing of the penalties associated with those who may be abusing existing legislation.
Our focus has been very much on trying to set thresholds and limits around deforestation, without understanding the illegality and the political economy that's driving that business to begin with. Around 80% of deforestation in the Amazon is illegal. Land grabbers occupy the land for cattle farming, soy, and gold. They might be financed by a corrupt politician, a local rancher, drug cartels, or militia, and they often clear the land by setting fire to the forest.
The fact is that the laws and regulations that were enacted and used for the past, let's say, 10, 20 years were so restrictive to the Amazon that it has restricted development to those areas, and in that sense, people go 100% to the other side. They go to the illegal activities, to the criminal activities, because they don't have any other space to do something under the law, according to the regulation.
You cannot punish 20 million people. You cannot punish everybody. We need to give them some sort of alternative. What you have to give them is a reasonable path of work. Otherwise, they go to the criminal side.
What we have right now is a combination of players in this criminal ecosystem, in the Amazon. A key issue is that they have a high level of impunity, because law enforcement is weak, and environmental fines are seldom collected. To that, you can add collusion and corruption among members of the police, enforcement agencies, and the courts. Corrupt officers can receive kickbacks for looking the other way or may be more deeply involved, even driving people off the land themselves or running their own militias. Once occupied, land titles for public land can be illegally bought or forged, and occupiers might expect to benefit from amnesties, like they did in 2004 and 2011.
As we've seen this gold rush and this timber rush and the allure of the profits that the Amazon can yield emerge, you've seen a massive migration of populations from across the country. And some of these cities have ballooned in size in the space of just a generation. You get all sorts of forms of concentrated disadvantage and poverty and inequality, and that tends to be a breeding pot for crime. So it's not just the organised crime groups that are manipulating and working in concert with politicians to drive this business, but it's also the ambient crime that accompanies it. And today, many of the interior cities across the Amazon are some of the most violent in the world.
Over the last two decades though, there was a generally widespread improvement in the overall stewardship of the Amazon. There was introduction of several protections. There was an expansion of the number of reserves. There was legal regulations to safeguard the rights of indigenous, and what we saw was actually a decline in deforestation, increasing management of some aspects of the mining industries, and more corporate social responsibility for many companies that were involved in many of these activities. But the reality is, right now, that without leadership, without strong vision from the top trying to set a conservation-sustainable policy for the Amazon, but instead the opposite, the opening up to pillaging and plundering, we're going to see the situation get much worse.