Destruction of Amazon Rainforest Accelerates as Elections Loom in Brazil

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s far right president, is launching a reelection bid and currently trailing in the polls behind former president and liberal rival Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Bolsonaro, along with conservative lawmakers, have tried to reduce environmental protections while promoting development of the Amazon rainforest. As Brazil prepares to hold elections in October, deforestation seems to be increasing. Deforestation is a major contributor to climate change and a threat for Indigenous peoples who are fighting land grabs and toxic polluting from illegal mines. Learn more Truthout’s Mike Ludwig Romulo Batista was interviewed by Romulo, an environmental activist from Manaus, Brazil, which is nestled in the Amazon forest.

Music by Dan Mason


This is a rush transcript that has been lightly edited to improve clarity.

Climate Front Lines welcomes you back. Today, we will be visiting the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. This bioregion is one of the most diverse on the planet. The Amazon rainforest is also one the world’s most important carbon sinks and must be preserved to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. New satellite data shows that Amazon’s deforestation is increasing compared to last years, when 4.8million acres were cleared to make way to development, legal and illegal.

The slash-and-burn logging, mining, cattle ranching, and other industries that cause deforestation in the Amazon are also major sources of pollution and land loss threatening Indigenous communities, who are currently preparing for an annual meeting in Brasilia, the nation’s capital. The summit, also known as the Free Land Camp is focusing on land grabs and climate justice. We should all pay attention because deforestation is a threat to everyone else as the climate crisis worsens.

It’s campaign season in Brazil, and environmentalists say corporate politicians are working furiously to speed up development of the Amazon before the country holds elections in October. Romulo Batista is an activist and spokesperson from Greenpeace. He is our guide to the Amazon rainforest. Batista hails from Manaus in northern Brazil, where he is the capital of Amazonas. This state is almost entirely covered with the Amazon rainforest.

Mike Ludwig: I was first curious about the press release by Greenpeace that stated that deforestation alerts were up 62 percent in December compared to the previous year. What exactly is a deforestation alert and, I think it’s the DETER system, the D-E-T-E-R system?

Romulo Batista: Yes. Two systems are used in Brazil to monitor deforestation. One of these is the PRODESThis contains the official text of deforestation. They are published only once per year. DETER is a type of lens on deforestation. It means that they can release it quickly, but it’s not seeing all of the Amazon, they see patches that are bigger than PRODES. This means that we don’t see very small areas of deforestation. We see different areas when we look. [observe deforestation over the same time period]In DETER and PRODES

Okay. So how did the DETER system work? Does it simply come down to how many acres have been deforested?

Yeah. It’s based on satellite imaging. This means they pass each other every four days, and these satellite images are all made for the same place. This is the start of the year. We are in the rainy seasons here in Amazon. It means that there is a lot of cloud cover. [the satellites]The Amazon is not all that you see. This means that the Amazon is likely to be in the following areas: [levels of deforestation]Can be higher than what is available in the [DETER]Alerts, because somewhere during February, our January will be covered in clouds.

Gotcha. Could you please tell us a bit about Brazil’s environmental regulatory structure and how the Bolsonaro government played a role in this increase in deforestation.

Yes. Yes. For example, Brazil saw an almost 80 percent decrease in deforestation in Amazon between 2004-2012. It’s a cut of 27,000 square kilometers [to]Less than 5,000 km2. Because we did what we did, was first build more science. The DETER program was launched at this time.

More people are coming inside the building [Amazon]These are examples of organized deforestation control. The Amazon Fund, which received money from different countries and companies, was launched to help control deforestation. These make a huge difference in the deforestation trajectory. But, since the beginning, our president here in Brazil has said for everyone that the industrialization and protection of the environment here in Brazil will be completed. [Inaudible]

Are you saying that Bolsonaro’s government is trying to get rid of environmental oversight or people who monitor the Amazon?

Yeah. Yeah. It’s exactly what they say. They cut money, for example, last year, it was this smaller budget for the Ministry of the Environment from the last 20 years, when we make compilation and you’ve applied inflation on this. But it’s the smaller than in the last 20 years, the number of operations to control deforestation and fires in the Amazon was smaller than the last 20 years too.

We saw all the tracts and we were amazed. polygons of deforestationThese polygons make up less than 1% of the total bill. [inaudible]We will continue to destroy the forest together with Congress members who are pushing very hard for the passage of different laws.

Let me give you an example: We have the authorization to vote in emergency for the opening of Indigenous land to mining, hydroelectric plant construction, or rental for agriculture. It’s important to say that the states here in, in the Amazon, or in Brazil, have responsible responsibilities to do to do cultural [mitigation]Unfortunately, they have less money than federal government to combat deforestation. In some states, the government and the state governments have no interest in making these operations to stop deforestation.

So they say they want to build a hydroelectric plant on Indigenous land?

Yes, because we have laws today, and we have international presupposes that Brazil is signatory, as an example, international [agreement]It says that if you are going to construct any type of infrastructure that could impact Indigenous land, the guys must be free, prior informed, and have the power and authority to stop the project.

They want to seize this power. The Indigenous people can be heard [to]They do not have the right to, for instance, deny hydroelectricity. [plant]to be built on their land. Or a mining company goes in-house to mine gold, aluminum, or any other commodity. Eh, it’s [projects]This is how the president can authorize without consultation. They will not be able to determine what they want in their own lands. This is another law, another very bad example that we have, it’s already passed in the deputy house, it’s in the congress, in the Senate house for [consideration.] It’s a project of law that will give can give up 2,500 hectares of land for those that make a land grabbing in the Amazon, [it has passed chambers of the legislature and is the Senate for a vote]. It means that unfortunately it’s not only in the federal government, but in the congress house too, that we have people pushing for bad laws that [will increase]Amazon deforestation has been a significant issue.

And so basically what you’re saying is, Bolsonaro’s government has done every, everything it can to dismantle environmental regulations. And now, lawmakers are also trying to remove protections. It is also threatening to remove Indigenous people’s rights to a veto power and to be consulted if destructive projects are discovered in the Amazon rainforest.

Yes, exactly. The result is exactly what we are seeing. Since 2019, the deforestation skyrockets, it’s almost double from what we saw 2018 from what we saw in 2021, these go up and up. We have 629 square kilometers if you look at January and Februari this year. It was 206 last year. This means that we saw three times more deforestation during the first two months of our Amazonian year. And this is very, very dangerous, because we are in the middle of the rainy season when we supposed to have a decrease in the deforestation, because it’s a lot of rain and that makes it difficult to access points of the forest.

So, if deforestation is happening at a much faster rate, even in the rainy season, when it’s tougher to go and cut down all the trees. What can you tell me about the Indigenous people being threatened by the government, and the land-grabbing companies that want to exploit the natural resources? Who are they? What are they called?

Truth on the Amazon reveals that there are over 200 Indigenous people. We can tell you that at least three of these groups have a problem with illegal mining. Since two years, the gold price has skyrocketed in these wildcat mines. [ago]This makes the Amazon a new gold mine.

We go more to the north of the Amazon in the Roraima States, we have the Yanomami people that in their land, eh, it’s something close to 20,000 illegal mines, that are running on gold mining. We have in the Pará State, on the Tapajós river on three different lengths from the Munduruku indigenous peopleWe also have around 20,000 illegal mines.

We have the Caiapós with the same problem in Mato Grosso State. It is true that there is invading all along the Amazon. When a company wants to go to mining, they have to submit a kind of a license, and say “I would like to be mining in these areas.” When we cover this ask for license with the boundaries of different Indigenous land, some of those are completely overlapping with this license, with this ask for license to mining. Many people, including several indigenous land lands, will be affected by this bill. It is also possible that the environmental license in Brazil may change as proposed by Congress.

So, you’re facing twin threats of deregulation, where it’s easier for the big mining companies to come in and cut down the trees and then extract the metals from the ground. But you’re also facing a massive inundation — and especially on Indigenous lands — of illegal mines. Are they like big companies or are they just rogue operators that go out and dig holes? What is an illegal mine?

All these areas are illegal mines when we fly several times.

They were flown over in a plane.

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. People often think of an illegal miner as a poor man trying to find a small piece of gold. These places are found in Indigenous land. You can see the destruction they have done. They pump the water into soil. These are the methods they use [inaudible] it’s not a kind of small-scale gold mining. No. The government does nothing. We’re talking about 20,000. Because we have the best program to monitor the deforestation of tropical forests in the world, they know who these guys, these guys, are.

It’s possible to know this DETER data either give to us what is the deforestation coming from illegal mining inside the indigenous lands. They then know the exact location. These guys use machines that can cost up to $200,000. When you reach people that are financing these guys, we have politicians, we have business man, we’ll have doctors and different kinds of people that put money to try to make much more money. Once it’s illegal, they will not pay tax. They won’t have to pay labor rights. They don’t need to pay anything to buy the land or license. Once the operation is under way, they simply put their money in and increase it multiple times.

It’s important to say that it’s not only environmental destruction, that these illegal miners cause, they are poisoning the Indigenous people. On the Indigenous land in Para State…90 percent, nine zero, 90 precent of the Munduruku peopleThis mercury is found in the blood. This mercury is known as the “silver” in the blood. [these levels of mercury]They are much higher than what, for instance, the World Health Organization considers acceptable [for] human beings. They use mercury to separate the gold from other minerals. It means that not only this, but these poisonings … all this mercury that is poison goes into the river and on the river, they contaminate the plants and the fish, and fish is the base of the food of these guys.

This contamination comes here where I am in Manaus city, it’s a huge city with 2 million persons, but a lot of fish that we consume here comes from the countryside and comes from some rivers that are affected by illegal mining too.

Mercury is a heavy metal that is often a liquid. And it’s one of the problems with it as a pollutant and as a poison for not only fish and plants, but for human beings is it doesn’t break down in water. It doesn’t break down in the soil. It doesn’t break down in the soil. It doesn’t go away once it enters the environment. That is why it is so terrifying.

Yeah. It’s what we call bioaccumulation of the poison in this case.


Yeah, because of that, it’s all obvious. If you live near a river, you will always choose the biggest fish. Because if you have to get food for your family or for your group of families, it’s pretty common that Indigenous people live in big communities and they have people that go to fish, and they want to get the big one. And because of these, you have a lot of accumulation because they take time to grow bigger and bigger, and these make a very problematic issue…

So people are eating the largest fish. The mercury is left in the environment and bioaccumulates in fish. When people get tested, they say, “I just want to go through some of the numbers really fast.” You mentioned that 90 percent of these areas have mercury levels above the legal limit.

Yeah. That is a problem. There are instances of illegal mining in some villages. This can lead to a 100 percent increase in the number of cases. This is not Greenpeace’s research. It’s come from a few crews that is the most respectful health [authority]This research is done in Brazil. We collaborated with them to determine the extent of this accumulation in certain fish species. However, we did not get the results that we desired. [data on people living in the areas as well].

Now, I’ve seen videos of Indigenous people protesting in the streets, like in the cities, over deforestation and the illegal mining. How can indigenous people resist this destruction, and how are their activists allies resisting, or what action should be taken to stop this destruction?

Yeah, the Indigenous movement in Brazil, it’s, they are the guys that doing probably the most important work as organization nowadays in Brazil. I think of [an Indigenous activist in Brazil]. I asked Bolsonaro, when she was elected, “What are you going do now with this president?” And she said, “well, have been fighting for our rights and our lands in the last 500 years, what are you going to do now about this new president,” you know?

They have been fighting to protect land rights and cultural rights for everything. [inaudible] in our constitution in 1988 and all the recognizing for the land territories and how the land that they are getting back … but the movement is very strong.

Since 2010, we have been in partnership with them. We participate in the Free Land Camp together. Free Land Camp is the biggest meeting of Indigenous people that’s happening every year in April during one week. Last year, it’s 6,000 of indigenous leadership meeting in Brasilia to protest and to ask for the congress and for the government, for the supreme court to respect the rights and to advance in the demarcation of Indigenous land. Health deserves more attention. We have a big problem with COVID in Indigenous territory.

Did you hear COVID?

COVID yes. Yeah. They lose lots and lots of Indigenous people by COVID because they do not have access to health care, or they are far away from the cities and the government not take care of them, one thing that’s obligation by our constitution, the government has the obligation to give health, education, good conditions for these people, but this does not happen. And in the last three years, it’s become worse than worse. I just saw a declaration from … one of the oldest and most important, eh, indigenous leadership in Brazil and what they say in the beginning of the, if I’m not wrong, is that the FUNAI, the FUNAI is the national institute of Indigenous people that was supposed to be who takes care about Indigenous rights and try to promote health and education for these people, that they are abandoned by FUNAI, the exact word is FUNAI now don’t like Indigenous people. This is very serious coming from … very, very important Indigenous leadership here in Brazil.

Bolsonaro’s leadership, Indigenous power and the institute that was supposed look out for Indigenous people have been dissolved at a moment when deforestation continues to increase.

Yeah. You also attack the congress with these laws increasing deforestation and those that have the application for Indigenous rights and land territories, Land rights. It just doesn’t work. [lawmakers]This has resulted in a significant decrease in the amount of money that was donated to this foundation. These words are now that they don’t like Indigenous people and they are bothered at FUNAI.

Oh. The United Nations and experts all over the world agree that it is crucial that we empower Indigenous people to protect their land and ensure that they are protected from illegal mining and heavy cattle grazing. Without them, the carbon sink is gone and the trees are cut down. Could you tell us more about the climate consequences of this? How does the Amazon rainforest help us all to avoid climate change?

Well. There are at least a few ways that Amazon can help you. The first thing, most obvious Amazon, it’s a tropical rainforest and they regulate how the climate and how much humidity we have here in South America. Flying rivers are a mechanism that pushes all the humidity we have in the region and goes through South America to make a kind irrigation on the largest states that produce soy, rice, corn or any other product. It means it’s about food security, too. Secondly, the forest it’s a huge, it’s a huge carbon stock.

Like a carbon sink?

Yeah, it’s a carbon sink, they observed, but they have a lot of carbon or wrapped up in it [inaudible]. It takes Amazon long to grow.

Toxic fumes are released when you cut and blow. Deforestation was the main cause of greenhouse gas emissions in Brazil, as you can see. The reason is that once they cut, they then burn the forest to make use of this land. The vast majority of the Amazon rainforest is now used for pastoral purposes, such as to raise cattle and beef.

Produce cows and beef, and that’s what’s known as slash and burn right? They cut down trees, then burned them, and then turn them into cattle farms.

Yeah, slash and burn, it’s a more traditional use that we have here, a small patch to produce maybe some corn or potatoes, whatever. These are patches of deforestation ranging from 2,000 to 6,000 hectares. Just to have an idea, it’s necessary to have $200 U.S. dollars to make one hectare of [cleared forest.] If you have money to do these in 2,000, 3,000, 5,000 hectares, it means that it’s someone that have a lot of money. It’s farmers, or either land grabbers that just cut the forest and make a way to get a kind of a piece of paper that they call a property paper and sell this area.

It’s important to note that the last year, more than 40 percent of the deforestation in the Amazon is happening in areas that it’s a government property but do not have any designation. That means that you have a land that’s part of the federal government or state government, and they do not create a protected area for Indigenous land, to give these small farmers land to produce, these people just come inside these areas and it’s stolen, that is despite our procedures because if it’s part of the federal government, it belongs to me and for everyone, but these guys are just stealing these lands and making a lot of deforestation.

So basically, land grabbers are coming in, they’re just taking public lands that are supposed to be owned by the government and the people of Brazil, and they’re cutting down the trees, they’re burning them, and they’re either flipping it and selling it to farmers. Or the farmers are simply coming in and using the land.

Yeah. Yeah, exactly. They can either sell them or the farmer can do it.

What can the United States do to support these Indigenous peoples? Because this is a threat for the Indigenous peoples who live there. But as you mentioned, they’ve been fighting this struggle for 500 years, this is just the latest phase of that struggle. How can we help them? What advice would you give to Americans who are concerned about this matter? It directly affects Indigenous people, but it also affects the climate.

Yeah. There are many ways to support. First know about what’s happening in the Amazon. It’s so important for humanity. We will not be able to achieve the Paris agreements goals without the Amazon. So, know what is happening. Make pressure on your own candidates that that they’re not allowed, for example, to buy products of Brazil that come from deforestation or come from Indigenous rights violations. Make pressure on the company, “ah, you are buying Brazilian soy or Brazilian beef?” To be sure that they can guarantee that these not come from deforestation, that these not come from Indigenous a rights violation.

It’s possible demonstrate support on social media, this kind of cyber activism and recognize that Amazon has to be preserved and Indigenous rights have to be preserved here in Brazil and all around the world.

Romulo, thank You so much for this very critical update from Amazon rainforest and for joining me here on Climate Front Lines.

We appreciate your invitation. I hope I can help to make a difference in the Amazon. And I hope that we can this year change this, it’s a very important to us here in Brazil. We have election… We are asking for our allies here and our activists here and our people, to think about the future that we want, a future with Amazon or a future without Amazon, to vote on people that can and promise that they will preserve the Amazon in the Indigenous rights.

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