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‘Last-chance saloon’: race to wreck the Amazon as prospect of Bolsonaro defeat looms – The Guardian

Activists suspect criminals are ramping up destruction in ‘last opportunity to deforest without having to pay the price’

As his turboprop plane powered through the skies over the Brazilian Amazon, Roni Lira stared down at scenes of villainous devastation.
Once mighty trees littered the scorched earth like spent matches. Smoke billowed up from recently torched tracts of land. Immense brown gashes scarred areas where mining pits and illegal airstrips had been carved out of supposedly protected Indigenous lands.
“It’s astonishing, isn’t it?” Lira said as the aircraft banked left over a 2,000-hectare sweep of rainforest near the town of Trairão that had been obliterated since June.
“What amazes me is the number of [destroyed] areas of this size – I’ve never seen it before,” Lira added during a 1,000-mile surveillance flight organised by the advocacy group ClimaInfo.
Activists like Lira suspect that the prospect of Jair Bolsonaro’s defeat in October’s presidential election has sparked a last-minute race to raze the jungle, with an unholy trinity of illegal loggers, cattle ranchers and gold miners intensifying their activities before his successor takes office.
“They’ve realised it’s their last opportunity to deforest without having to pay the price,” Lira lamented as he surveyed the desolation below as the number of Amazon fires hit a 12-year high.
“The way they see it, this is the last-chance saloon. Either they do it now, or they do it now.”
South-west of Trairão, the plane crossed the Tapajós River and entered the airspace over the Munduruku Indigenous territory, whose remote jungles have been ravaged by a gold mining frenzy that has poisoned rivers and soils with mercury.
“In the last two months I’ve identified more than 30 new mining areas,” Lira said as the plane navigated between purple dots he had used to mark the recently opened pits on his laptop screen. “There must be many more.”
Activists across the Amazon – a colossal region covering more than 60% of Brazil’s territory – say they fear a similar escalation as the clock runs down on Bolsonaro’s far-right administration.
A chunk of the Amazon larger than Taiwan has already been torn down since Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, with an area nearly twice the size of Tokyo destroyed in the first half of this year.
“This year end is a really worrying period,” said Carlos Travassos, an Indigenous expert who works with a team of rainforest defenders called the Forest Guardians in the Amazon state of Maranhão.
“It’s going to be the final year of this government – or we hope so at least. So there’s this feeling among illegal loggers and those who invade Indigenous lands that they need to try and extract whatever they can. They think that once there’s a change of government the comfort they have enjoyed will come to an end. The impunity they have benefited from will no longer exist.”
That reality meant it was essential such groups stepped up their patrols, Travassos said during a recent anti-logging crackdown in the Araribóia Indigenous territory. “Each day that we can stay out in the field blocking the trespassers might mean helping preserve dozens of trees – hundreds of centuries-old trees in a week,” Travassos said, calling the situation “a race against time”.
The prospect of political change has offered a glimmer of hope to embattled Amazon activists who watched in horror as Bolsonaro slashed funding to environmental and Indigenous protection agencies such as Ibama and Funai and filled them with unqualified stooges. Last week there were calls for Funai’s pro-Bolsonaro president to be sacked after he was recorded offering support to a jailed official who is alleged to have illegally rented Indigenous lands to cattle ranchers.
The frontrunner to beat Bolsonaro, the former leftist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has vowed to fight deforestation and rebuild those institutions if elected. “We will put a complete end to any kind of illegal mining,” Lula, who governed for two terms from 2003 to 2010, vowed recently, promising to make the climate emergency an absolute priority.
Auricelia Arapiun, an Indigenous leader from the Amazon’s Tapajós region, said she considered Bolsonaro so dangerous she had explained the election to her four-year-old son in terms of a battle between superheroes. “I told him: ‘Bolsonaro’s the evil one, the villain, and Lula’s the superhero who’s going to save … the Indigenous people.
“We have a choice between good and evil: Bolsonaro’s evil or Lula’s good,” added Arapiun who wore a badge honoring the British journalist Dom Phillips and the Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira who were murdered in June while reporting on the Amazon crisis.
Marcio Astrini, the head of an umbrella group of NGOs called the Climate Observatory, recently met Lula and said he sensed a genuine determination to rescue Brazil from Bolsonaro’s environmental “hell”.
But the challenges the former union leader would face if elected were far greater than those Lula encountered when he first became president two decades ago.
“[Amazon] crime has become more economically powerful and more politically powerful and the Brazilian government’s ability to tackle such crime is now weaker,” thanks to Bolsonaro’s “sabotage” of environmental safeguards, Astrini warned.
Having cemented political power on a local level, environmental criminals from the Amazon were now seeking to elect federal representatives who could advance their illegal interests in the capital Brasília and scrap laws protecting Indigenous communities and the rainforest from loggers and miners.
“Before, these criminals would run from the police,” Astrini said. “Now, these criminals seek to get elected to congress.”
International support – such as the reactivation of the Amazon Fund to which Germany and Norway suspended contributions in response to Bolsonaro’s stance on deforestation – would be crucial as a new government sought to undo four years of environmental chaos and put Ibama back to work.
“If Bolsonaro wins the election, he will push the Amazon rainforest very close to the point of collapse,” warned Astrini, whose projections suggested a second Bolsonaro term could lead to another 60,000 sq km of deforestation – an area almost the size of Ireland. “We are approaching a critical juncture.”

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