President Jair Bolsonaro thought Brazil's military could foil loggers and arsonists destroying vast swathes of the Amazon rainforest. Environmental agents, government officials and others close to the deployment told Reuters why it failed.
Brazil’s military fails in key mission: halting Amazon deforestation
BRASÍLIA–Two years ago, the Amazon was aflame, ravaged by arsonists and loggers. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro went to war.
Air Force C-130 aircraft spewed water and flame retardant over the burning jungle. The effort, in August 2019, launched a new and unprecedented military deployment to quell fires in the world’s largest rainforest. He called it Operation Green Brazil.
“I am authorizing an operation to guarantee law and order,” said Bolsonaro, the far-right president and former paratrooper, announcing the operation. “The armed forces, they readily took action,” he added in a separate speech.
But after 19 fruitless months, the military has failed to safeguard the Amazon, a jungle larger than Western Europe that scientists consider a crucial buffer against climate change. Government data show that deforestation last year surged to a 12-year high. Areas equal to seven times the size of London were destroyed.
And Operation Green Brazil has raised the white flag.
Late last year, Vice President Hamilton Mourão, a retired Army general and Bolsonaro’s deforestation czar, announced that efforts to protect the rainforest in April will revert to Ibama, the civilian environmental-protection agency the deployment had bigfooted despite its history of success combating deforestation.
The military deployment was part of the Bolsonaro toolkit. In his two-plus years in office, Bolsonaro has turned to soldiers to fill everything from cabinet posts to executive suites at state-run companies to Brazil’s troubled response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The failure, according to environmental agents who accompanied soldiers during the deployment, was all but inevitable. The military, they argue, has neither the tools, the mentality, nor the structure to target and pursue those responsible for the destruction. Its primary objective, national defense, shares few similarities with the law-enforcement expertise and forestry know-how required deep in the jungle, they say.
What’s more, many in Brazil’s military, as well as Bolsonaro himself, have historically called for developing the Amazon. They tout the rainforest’s potential as a driver of economic growth and argue that developing the region can help keep covetous foreign powers from using its land, water, and minerals first. Early in the administration, another former general and top advisor to Bolsonaro shocked many with a video in which he called for damming an Amazon tributary and extending a grain corridor toward Suriname. The project would have quintupled the human population of the northern Amazon, he said.
Izabella Teixeira, a leftist and former environment minister, likened the environmental views espoused by Bolsonaro to those of the military dictatorship that sought to populate the Amazon five decades ago. “The current Brazilian government has a 1970s mentality related to natural resources,” Teixeira said. “That to control the forest means to cut it down.” Bolsonaro “thinks that is development.”
Spokespeople for Bolsonaro and the vice presidency referred inquiries for this story to the Defense Ministry. Vice Admiral Carlos Chagas, the ministry official authorized to speak about the deployment, told Reuters the mission to repel those destroying the jungle has been a success. Destruction in recent months has been slightly lower than a year earlier, although still near historic highs for a time of year when logging traditionally wanes.
Operation Green Brazil is both a defense of the environment and the country’s territorial integrity, he said. Environmental agents are suitable for routine enforcement of forestry laws, he explained, but the destruction and lawlessness got so bad that the heft and unifying power of the armed forces became necessary.
“Sovereignty means making sure the government of the people knows exactly what is going on inside its own territory,” Chagas said in an interview. “The presence of the military,” he added, “has always been a factor of unification and a factor keeping the country together.”
The ministry declined requests by Reuters over the past year to accompany troops on the deployment. For this report, the news agency interviewed dozens of government officials, Ibama agents, and others close to the deployment. Their previously unreported accounts, providing the most detailed look yet at the mission, portray a military both ill-prepared and reluctant for a task seen as increasingly urgent by scientists, environmentalists and other governments worldwide.
Environmental agents told Reuters that the unwieldy mobilization of soldiers slowed operations and curtailed their ability to catch wrongdoers. Instead of rapid raids with a few 4x4 vehicles and a handful of trained agents, outings with the military required big convoys of slow, heavy vehicles. Officers, agents added, nixed many of the ideas and tactics, like the destruction of logging equipment, they usually employ to stop deforestation.
For the people of Latin America’s biggest, most populous country, the operation illustrates the limits of Bolsonaro’s tough-talking approach to governing. Despite promises to restore law, order and prosperity, Brazil remains wracked by a feeble economy, high rates of violent crime and the second-highest COVID death toll in the world. The Amazon deployment, his opponents say, is one of many examples in which Bolsonaro’s bombast obscures the lack of a real solution.
“The military taking over the Amazon is a strong image,” said Marina Silva, another former environment minister, whose success in slashing deforestation early this century made her an icon of the global environmental movement. “But in practice it’s weakening enforcement.”
Consider an operation last June that included surprise inspections of lumber yards in the eastern Amazonian state of Pará. Logging is legal in some parts of the rainforest. A web of regulations defines what trees can be felled and where. But ensuring compliance is tricky. Loggers and sawmill operators often try to disguise unauthorized wood as legal.
Soldiers, one Ibama agent told Reuters, didn’t know what to look for. During one inspection, sawmillers sought to pass off piles of castanheira, a restricted species, as jequitibá, a wood that can be cut legally. “I can identify it,” the agent said, “but a soldier can’t. You need study and practical experience.”
The agent, like most other environmental officials who spoke with Reuters, asked not to be identified by name. His account was similar to those of nine other agents from Ibama and ICMBio, a sister agency that guards Brazil’s natural parks. All 10 agents said the armed forces hindered more than helped their work.
Chagas, the Defense Ministry official, recognized that soldiers could in fact lack the knowledge needed for environmental enforcement. “They received this task,” he said, “and are doing the best they can.”
The ministry touts a high value of fines levied during the deployment as an indicator of success. Since last May, the ministry said, various agencies operating under the aegis of the operation have imposed roughly 3.3 billion reais, or about $600 million, in fines. The agencies include Ibama, ICMBio and local regulators, but not the military itself, because it has no authority to impose fines.
No comparable figure for past fines is available because the agencies historically haven’t collated sanctions. The Defense Ministry declined to break down its tally. Ibama, by far the largest of the environmental agencies and the one that normally levies most of the penalties in the Amazon, imposed 1.6 billion reais in fines in the region during the period, according to public Ibama records. The amount is less than half the total claimed by the ministry.
Regulators with experience in the region question the military’s figures.
Because collecting is notoriously difficult, they say, the government will likely obtain only a sliver of the assessed penalties. The ministry’s total also includes fines by the Federal Highway Police, better known for speeding tickets than fighting deforestation, even if patrols at times stop trucks transporting illegal lumber. “They are taking credit for fines given out by anyone,” said Suely Araújo, a former Ibama president. “That’s why it’s so high.”
Also high, critics say, is the cost of Operation Green Brazil itself.
According to the Defense Ministry, the government paid a total of about 530 million reais, roughly $96 million, for the deployment. That figure equates to over eight times Ibama’s modest 64.5 million real annual budget for fighting environmental crimes. Coming on top of steady cuts to Ibama’s budget under Bolsonaro, environmental agents say the operation wasted resources.
“Take an environmental agent or two, add 20 soldiers, the idea seems impressive,” said another Ibama agent. “The thing is, these soldiers have no function whatsoever in the jungle.”
“The fire that burns most”
The Amazon, a dense forest comprising the river of the same name and its many giant tributaries, makes up about half of Brazil’s territory. It forms a border of more than 10,000 km with seven other South American countries. Despite continuing development in Brazil and neighboring countries, about 80% of its original woodland remains.
For Brazilian strategists concerned with national defense, the region has long been an obsession.
To get a greater foothold in the wilderness, the two-decade military dictatorship that ended in the 1980s made “integration” of the Amazon a priority. The regime built roads, dams and other infrastructure there and provided cheap credit for farmers, ranchers and others hoping to blaze a new frontier. The aim, in addition to creating a strategic presence across the Amazon to deter invasion, was to better connect the region with Brazil’s more populous south.
“Integrar para não entregar,” rang the refrain among senior officers at the time: “Integrate so as not to surrender.”
Although settlement since has been more closely regulated, loggers, ranchers and other would-be developers continuously push limits. Loggers are often the vanguard, felling prized hardwoods and leaving stumps and less valuable trees behind. Farmers and speculators usually follow, razing what’s left of the forest, often with fire, then forging deeds or other paperwork to feign ownership.
Because of the scale of the region and the obstacles to traveling within it, catching culprits is difficult. Satellite imagery in recent years has made it easier to pinpoint destruction, but authorities often arrive well after offenders have left. Even when Ibama was better funded, and supported by administrations focused on deforestation, it has never been able to stop illegal destruction outright.
Bolsonaro, a former Army captain turned Congressman now 66 years old, won Brazil’s presidency in late 2018.
Riding a populist wave similar to that which lifted former U.S. President Donald Trump, he ran as a renegade. He lambasted environmentalists, feminists, and human rights activists. He praised the developmentalist bent of the military regime and dismissed the well-documented torture, disappearance and killing of political opponents during that era.
“The military period wasn’t a dictatorship,” he told a national television network a day after his election.
Upon his inauguration in January 2019, Bolsonaro stacked his cabinet with military men. A third of his ministers at present are retired officers. Recently, Bolsonaro said he will replace the chief executive of Petróleo Brasileiro SA, the mammoth state-run oil company, with a former Army general with no experience in the sector.
“The military taking over the Amazon is a strong image. But in practice it’s weakening enforcement.”
Bolsonaro immediately dusted off old dictatorship-era development projects.
He pledged to repave the BR-319, a highway meant to connect the Amazonian city of Manaus with the rest of Brazil. The highway, long a joke among truckers and skeptics of efforts to conquer the Amazon, succumbed to rain and heat after the military inaugurated it in 1976.
Maynard Marques de Santa Rosa, a retired four-star general and Bolsonaro’s secretary of strategic affairs then, released the video in which he proposed reviving projects that would swell the population of the northern Amazon. His proposal ultimately stalled. Santa Rosa resigned later that year. He didn’t respond to a Reuters request for comment.
Bolsonaro’s rhetoric and push to pursue projects emboldened many, nevertheless. When the annual rains eased in May 2019, loggers and arsonists took to the forest.
By July, deforestation in the Amazon had soared to levels not seen in well over a decade, prompting international outrage and criticism from foreign leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron. By the time Bolsonaro mobilized troops that August, areas with a combined size equal to Denmark had burned.
The president was defiant. “The fire that burns most is our sovereignty,” he tweeted on August 23, warning foreigners to butt out of Brazil’s business.
That same day he launched Operation Green Brazil.
The size of the deployment has varied, depending on the needs of individual operations. Roughly 3,800 soldiers were mobilized, the Defense Ministry said last year, employing as many as 110 vehicles, 20 boats, and 12 aircraft. Bolsonaro put Mourão, the vice president and former general, in charge of the operation and of a new “Amazon Council” to oversee national policy in the region.
Staffers at Ibama and ICMBio were indignant. Neither of the two agencies was invited to the council when it launched. The Environment Ministry – previously so influential it once convinced Brazil’s powerful central bank to block financing for people illegally clearing woodland – was now taking orders from soldiers.
“Practically impossible with the military”
Throughout the operation, environmental agents say they have been flabbergasted by military decisions.
Last May and June, in the center-west state of Mato Grosso, troops set up field operations near the already-developed farming areas of Sinop and Juara. But the most intense clearing at the time was at least 275 km northwest, two Ibama agents told Reuters.
The Defense Ministry said troops initially deployed further away because state authorities had already established a strong presence near the destruction. Still, as troops redeployed and moved closer to the action throughout July, more than 300 sq km, nearly twice the area of Washington, D.C., had been cleared in Mato Grosso, satellite data show.
Even when troops were in position, missions moved slowly.
In mid-June, a team of Ibama officials rumbled down a jungle road toward a plot near the Rio Novo, a river in the central Amazon, according to three agents involved with the mission. Days before, researchers at INPE, Brazil’s space research institute, spotted new clearings in imagery of the area. Hoping to surprise loggers in action, Ibama notified the military, the agents told Reuters.
Instead of making a quick and stealthy sortie to the hotspot, however, the agents had to mobilize with 20 heavily armed soldiers in three five-ton Volkswagen trucks. The trip would have been possible in two hours with fewer people and nimbler equipment; it took twice as long. It also drew more attention along the way, the agents said.
When they arrived, the agents found 10 sq km of destruction and a freshly abandoned logging camp. Lookouts, they believe, had tipped off the loggers. “Catching someone red-handed is practically impossible with the military,” one of the agents said.
“It has been very ineffective.”
Chagas, of the Defense Ministry, said if soldiers slowed missions, their presence in large numbers was nonetheless important because of their capacity to deter violent reactions during raids. “It’s not good to resist or fight back,” he said.
During two weeks of patrols in the area, centered around the longtime logging hub of Novo Progresso, agents caught no offenders in the act. Government data show that more than 30 sq km, an area half the size of Manhattan, was cleared there in those two weeks.
Environmental agents said the military also slowed decisionmaking.
In other missions near Novo Progresso, the three agents said officers disregarded tips for possible raids offered by Ibama’s imaging analysts, who have long experience pinpointing active deforestation. After daily briefings, they said, military superiors would disregard the intelligence and suggest targets of their own, saying analysts at the Defense Ministry had identified them.
The result, the agents said, were delays, indecision, and a lack of cooperation. “There was nothing explained about why not this target, why not the other,” one of the agents said.
The government says any such operation, involving many agencies and coordinated from on high, is bound to leave some frustrated. “Sometimes people in the field, they don't have the big picture,” Chagas told Reuters.
On other missions, arguments ensued over basic tactics used by Ibama to stop destruction.
In northern Pará, three agents and three military officers held a video call to discuss illegal gold mines carved out by interlopers on the Kuruaya indigenous reserve. Travel to and from the mines was causing deforestation. And mercury, a deadly chemical used by miners to extract gold from sediment, was leaking into the reserve’s streams.
The agents, according to one who participated in the discussion, said they needed to raid the mines and destroy equipment. Such summary punishments, on native lands and forest reserves, are authorized under Brazilian law because the equipment is often difficult to remove and the illegality of logging and mining there is beyond question.
Bolsonaro has made clear he disapproves of the tactic, claiming it deprives rural workers of equipment needed to earn a living. The military officers, according to the agent’s account of their deliberation, said they were allowed to cut fuel lines or slash tires but couldn’t completely wreck equipment.
“They said they agreed with us, but they couldn’t disobey a superior order,” the agent said.
The raid didn’t proceed.
Chagas, the admiral, said there could have been a misunderstanding.
Unlike environmental agents, he explained, the military isn’t authorized by law to destroy machinery. “The military isn’t avoiding destroying machinery,” he said. “The destruction is tasked for the agencies.”
Whatever the case, Bolsonaro’s opponents charge, his position on the issue undermined the very rationale behind the Amazon deployment.
Last year, Bolsonaro introduced a bill in Congress to allow mining and commercial farming on indigenous lands. Those areas make up almost a quarter of Brazil’s Amazon. When U.S. President Joe Biden, shortly before his election, warned of “significant economic consequences” for Brazil if it didn’t do more to protect the rainforest, Bolsonaro in a statement condemned “cowardly threats toward our territorial and economic integrity.”
Some opponents see Bolsonaro’s behavior as a wink and a nod for continued destruction.
The deployment “is just for show,” said Carlos Nobre, a leading Brazilian scientist on climate change. “It has been very ineffective.” He noted parallels with deployments of soldiers, untrained in street policing, to combat organized crime in Rio de Janeiro in recent years. Those deployments, too, were widely perceived as failures.
In August, a group of Ibama agents raided a wildcat gold mine on another indigenous reserve in Pará. The raid was one of a handful the agency conducted in the region without direct military involvement. Televised footage showed agents torching excavators and other mining equipment.
The following day, the Defense Ministry halted the intervention. It said further consultations would be necessary with the Munduruku, the local tribe. Ibama agents departed, leaving some of the equipment intact.
Arnaldo Kabá Munduruku, the tribe’s chief, supported the Ibama raid. After it was aborted, the miners returned.
“They’re back,” the chief said. “They’re back.”
Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle and Lisandra Paraguassu in Brasília
Retreat from the Rainforest
By Jake Spring
Graphics: Aditi Bhandari
Video: Rosanna Philpott
Design and photo editing: Pete Hausler and Troy Dunkley
Edited by Paulo Prada