In the last two months the Amazon rainforest, with alarming news of the spread of thousands of fires, has been at the center of the news both in Brazil and internationally. It has been a succession of contradictory data, unclear information, statements by heads of state (and by Pope Francisco himself) exchanges of insults and provocations among theoretically friendly leaders of nations.

In other words, a chaos in which it is difficult to understand which data are reliable and above all the dimensions of what is defined as “Amazonian emergency”.


The origin of everything

A bit of history… In 1850, during the reign of Don Pedro II, the lands not inhabited, without possession, unused and therefore uncultivated.they were defined by law as “returned lands” (terras devolutas). They were in all respects state lands. With the birth of the republic, article 64 of the Brazilian Federal Constitution of 1891 transferred the dominion of these lands to the states of the Federation, with the exception of those of the border. In 2006, a census of the IBGE (Brazilian ISTAT) revealed the presence of approximately 310 million hectares of “returned lands” (equivalent to 1/3 of the European land surface). The current Constitution defines them as lands “indispensable for the defense of borders, fortifications and military constructions, federal roads and environmental preservation“. More specifically, “the lands returned necessary for the protection of environmental ecosystems are unavailable”.

Obviously all this fertile land rich in mineral deposits (including gold and diamonds), concentrated mainly (but not only) in the Amazon region, has since aroused the greed of many unscrupulous people, who have done their utmost to find the most varied solutions or to try to circumvent the law or to exploit the resources in a completely criminal way.

Thus arose the phenomenon of the “land grabbing” (grilagem), a system of usurpation of land returned through a process of illegally transforming it into private possessions. In practice, the “grabbers” (grileiros) produce false documents to prove that the land in question originally (before 1850) was not public but private. The original method of “aging” forged documents? Place the fake in a box full of crickets, which – with the action of the jaws and their own excrement – give the document an ancient appearance. Without any original register (apart from the parish ones, which have no legal validity, however) and with the condescension (if not explicit complicity) of the state authorities, the returned lands became, as if by magic, private.

Today the term “grilagem” defines not only the falsification of documents but also all the new forms of usurpation of the returned lands: violent occupations (often with killing of those who oppose), illegal exploitation of mineral resources (the “garimpos”, open-cast mines devastating the forest), fires to transform the forest into pasture or arable fields.

Recently a new and violent mechanism of occupation of the public lands has emerged: fazendeiros interested in lands already subject to “traction” constitute armed militias, which – with threats, violence and death – expel the proprietary fazendeiros (in their turn illegal), appropriate of the land that they rent in lots to families of farmers. Once land ownership has been regularized, families resell the land to fazendeiros at an affordable price for all. This is how a real recycling of the earth takes place, at this point legally privatized.


How to devastate the forest – 1: illegal plant cutting

The Amazon rainforest is considered by all to be a world heritage site, essential for maintaining the balance of the earth’s ecosystem. For indigenous peoples it is the natural habitat from which to draw resources for their survival in a sustainable manner. But not everyone sees it the same way. The resources that it hosts, and often hides, are immense. According to an estimate made in 2013, the Amazon rainforest is made up of 309 billion trees. A single specimen of jatoba or ipe, whose wood is of the highest quality, can be worth tens of thousands of dollars. Despite the fact that trees can be cut in private properties (always strictly regulated in terms of quantity and frequency, with reforestation obliged), the trees in the returned lands are tempting to many. This is why the illegal “madereiros” organize incursions strongly organized in the forest: they open clandestine roads to allow trucks and heavy vehicles to go to the chosen area, construct housing for the workers (tens) and sawmills for the treatment of illegally cut logs. The mess can last weeks. Once the most precious trees are cut and taken away, the field is dismantled, the vehicles are withdrawn and often the remains of the area’s vegetation are burned, to “clean” it and prepare it for grazing.


How to devastate the forest – 2: the fire for cleaning the area

Many small rural landowners do not have the resources and machinery necessary to clean up their property from weeds and unproductive vegetation. For them, fire is the fastest and cheapest solution. The problem is that often, especially in times of drought, the fire goes out of control and extends beyond private properties, burning acres and hectares of forest. It is estimated that in Brazil, in the first 8 months of 2019, almost 94,000 fires were identified, more than half of them in the Amazon biome, most of which were of malicious origin.

In this case, however, the issue takes on a social and not just environmental/criminal character, and is one of the most difficult things to explain to rich countries. During the period of the dictatorship (1964-1985) the Brazilian government, with the slogan “a land without men for landless men”, encouraged peasant families to venture into states like Rondonia, to make their fortune by working the land. Even today, around 80% of the properties in Rondonia have an area of ​​less than 100 hectares. “The colonization was done with chainsaw, fire and cow’s hoof”, they say in that region.

With the advent of democracy, the small owners have been abandoned to their fate, without subsidies, credit, technical assistance, technology and equipment.

With the creation of the concept of “reserva legal” (of which I will speak more fully in another chapter of this article) in 1989, the Brazilian State has introduced legislation that greatly helps the preservation of the Amazon forest, but at the same time brought to its knees. the thousands of small rural owners.

With the election of Bolsonaro, the hope of these owners has rekindled: finally, in their vision, a president more concerned with people than with the preservation of the environment. And in fact one of the first statements of Bolsonaro, newly elected, was that the preservation of the environment cannot be an obstacle to Brazil’s economic growth and that farmers cannot earn a living honestly by facing oppressive environmental restrictions.

For many farmers these words were a kind of “green light”, a veiled authorization to take possession of the protected part of the Amazon forest, with relative deforestation and arson.


Controls: at the end, who applies the law?

The one described in the previous chapters seems to be a Far-West scenario, in the sense of territory almost without rules, where the law of the strongest dominates. The laws are there (even good ones), but the territory is immense and the resources available to the control bodies (Ibama, Funai, ICMBio, etc.) are less and less. The Environment Minister, Ricardo Salles, in April of this year cut the funds of Ibama (Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis), the main government body for environmental preservation, by 24%. In May it cut 26% of the annual funds allocated to the ICMBio (Instituto Chico Mendes de Biodiversidade) and threatens to close 6 of the institute’s 11 regional bases.

The feeling of impunity encourages the actions of deforestation and fire: for an identified and punished criminal action, there are hundreds of which are known after the fact.

To this we must add that the economic strength of the groups that control deforestation and the “triggering” of the land is so powerful that it allows itself to have on payroll many of the inspectors who would have the task of repressing their actions. And several times, where corruption does not come, violence arrives: according to research published by the NGO Human Rights Watch, the mafia of illegal deforestation in the Amazon has led to the killing of at least 300 people in the last 10 years. And only 9 of these cases (4%) arrived at the Court.


Indigenous peoples

The 1988 Brazilian Constitution recognizes that the Indians are the first and natural lords of the lands. It is an almost sacred right, prior to any other right. 98% of the indigenous lands are concentrated in the Amazon, which corresponds to about 21% of the forest. The constitution gives indigenous peoples the right to use the resources of their lands to meet their needs and needs and there have never been any cases of Indians who have deliberately devastated their habitat. But when unscrupulous “madereiros” and “grileiros” arrive, the indigenous presence is a relative obstacle: those who try to oppose it, even legally, are subject to threats and violence and the land invaded, disadvantaged and destroyed.

Bolsonaro‘s position on indigenous lands is a further aggravating factor, given that according to him there are too few Indians for much land, which in this way cannot be exploited economically. Despite the demarcation of indigenous lands is defended by the Constitution, it is undeniable that Bolsonaro’s posture opens the side (when it does not justify) to criminal invasions and the destruction of the forest.


The numbers of deforestation and fires

In the month of August there was a chaotic ballet of numbers and percentages on the growth of deforestation and on fires in the Amazon. On one side national and international NGOs, NASA and ESA and on the other the Brazilian government. In the month of August, the president of the INPE (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais), Ricardo Galvão, was dismissed by President Bolsonaro for publishing, without the Government’s prior consent, data showing signs of growth in deforestation in 2019.

In reality, statistically reliable data for 2019 are not yet available, but from the graph below it can be seen that in the last 10 years the phenomenon of deforestation – although significant – is much lower than in the last two decades.

Tab.1 – Annual deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon (in km2)


Unfortunately, the latest satellite surveys of both INPE and NASA show a 82-85% increase in fires in the first 8 months of 2019 compared to the same period in 2018. And their location, often concentrated along the main arteries of communication (BR-163 and BR-230), indicates the their malicious origin (although 2019 is one of the hottest and dry years of the last century).


A myth to debunk: the Amazon is not “the lung of the world”

Certainly the Amazon is a biome of extraordinary importance, which hosts the world’s greatest biodiversity, which has exceptional resources and which plays a fundamental role in regulating the climate, but is not significantly responsible for the production of oxygen. The real culprits are marine algae, which in their organic cycle produce about 55% of the oxygen present in the biosphere. In the process of photosynthesis of plants, much of the oxygen they produce is in turn consumed by them: that is, plants also breathe, consuming oxygen and emitting carbon dioxide. Thus, the relationship between oxygen production and consumption tends to be almost irrelevant.


The “Law against environmental crimes”

Issued in 1998, it severely punishes those responsible for crimes against flora and fauna, those who pollute, those who build in areas preserved without authorization and in general those who violate legal rules regarding the use, protection and preservation of the environment.

The law is modern and complete, but unfortunately effective enforcement by the supervisory bodies is missing, be they governmental entities (such as IBAMA) or police. Despite this ineffectiveness, Bolsonaro has repeatedly questioned the “environmental fines factory” which penalizes farmers in particular and in general those who must submit to the need to issue environmental licenses to carry out activities that have a significant impact on the territory.


The “Legal Reserve Areas”

A law included in the Forest Code, little known abroad, says a lot about the commitment of the Brazilian state in the preservation of its territory. It is the law that defines the Legal Reserve Areas (ARL) or the percentage of land that must necessarily be preserved within private rural properties. This percentage can range from 80% (in the Amazon regions) to 20% in all other areas (with the exception of the Cerrado where it is 30%).

For example, those who own a 1000-hectare rural property in an Amazon region can only allocate 200 for cultivation: in the other 800 hectares they must maintain native vegetation, promoting biodiversity and protecting fauna and flora.

Landowners, large and small, are therefore the first protagonists of the preservation of the Brazilian territory and of the great biodiversity that it hosts.


What can the future hold?

The considerations I wrote almost a year ago on the same subject are still valid and for this reason I propose them again:

Although Bolsonaro may want to encourage greater exploitation of Brazilian natural resources, even to the detriment of the great environmental capital of Brazil (and the whole world), the legal limitations are very wide. He could hardly find consent to suggest to Parliament a change in the Forest Code or the Law against environmental crimes.

Furthermore, if it were to succeed, the export of agricultural and breeding products would face heavy international retaliation, causing the opposite effect to that desired. No country (not even China, wrongly considered less rigorous on environmental issues) that today imports Brazilian agribusiness products would authorize imports from a country that does not comply with internationally defined environmental parameters.

A more obvious risk comes from the possibility of weakening the role of some control bodies (eg IBAMA) which today guarantee, at least in part, that the existing laws are applied.

It is precisely in the “gray areas”, in turning a blind eye to abuse, in tolerating the failure to fulfill legal obligations that hides the great danger. As in other areas (human rights, freedom of expulsion, etc.), the role of controlling the judiciary and the supervision of national and international non-profit organizations will be fundamental.