Brazil Launches Military Operations To Combat Deforestation In The Amazon

On May 11th, Brazil’s government deployed thousands of soldiers to combat deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. The troops are working with the police, environmental officials, and other government agencies to prevent wildfires and illegal destructive activities (such as logging). According to a Reuters article dated May 11th, the operation costs 60 million reais ($10 million USD). It involves 3,800 troops establishing bases in three Amazon cities to prevent illegal logging and other crimes. The same article notes that the military will remain in the Amazon for 30 days. Although, the government could extend their deployment with the upcoming dry season (leaving the Amazon prone to wildfires). To prevent the spread of COVID-19, each base contains five specialists in chemical warfare to ensure that the virus does not spread among troops or citizens. The action comes after the rate of deforestation of the Amazon was reported to be at an 11-year high last year, according to government data (from the National Space Research Institute). This sparked domestic and international outcry over concerns the Brazilian government was not doing enough to protect the Amazon.

In a news conference, Vice President Hamilton Mourão explained, “We have no doubt this problem [deforestation] will continue to exist. We don’t consider this the best job for the armed forces, to be always engaged in this type of action, but unfortunately it’s the means we have to limit these crimes from happening.” He added, “We don’t want to be labeled by the rest of the world as an environmental villain.” This suggests that not protecting the Amazon comes at a significant reputational cost to Brazil. Paulo Barreto, a senior researcher for the conservation group Imazon, commented on the effect of coronavirus on preventing deforestation: The pandemic has not helped because there are apparently less agents out there and illegal loggers obviously don’t care about the virus in remote areas of the Amazon.” Suely Araujo, an advisor to advocacy group Climate Observatory, argued that environmental agencies should lead the fight against deforestation over the military: “The military can help in certain situations, but in relation to environmental agencies, they should be consulted and not subordinated. It’s the environmental agencies that have expertise in this area, who know how to carry out operational planning and strategy.”

According to DW, environmental activists have blamed President Jair Bolsonaro for the surge in deforestation despite his actions to combat deforestation through the military. DW’s article describes Bolsonaro as a “climate change skeptic”. A BBC article dated May 8th notes that Bolsonaro has argued that increasing mining and farming in the Amazon can lift populations living in the Amazon out of poverty. In addition, Brazil’s environmental agency IBAMA has faced staffing and budget cuts under Bolsonaro’s presidency. The article adds that Bolsonaro has criticized IBAMA for dealing excessive fines for illegal activities in the Amazon. A Reuters article dated April 29th notes that environmental activists see IBAMA as being critical to preventing deforestation in the long run. The basis of this is that the military can only help in the short run by stopping the spread of wildfires and eliminating illegal activities. While reducing poverty is a goal for most countries, the environmental effects of deforestation are obvious and damaging in the long run.

According to Brazilian government data, deforestation in the Amazon has increased by 55% from January to April compared with the same period in 2019. And, as mentioned above, deforestation rates reached an 11-year high last year according to the same data. Satellite images from the National Space Research Institute show that more than 1,200 square kilometers of forest was destroyed from January to April this year. The data also shows that last year, over 10,000 square kilometers of forest were destroyed by wildfires and illegal destructive activities. President Bolsonaro also deployed the military last year to combat deforestation through a decree known as the Guarantee of Law and Order. According to Reuters, the losses were still significant despite military presence. This prompted international outcry over Brazil’s inadequate protection of the Amazon.

It is a step in the right direction that President Bolsonaro is working to combat deforestation. According to NASA, deforestation significantly affects the carbon cycle. Felled trees can no longer absorb carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, leading to higher levels of carbon dioxide and rising global temperatures. Thus, any action taken to combat deforestation is a positive. It may be argued that Bolsonaro should allow environmental agencies to lead the fight against deforestation given their expertise. No matter the method, it should be Brazil and the international community’s goal to preserve the Amazon and rainforests around the world to mitigate the effects of climate change.