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Ranchers and farmers are destroying the rainforest. Is Bolsonaro to blame?

Activists say Bolsonaro’s policies are leading to the rapid destruction of the rainforest, which they say amounts to “ecocide” and should be considered an international crime.
Every day, thousands of miners, loggers, farmers and ranchers burn or cut roughly 10,000 acres of rainforest, working to satisfy a growing demand for its resources.
Every day, thousands of miners, loggers, farmers and ranchers burn or cut roughly 10,000 acres of rainforest, working to satisfy a growing demand for its resources.NBC News / Photos by Larry C. Price for ICN; Getty Images

This article is part of “The Fifth Crime,” a series on ecocide published in partnership with Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news outlet that covers climate, energy and the environment, and Undark Magazine, a nonprofit, editorially independent digital magazine exploring the intersection of science and society. 

TRAIRÃO, Brazil — Jaim Teixeira surveys his property from the back of a motorcycle, wearing jeans and a long-sleeve, sun-proof shirt to shield him from the jungle’s breathtaking heat. 

It’s the end of the dry season and, like everything and everyone in this part of the Amazon, the lean, 51-year-old rancher is covered in a fine brick-red dust.

Nearby, a plume of smoke rises at the edge of the jungle canopy, heading skyward until it blurs into an indistinct haze. Burning trees crackle and spit. One falls with a whack. Then another. 

Teixeira lit the blaze the previous day to clear grazing land for his cattle. 

“I know it’s illegal,” he says, gesturing toward the smoke. “If I had a salary, I wouldn’t need to do it. But how else can I feed my family?”

Flames consuming a piece of the Amazon rainforest on the property of rancher Jaim Teixeira.Larry C. Price for ICN
Rancher Jaim Teixeira standing atop a charred tree stump on his property near Trairão.Larry C. Price for ICN

The Amazon is enveloping and lush, a place of stupefying richness. But a powerful web of extractive forces is also at work here.

Every day, thousands of miners, loggers, farmers and ranchers burn or cut roughly 10,000 acres of forest, working to satisfy a growing demand for its resources. They are tiny cogs in a global machine that has destroyed nearly one-fifth of the Brazilian rainforest — an area about the size of California — over the last 35 years, driving more than 10,000 plant and animal species toward extinction. 

During an extensive reporting trip through three of the Amazon’s most degraded and deforested states, Inside Climate News met with Indigenous leaders, farmers, ranchers, miners, activists and researchers to talk with them about the destruction and why it continues.  

The sequence of that destruction in the Amazon has for decades unfolded like this: The loggers come first, often followed by miners who use the inroads that loggers have cut in the jungle. Then ranchers move in and graze on the pasture where the trees stood, and farmers plant soy and corn in those pastures. More recently, demand for soy has become so great that parts of the Amazon and the neighboring Cerrado region, a savanna biome that’s critically important for climate stabilization, are being converted directly to soy. American grain traders, including Cargill, Bunge and ADM, have profited from this escalating demand

The Amazon is the biggest in a belt of forests that wraps the planet’s midsection. Its soil and vegetation store 150 billion to 200 billion tons of carbon — roughly five times the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions — helping provide a counterweight to global warming.

If the planet loses the Amazon, it will be almost impossible to maintain that balance. 

“A vast amount of carbon would be converted from organic matter into carbon dioxide, and that would add to the carbon dioxide we’re already putting into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels,” said Scott Denning, a Colorado State University atmospheric scientist. “That would be a catastrophe for humanity and for everything else.”

For about a decade, beginning in 2009, deforestation rates in Brazil, which contains 60 percent to 70 percent of the rainforest, declined and then stabilized after the government imposed stronger protections. But in 2019, with President Jair Bolsonaro’s election, that trend quickly reversed. Since the right-wing former military captain took office, the annual deforestation rate has increased, rising nearly 60 percent from 2020, according to a Brazilian research institute. Bolsonaro has called recent government data on deforestation a “lie.” 

The reversal has been so convincingly tied to Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental policies and rhetoric, his critics say, that advocacy groups, Indigenous tribes and some of the world’s most prominent human rights lawyers believe the president should be prosecuted as a criminal on a par with genocidal dictators or the architects of war crimes. 

So far, four complaints against Bolsonaro have been filed with the International Criminal Court in The Hague, accusing him of crimes against humanity. The complaints could help persuade the court to adopt a new crime — ecocide — as the fifth international crime, along with genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and waging illegal war. It would be the first crime to have nature, not humanity, as the victim, and was defined this year by an independent legal panel as “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and widespread or long-term damage to the environment.”

The complaints to the court will take years to play out. But they bring to the world’s legal stage a longstanding conflict between industries that have exploited the Amazon’s resources and the Indigenous people who’ve lived in the rainforest for millennia. 

The outcome of that conflict now has consequences for the entire planet.

Indigenous tribes in the Amazon are on the front lines of the climate battle, and increasingly, scientific research demonstrates that Indigenous land rights are critical for solving the climate crisis. When tribes have clear ownership of their land, the forest remains intact, and otherwise dangerous carbon stays locked away in roots and soils. 

“Without the forest, we Indigenous people cannot live and humanity cannot live,” Chief Almir Narayamoga Surui, one tribal leader represented in the complaints, said in an interview at his village in the Sete de Setembro reservation. So, he added, Bolsonaro “is making genocide against the world.”

The Bolsonaro administration did not reply to requests for comment from Inside Climate News.

A tractor pulls through a soybean field along the "Soybean Highway" in the state of Mato Grosso. Undisturbed forest lies to the north and west.Larry C. Price for ICN

‘This is what we have to do’

Hundreds of thousands of Jaim Teixeiras live across the Amazon and share a similar story.

As a young man, Teixeira bought some land. Then he bought some more. He got married and had three kids. He built a house with a clay-tile roof and electricity. He now has 140 cattle on 500 acres — small compared to some, but an accomplishment for someone who never went to high school. 

Teixeira doesn’t know where his cattle end up. He sells them in town to a man who brings them north to Santarem or Itaituba. His ranch is just one of tens of thousands that provide cattle for the Brazilian meat industry, with JBS — the world’s largest meat company, headquartered in São Paulo — at the top.

Since the 1960s, when government policies pushed the agricultural frontier deeper into the Amazon, the number of cows in Brazil has exploded. Back then, the Amazon was home to about 5 million cows. Today, it has nearly 90 million beef cattle, nearly half of Brazil’s total of more than 200 million, more than any other country in the world. This explosion of cattle, propelled by a demand for burgers and steaks, is the main driver of the Amazon rainforest’s disappearance. 

The big Brazilian meat companies — JBS, along with Marfrig and Minerva — have promised to stop buying cattle from deforested land. 

A spokeswoman for Marfrig said the company aims to eliminate deforestation throughout its supply chain by 2025 in the Amazon and 2030 in the Cerrado. A spokeswoman for Minerva said “100 percent of purchases made by Minerva Foods are monitored in all operating regions” of Brazil and pointed to a government audit showing high rates of compliance with its deforestation efforts. A spokesman for JBS said the company has “no tolerance for illegal deforestation” and intends to “achieve a completely illegal deforestation-free supply chain by 2025.”

Critics say that these commitments don’t add up to much and that the companies are not taking action fast enough.

Bolsonaro’s anti-environment rhetoric has emboldened ranchers, along with loggers and miners, to clear more rainforest. But burning and cutting virgin forest is still illegal, and federal agencies, though weakened under Bolsonaro, try to punish violators. 

For Teixeira and thousands like him, it’s worth the risk. Tomorrow or the day after, when the flames die down, he’ll plant grass seeds in the ashes and soon his cows will graze there.

“We have no education. We don’t have anything,” he said. “This is what we have to do.”

‘This little piece of forest is protected’

When João Cohen moved to his patch of the Amazon 30 years ago, the place was wild and tangled, with no one around. He reached it on foot, walking a narrow path a couple of miles from the main road that leads to the port city of Santarem.

Now his property is an island of trees surrounded by soybean fields. Cohen, 78, spends most of his time these days fending off offers to buy his land. 

João Cohen moved to his patch of the Amazon 30 years ago to plant manioc. Now his property is surrounded by soybean fields, and he spends most of his time fending off offers to buy his land or preventing his neighbors from encroaching on it.Larry C. Price for ICN

“This little piece of forest is protected,” he said, sitting stern-faced on the porch of his bright blue house. “It’s not for sale. It’s not for sale. How many times can I say ‘No’?” 

The soybean boom in Brazil has transformed the country into the world’s biggest producer of soy, overtaking the United States. Soybean growers have gobbled up giant swaths of the Amazon and the neighboring Cerrado. Roughly half of the Cerrado has been destroyed, much of it for soy and much of it illegally.

A spokeswoman for ADM said the company does not source its products from any newly deforested areas in the Amazon. A spokeswoman for Cargill said that the company is committed to eliminating deforestation from its supply chains “in the shortest time possible” and that it “will not source from farmers who clear land illegally or in protected areas.” The company has “the same expectations of our suppliers,” she said. Bunge did not respond to requests for comment for this article, but has said in past statements that it will eliminate deforestation from its supply chain by 2025.

Most of Brazil’s soy goes to China — more than $20 billion in sales a year — as animal feed for that country’s ever-expanding hog industry, sold to the Chinese by American companies.

The pressure will only ramp up, experts say. Soy farming across Brazil is predicted to grow even more in the coming years, with new “agricultural frontiers” opening up, especially in the north of the country. 

Santarem, near the confluence of the Tapajos and Amazon rivers, sits at the terminus of BR 163 — the so-called Soy Road — which runs 2,200 miles north through the Cerrado and the Amazon basin. In the dry season, from May to October, a disjointed convoy of double-hulled, 90-foot-long tractor-trailers move grain northward along its potholed, deeply rutted surface.  

A massive tandem transport truck carrying soybeans north to the Amazon port city of Santarem passes a political sign promoting Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on the “Soybean Highway” — BR 163.Larry C. Price for ICN

The road stops at the edge of the Tapajos, where a towering grain terminal built by Cargill shuttles soy off to the rest of the world. The terminal has helped make Santarem a prosperous place, with schools, hospitals and infrastructure — a place where an old man like Cohen might be safer than alone, surrounded by soybean fields. His daughter wants her father to move to the city, away from the pressures of the jungle.

He won’t.

“There’s no way anyone will touch my forest,” he said. “No one will ever buy this land. I’ll scare them off like a lost ghost.”

‘People don’t think of the consequences’

Chief Almir Narayamoga Surui, leader of the Paiter-Surui tribe, emerges from his concrete house into a blaring sunny morning and sits on a bench. 

He is holding a basket of worms, called gongo, which he pops into his mouth like peanuts. 

Surui is famous, in Brazil and beyond, for his political activism, and he is considered a hero by his people for appealing to government leaders for support that has helped the tribe survive.    

Surui connected with a team of Paris-based lawyers last year to file the complaint against Bolsonaro because, he said, he believes the president has steamrolled Indigenous rights and weakened environmental protections. 

“The government has an important role to guarantee the future,” he said. “If the government doesn’t accept this duty, it’s an ecocide.”

Chief Almir Narayamoga Suruí, along with another prominent Indigenous leader, Raoni Matuktire, asked the International Criminal Court in January to investigate President Jair Bolsonaro for committing crimes against humanity.Larry C. Price for ICN

Surui is not just angry at Bolsonaro, who, he says, has opened the door to more agribusiness, mining and logging on public and Indigenous land. He is also angry with the corporations that are taking advantage of Bolsonaro’s leniency and funding lobbying groups that are pushing laws to dismantle Indigenous and environmental protections.

“Illegal things happen because there’s a big market. Business gives us profit right away,” Surui said. “People don’t think of the consequences.”

He said he hopes the international court, by making ecocide a crime, can step in, but he knows the court moves slowly.

“I know it will take a long time and I don’t have much hope,” he said. “But I know with this filing the world will learn how unhappy we are with Brazilian politics.”

Walking through the rainforest surrounding the village, he points out a huge tract of forest that was burned by loggers in 2019, in retaliation for the tribe’s resistance to their trespassing. Now coffee, manioc, cupuacu and cacao plants grow there. 

“It’s possible to produce responsibly,” he said. “We don’t need to deforest another inch of the Amazon.”

‘The dream of all miners’

Odacir “Gringo” Leseux has gone to jail three times for mining illegally in the Amazon rainforest. 

“They caught me with diamonds in my hands.” he said, matter of factly. “But that was my job.”

In a suede-brimmed hat, polo shirt and jean shorts, Leseux looks like someone who used to bet on greyhounds at a dog track. Like someone who relies on a little luck.

“Mining is an illusion,” he said. “You only make coins, but you talk about millions. That’s the dream of all miners. It’s all about dreams.”

Odacir "Gringo" Leseux, left, speaks to a miner at the Boa Esperanca gold-mining operation in the jungles outside of Itaituba, Brazil.Larry C. Price for ICN

Leseux is traveling along a road called the Transgarimpeira, or “Trans-miners,” that stretches west off the BR 163, about a 20-hour drive northeast of the Surui territory. He has mined here for years, and like thousands of small-scale miners — known as wildcat miners or “garimpeiros” — he has no plans to stop looking for gems in the rainforest.

In the last several years, an Amazon gold rush has led to more incursions on tribal lands. One recent study found that about 30 percent of the gold mined in Brazil is extracted illegally, and from the beginning of 2019 to the end of 2020, new mining areas destroyed more than 80 square miles of forest. A bill introduced by Bolsonaro would allow more mining on Indigenous land and, if it passes the Brazilian Congress, researchers estimate deforestation could rise another 20 percent.

“Bolsonaro’s father was a wildcat miner,” said Raoni Rajão, a researcher with the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais and a co-author of the study. “He has this perception that wildcat miners are entrepreneurs and heroes.”

Mining doesn’t drive the same high levels of deforestation as soy or cattle, Rajão noted, but it poisons water and is leading to escalating conflicts with Indigenous tribes. “You have violence, the suffering of the Indigenous population,” he said. “That’s the most concerning issue.”

Leseux was a farmer, planting soy and rice, for a little while, but he was lured into gold and diamonds in the late 1980s. Sometimes he wishes he’d stuck with farming, he said.

“I know if I had never left grains, I’d be a rich man today,” he said.

But the thrill of illicit mining is now in his blood. 

“It’s a huge adrenaline high,” he said. “All the time you’re running from the police. But then you get far into the forest and you’re free.”

‘They’re stealing’

Chief Munduruku rides down the Tapajos river in a jon boat, through the valley his ancestors have lived in for hundreds of years. A cluster of machetes rests in the boat’s bow. The chief, his wife and a few relatives sit in the back, drinking coffee from a thermos.

They make outings like this every once in a while, to check on the tribe’s lands, which occupy thousands of acres on either side of the river, a major tributary of the Amazon.  

Over the last 10 years or so, more miners and loggers have crept in, setting up camps and digging for gold or gems, or coming with chainsaws, taking a mahogany tree here, an ipe tree there, eating into the rainforest like termites. The river, unpolluted seven or eight years ago, is now filled with silt, churned up by barges dredging for gold. The water feels and looks like milky tea.

Chief Juarez Munduruku tests his bow while riding along the Rio Jamanxim to check on reports of illegal timber cutting on tribal lands.Larry C Price for ICN

“The destruction — we know it’s going on everywhere,” the chief said before the excursion. “Deforestation is coming from one side, fire from the other.”

The boat arrives at the river’s edge. A man approaches, saying he’s there to gather supplies from a camp about 30 miles (50 kilometers) away. He apologizes to the chief for being on his land. Later, they see the contents of the man’s pickup truck: a chainsaw, engine oil, diesel and salt, used to preserve food during long stays. At the base of some trees nearby is a stack of palm hearts — harvested illegally. 

The chief is a mild-mannered man, with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair that suggests business. But as his boat pulls away from the landing, his normally placid face turns cloudy. He bites down on a macaw feather-turned-toothpick that twitches angrily in his teeth. 

“They’re stealing,” he said. 

One of the complaints filed with the international court says that there have been 41 recent incursions into Munduruku lands, which have been “subject to an evident increase in violations by wildcat miners, palm-hear(t) gatherers and loggers, encouraged by President Jair Bolsonaro.” 

Munduruku was appointed chief in 1999 and is now in his early 60s. He’s the father of eight, grandfather of 22. 

“I miss my family a lot. My grandkids,” he said, talking about his travels. “The sounds of the howler monkeys in the morning, the birds. I get truly homesick for my people. The wildlife surrounding the tribe — the tapirs, hogs, paca. We see things, we don’t even know what they are. All this is the Amazon for me.”

Trucks hauling cut timber legally must have license tags visible on the ends of the logs. The driver of this truck confirmed that his load of hardwoods is illegal and without the required tags.Larry C. Price for ICN

Loggers or miners who cut the forest often insist that the trees will grow back. Bolsonaro makes the same argument: The forest is renewable and will bounce back from “economic utilization.”

Science says otherwise. The towering hardwoods will take centuries to reach their full height. One square yard of rainforest might contain seven or eight tree species, millions of microbes, countless insect and animal species that depend on a network of interactions with the vegetation, rainfall and soil that has evolved over millions of years.

It is infinitely complex and interconnected.

“If it’s deforested, the forest will grow back again,” Munduruku said. “But not like it was.”

Photography by Larry C. Price