Brazil's Minister of Justice and Public Security, Sergio Moro, on May 15, 2019.

© 2019 Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil
Fires and deforestation in the Amazon captured the world’s attention in 2019 for good reason. Experts have long identified the Amazon forest as crucial to efforts to slow climate change. Some 29,944 square kilometers of it—an area about 20 times the size of the city of São Paulo—burned in August on live worldwide television. Preliminary data from Brazil's National Space Research Agency (INPE) shows that deforestation alerts in the Amazon increased by 85 percent in 2019 over the previous year.  

But the emergency in the Amazon cannot simply be solved by fighting fires or planting trees. It is a public security crisis, as Human Rights Watch documented in a 165-page report released in September. We found that illegal deforestation and violence in the Amazon are largely driven by organized criminal networks. Besides burning the forest and cutting trees illegally, they launder money, bribe public officials, and invade public lands. They are stealing the wealth of the Amazon rainforest, which belongs to all Brazilians.

Rainforest Mafias: How Violence and Impunity Fuel Deforestation in Brazil's Amazon

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is driven largely by criminal networks that use violence and intimidation against those who try to stop them, and the government is failing to protect both the defenders and the rainforest itself.

The criminal networks field armed militias who intimidate, attack, and sometimes kill both public officials and local people who step up to defend the forest. And they do so with impunity. More than 300 people died violently during the past decade in the context of conflicts over land and resources in the Amazon, says the non-profit Pastoral Land Commission (CPT, in Portuguese), which keeps the only figures. Suspects were brought to trial in only 14 cases.

We documented 28 killings, 4 attempted killings, and more than 40 cases involving death threats. Suspects in only two of the killings went to trial, and nobody was prosecuted for the death threats. 

This is a public-security emergency that requires urgent attention from one ministry that until now has not figured prominently in the public debate about the Amazon, the federal Justice Ministry.

Many of the crimes committed by the criminal networks in the region are under federal jurisdiction, because they occur in indigenous territories, conservation areas or other federal land. Even when these criminal networks commit crimes in areas under state jurisdiction, they are often federal crimes. In any case, the federal police, which comes under the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, has the investigative mandate, capacity and the duty to protect the federal patrimony.

Finally, the impunity with which forest mafias operate in the Amazon is largely the result of insufficient will within justice institutions at all levels to ensure that these cases are properly investigated and prosecuted. Changing this passivity will require real leadership within the justice sector. No one is in a better position to exercise this leadership than the justice minister, Sérgio Moro. Minister Moro should work in coordination with the federal attorney general and state authorities to devise an effective national plan to ensure that the violence and other crimes committed by those engaged in illegal logging are investigated and that those responsible are brought to justice. To do so, he may have to push back against his own government.

The Bolsonaro administration’s policies and rhetoric have only encouraged the mafias’ depredations and put the rainforest and its people at risk. President Jair Bolsonaro and  Environment Minister Ricardo Salles have disparaged not only environmental groups but the government’s own agencies, repeatedly making unsubstantiated accusations. They have weakened those same environmental agencies by cutting their budgets and removing experienced personnel. The Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), the country’s main federal environmental agency, reported imposing 25 percent fewer fines for illegal deforestation and related infractions from January through September of 2019 than in the same period in 2018. Such measures and the bombast only benefit the criminal networks. Small wonder that deforestation rose during President Bolsonaro’s first year.

In response to international pressure, President Bolsonaro announced this month the creation of the Amazon Council, to be headed by Vice President Hamilton Mourão, a retired general. The exact function of the Council remains uncertain. Vice President Mourão has met with Minister Moro, the media report, to discuss a new Environmental Police Force for the Amazon. The force is to be recruited from military police officers in various states. Mobilizing police in remote areas of the Amazon to fight deforestation would be important, but it is not the whole solution.

To be effective, any initiative will need to address impunity for illegal logging and violence. The new Environmental Police Force should provide security and support to IBAMA field agents, several of whom told Human Rights Watch they feel abandoned by the government and at risk of attack from criminal networks.

The new environment force will also need to grapple with past failures to investigate properly violence against those who protect the forest. That failure is at the heart of the impunity. It would be a waste of time, resources, and opportunity to deploy a new police force without providing for the support that state and federal police and prosecutors, need to obtain convictions.

The coming months will show whether the government’s new initiatives are mere window dressing to appease the international community. The destruction of the Amazon is likely to accelerate unless the government makes a fundamental shift in its approach toward both the mafias responsible for deforestation and the agencies, environmental groups, and local communities defending the forest. A substantial part of that shift will be up to Minister Moro. We shall see if he is ready to shoulder the responsibility of saving the Amazon.