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A Devastating Burning Season for the Brazilian Amazon

Illegal Deforestation Linked to Violence, Loss of Livelihoods for Communities

Fire consumes land deforested by cattle farmers ranchers near Novo Progresso, Para Pará State, Brazil, August 2020. © 2022 AP/Andre Penner

There were more fires in the Brazilian Amazon during the first week of September this year than in all of September 2021. Last month, fires were the worst in a decade. It is amounting to a devastating burning season for the world’s largest rainforest.

Fire is not natural in the Amazon’s wet ecosystem, rather it is often part of the deforestation process. Deforestation in the Amazon is overwhelmingly illegal. Illegally deforested areas are often intentionally set on fire to permanently convert forest to pastureland. These fires can sometimes spread beyond clearings into healthy forest, causing even greater damage.

In Terra Nossa, a rural settlement created in 2006 for landless peasants, fires that were likely cases of arson, burned down a sizeable area of the community’s crop fields in August. Some of the fires also burned part of the surrounding forest reserve. In addition to losing their livelihoods, several Terra Nossa residents were sickened by the thick smoke blanketing their houses. Residents believe the fires were set to forcibly displace several families and take over their lands.

Over the past four years, government policies have weakened environmental law enforcement agencies, undermining their ability to effectively sanction environmental crime or detect exports of illegal timber. Terra Nossa’s residents are victims of this inaction over environmental crimes and violence against forest defenders.

Residents of Terra Nossa have repeatedly denounced illegal logging and fires on their territory. While government inspectors confirmed that ranchers were illegally occupying land there, authorities have not taken action to remove them.

In 2018, a Terra Nossa resident was killed, and another disappeared after they announced plans to report environmental crime to the authorities. The brother of one of the victims was also killed, as was the leader of a farmers’ trade union after he too announced plans to report illegal logging. Community leaders have repeatedly received death threats since.

Powerful multinational businesses that source their agricultural commodities from ranchers and loggers operating illegally benefit from this crisis of impunity. Investigations by nongovernmental organizations and news outlets have exposed how Brazilian beef, leather, and timber sourced from illegal operations in the Amazon are laundered and sold on the legal market, and exported around the world.

The international community should end its participation in this destruction by adopting and rigorously implementing legislation to restrict the import of agricultural commodities linked to deforestation and rights abuses.

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