Fault Lines

Amazon Burning: Death and Destruction in Brazil’s Rainforest

We investigate what is at the heart of the Amazon burning and meet the people risking their lives to defend the land.

Brazil has seen a dramatic increase in the number of fires in the Amazon with more than 80,000 fires so far this year alone.

This past summer, the world watched in horror as images of flames engulfing swaths of land in the world’s largest rainforest came out, leading to global calls for boycotts over President Jair Bolsonaro‘s handling of the crisis.

The fires have come as deforestation has risen over the past years and is increasing even more as the Brazilian government weakens environmental regulations.

New data recently released by the government shows that deforestation is at the highest point in a decade under Bolsonaro, with an area 10 times the size of New York City deforested since the beginning of the year.

“The message that arrives on the ground is now everything is possible; we can keep on invading public land, we can keep on deforesting because it’ll be forgiven,” says Brenda Brito, a researcher at Imazon, an NGO dedicated to conserving the Amazon rainforest.

Valuable trees are cut down first, the land is cleared with fire, and then the land can be used for cattle or soy, two of Brazil’s key exports – or often, illegal mining.

But even as deforestation worsens, the Brazilian government has weakened its environmental protection agencies. That has put pressure on communities already at risk trying to fight the destruction of the rainforest.

Beyond the headlines of the fires, there is a violence that comes with the destruction taking place in Brazil.

“We are receiving threats because we are trying to protect the forest. It is not only the trees that are coming to an end, But people are dying, giving up their own lives because of the trees,”  says small farmer Maria Marcia de Melo.

Brazil is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a land defender, as the profits of deforestation combined with local corruption have led to a high rate of impunity.

In the past decade, more than 300 people have been killed in the Brazilian Amazon over land conflicts.

“These are very specific killings. It’s the killing of the person who is standing up and defending the forest. That killing sends a message to everyone in the community – that if you do anything, that’s going to happen to you. So the impact of the killings is enormous,” says Cesar Munoz of Human Rights Watch.

At stake are both the world’s largest rainforest as well as the lives of indigenous communities and small farmers trying to protect their lands.

Fault Lines travels to Brazil to look at what is at the heart of the Amazon burning and to meet the people defending the land.