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Amazon Rainforest Fires Put A Spotlight On Illegal Land Grabbers


Brazil's army is mobilizing to save the Amazon rain forest from fires that are ripping through parts of it. Some troops have now been deployed there. Leaders of the G-7 yesterday decided to weigh in by offering help. Now, these fires have caused worldwide condemnation of President Jair Bolsonaro and how he's handled the crisis, and they've also thrown a spotlight on illegal loggers and miners. NPR's Philip Reeves was in the Amazon recently, and he met some of them.


PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Three men are laboring in the jungle under a glaring sun. They shovel fist-sized rocks into a wheelbarrow...


REEVES: ...And haul them up a hill to a rickety wooden shelter where they keep their rock grinding machine. This is what the quest for gold looks like in the Amazon rain forest. We're in the Brazilian state of Para. The state's been hard hit by deforestation. These men are one reason. They're illegal wildcat gold miners or garimpeiros, as Brazilians call them. Over the years, they've pushed back the forest to create a large clearing crisscrossed by dirt tracks and dotted with muddy ponds, banana trees and their makeshift mines.

JOSE DA CUNHA: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: Jose da Cunha has been digging for gold in this part of the forest for 25 years. Da Cunha says federal police and environmental agents often used to raid illegal mines here.

DA CUNHA: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: "They were torching our machines and destroying everything," says Da Cunha. Not anymore. Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro arrived in office in January vowing to exploit the Amazon's mineral wealth. Since then Bolsonaro's praised the wildcat miners, saying he thinks their operations should be legalized. The raids have now tailed off, says Da Cunha. The gold miners are delighted.

DA CUNHA: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: "We've never seen a president speak up for us before," says Da Cunha, who represents a cooperative of several hundred miners here. Bolsonaro argues the Amazon is Brazil's concern and that outsiders shouldn't interfere. Da Cunha feels the same way about his right to mine for gold in the rain forest.

DA CUNHA: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: "This land is ours," he says. "It was created by God, not by politicians." Environmental organizations say that deforestation in the Amazon has many culprits - illegal miners, cattle ranchers, farmers and loggers. They also say the fires, now raging, are mostly set by people clearing land, particularly cattle ranches. One reason that's happening, environmentalists say, is because the Brazilian government agencies responsible for stopping people from doing this are being systematically undermined by Bolsonaro.

ELIZABETH UEMA: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: "These people in the forest now think they can do whatever they like, with impunity," says Elizabeth Uema (ph). Uema is executive secretary of the association that represents civil servants working in environment-related jobs. She says Bolsonaro's government is deconstructing environmental enforcement agencies by cutting budgets and replacing agency officials with military police.

UEMA: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: "What's going on is very dangerous," she says. "This isn't an argument about left and right anymore," she says. "It's about the rain forest's survival." She says deforesters feel so emboldened that government enforcement agents fear going on missions inside the forest...

UEMA: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: ...Because they might be physically attacked. Fighting to preserve the rain forest certainly can be dangerous in Brazil. More than 650 environmental and land rights activists have been murdered since 2002, according to the rights organization Global Witness. Osvalinda Pereira campaigns to stop illegal loggers grabbing forest land around her home in Para.

OSVALINDA PEREIRA: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: She says, not long ago, she and her husband woke up to find two freshly dug graves adorned with crosses outside their window. That threat prompted them to leave the forest for a while. They now live under a protection program at a secret address in a Brazilian city away from Amazon.

PEREIRA: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: Pereira says even in hiding, she receives death threats via social media. She worries about what she calls powerful forces intent on exploiting the Amazon's riches.


REEVES: Back at the wildcat mines in the forest, the men who dig for gold worry about that, too. In the weird way of the jungle, they think they do little harm to the forest, and certainly a lot less than some of the big fish that Bolsonaro might allow in as part of his mission to develop the Amazon. An international gold mining company is seeking to move onto this turf. If that's approved, says Jose da Cunha...

DA CUNHA: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: "...There'll be no rain forest around here at all." Philip Reeves, NPR News, in the Amazon rain forest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
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