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AP Exclusive: Brazil’s plan to protect rainforest has opposite effect

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Mauricio Savarese, reporter; Andre Penner, photographer; and Tatiana Pollastri, video journalist, all based in Sao Paulo; and Lucas Dumphreys, freelance video journalist, Rio de Janeiro, revealed the disturbing truth about environmental enforcement in Brazil’s Amazon. While reporting on the first days of the 2020 burning season they found that agents of Brazil’s environmental crime enforcement agency had gone almost totally inactive, and that since President Jair Bolsonaro put the army in charge of protecting the rainforest, Brazil’s once-effective investigation and prosecution of rainforest destruction has come to a virtual halt.

Reporting from the Amazon is difficult: People are insular and reluctant to talk, logistics are challenging, infrastructure and connectivity poor. Keeping a low profile to avoid drawing unwanted attention is imperative. And then there’s the driving: Some days after hours driving hundreds of kilometers following a lead you end up returning exhausted and empty-handed. The AP team knew it from the outset.

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Fire consumes land recently deforested by cattle farmers near Novo Progresso, Para state, Brazil, Aug. 23, 2020. Environmentalists say that the Amazon has lost about 17% of its original area, and fear that at the current rate it could reach a tipping point in the next 15 to 30 years after which it could cease to generate enough rainfall to sustain itself. – AP Photo / Andre Penner

Investigating on the ground and by phone with sources around Brazil, the team found that Brazil’s army is focusing on small road-and-bridge-building projects that allow exports to flow faster to ports and ease access to protected areas. Meanwhile, the enforcement agency has stopped using satellite maps to locate deforestation sites and fine their owners — a once-widely used technique — and is no longer penalizing illegal logging, mining and farming. On the heels of massive fires last year, this year’s burning season is on track to be as bad as 2019.

The all-formats story landed with major impact in Brazil and around the world,running prominently in print, broadcast and hundreds of news websites. It was posted on social media by dozens of prominent figures in environmental circles and the Brazilian political arena.

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