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Science & Environment

Actions In Amazon Rain Forest Contradict Brazil's Promise

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's an update on the destruction of the Amazon rain forest. Things did not look good last fall when an NPR team, including Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, had a look around.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: I'm actually walking on the remains of the forest right now. There are tree trunks smoldering in front of me. Some are actually still shooting up flames.

INSKEEP: The forest was being slashed and burned despite Brazil's public commitment to save it. Since then Brazil has made another commitment. It was one of many nations that signed a global agreement to fight climate change last December. The country vowed to stop hacking down so many of the trees and undergrowth that would otherwise absorb carbon dioxide. So let's see how Brazil is doing in this new year. Reporter Juliana Barbassa says it's still not good. She traveled to a Brazilian state where the rain forest bumps up against spreading settlement.

JULIANA BARBASSA: Often, on the road, we would literally see on one side thick jungle and on the other side soy for as far as the eye could see. And you saw logging - legal and illegal. And in other places, razing of forest and then that razed land be burnt and so you saw some fields that were obviously recently burned and now already had cattle on them. So you saw the step-by-step of deforestation, so to speak.

INSKEEP: What's driving that?

BARBASSA: Several factors. One is the repercussions of the 2012 Forest Code which really softened environmental protections. Another is the faltering economy that's pushing more people to try to clear land and to illegally cut wood because that's an easy way of making money. And then the third is this policy that the government has now to build massive infrastructure in that region - dams and roads. So you put these three things together and you have action that directly goes against the government's words.

INSKEEP: Well, I was about to ask how that fits with the government's words. You're saying it just totally contradicts it.

BARBASSA: It really does. There is this rhetoric that was being heard in Paris, but what the people driving deforestation, the big ranchers, are hearing on the ground, what they're feeling on the ground is this softening of environmental protections.

INSKEEP: Is that simply that the economy really is bad in Brazil and the government feels it has to allow more destruction in order to make sure that people don't go hungry?

BARBASSA: That is one argument that big ag makes and has made very effectively. They say that they are a very big part of Brazil's GDP, they're a big part of what Brazil exports and they feel like the government owes them this relaxation of environmental enforcement. But another way of looking at it is you could have policies that support sustainable farming and sustainable forestry, and I visited some of those too while I was in that region.

INSKEEP: Last year, Lourdes reported that local people were fighting back - sometimes literally, with guns. Is that still happening?

BARBASSA: Yes. Some of the same states that are seeing very high rates of deforestation now also see very high rates of murders of environmental activists and rural activists - you know, people who protest against dams and who denounce illegal loggers. And the week before I arrived, two people were killed. One was burnt inside his car and one was - disappeared. This dispute for land and resources becomes very real. People actually die.

INSKEEP: Juliana Barbassa, thanks very much.

BARBASSA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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