Via Financial Times

Brazil’s top government official responsible for the Amazon has defended a draft law which critics say would make it easier for illegal loggers and ranchers to legalise land seizures in the rainforest.

Vice-president Hamilton Mourão, who heads a newly created national council for the Amazon, said in an interview with a small group of foreign correspondents that the measure before Brazil’s congress was “a long-needed proposal for landownership regulation”. He added: “[If] we don’t know who owns the land, we cannot bring [anyone] to justice when they are doing illegal activities”.

Brazilian prosecutors and environmentalists have strongly attacked the measure, saying it would allow those who have illegally seized protected rainforest to legalise their ill-gotten gains with minimal penalties by making a simple declaration. The bill runs out of parliamentary time next week but Mr Mourão vowed to bring back a fresh proposal.

Deforestation has surged under the hard-right government of President Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain who has asserted Brazil’s right to develop the Amazon’s natural riches without foreign interference. The Brazilian space agency INPE says that 60 per cent more rainforest was destroyed in April than in the same month last year.

Mr Mourão, a retired general, conceded that deforestation had increased but said he had ordered troops back into the Amazon for a second operation to halt it, following a first attempt last year to fight forest fires. “We mean business,” he said, adding that the new army deployment would last until the end of Mr Bolsonaro’s term in 2022. “I am confident that these actions of Operation [“Green Brazil Two”] will result in a decrease in deforestation”.

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He acknowledged that it was “not ideal” to use the military to protect the 5m sq km Amazon territory, but said this was necessary because environmental agencies were short of staff and Brazil lacked the funds to hire more people. NGOs say that Mr Bolsonaro’s government has systematically gutted the main agency charged with protecting the Amazon, the environmental enforcement entity Ibama.

The National Council for the Legal Amazon, headed by Mr Mourão, has been criticised for including 19 military officers but no representation from Ibama or Funai, the agency charged with protecting indigenous people. Mr Mourão denied the government was militarising the agencies defending the rainforest.

Brazil has the developing world’s highest death toll from coronavirus and a coalition of prominent scientists recently said the pandemic could devastate the indigenous populations of the Amazon. The region’s capital Manaus is already one of the worst affected areas, with alarming pictures published of mass graves being dug by excavators in public cemeteries.

Mr Mourão insisted that “the statistics for the moment are on our side”, saying just 301 confirmed cases of the virus had been reported among the 750,000-strong indigenous population with 19 deaths. The public health agency looking after them had a “very good budget” of about $350m a year for providing basic care, he added.

Some international investors have been reviewing their holdings in Brazil after increased scrutiny of the country’s environmental record, with mining and meat processing companies drawing fire. The vice-president, however, said there was a “great misunderstanding” about the role of the beef industry in Amazon deforestation, claiming that it was “ridiculously small and not competitive” compared with pastures in other parts of the country.

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Referring to his experience of living in the region for five years and being the grandson of an Amazon Indian, Mr Mourão said the Amazon was “the perfect space for the development of a new economic model for the 21st century. It has to include biodiversity, innovation and a great deal of technology to reach its full potential and at the same time preserve its environmental richness.”