BRASÍLIA—Brazil’s conservative president, Jair Bolsonaro, has responded to international criticism over deforestation in the Amazon by lashing out at other world leaders and environmentalists and asserting that what the rainforest needs is more economic development, not less.
But Mr. Bolsonaro’s vice president, Hamilton Mourão, struck a decidedly different tone in an interview with The Wall Street Journal this week. He offered a rare mea culpa and said that the government hadn’t directed enough resources and attention to reducing deforestation, which has skyrocketed in the past two years as land grabbers and wildcat ranchers have moved deeper into the world’s largest rainforest.
“If we had kept the pressure up, with more efficient oversight, we’d certainly have had better results,” Mr. Mourão, who heads the country’s Amazon task force, said in his office in the Brazilian capital.
While he backed Mr. Bolsonaro’s view of the Amazon that changes in land-use policy rather than enforcement are what will ultimately reduce deforestation, the former army general vowed to aggressively use the country’s troops to fight those who seize land illegally and burn trees and bush.
Mr. Bolsonaro declined to comment.
The country deployed the army last year when Mr. Bolsonaro’s administration came under withering criticism for its management of the rainforest from environmentalists and world leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron.
But the troops were called back in October once the rainy season was in full swing. Then the country was too slow in deploying them this year, sending troops back out in May after the dry season had already begun and loggers were already at work clearing land.
The burning season is now peaking, with farmers, ranchers and land grabbers on the edge of the Amazon across several countries in South America setting fire to the trees that were logged last year.
“Our thinking is that we need to keep military operations in the Amazon to reduce deforestation to an acceptable level until the end of the Bolsonaro administration,” said Mr. Mourão, who took office 20 months ago along with Mr. Bolsonaro.
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In Brazil, where 60% of the Amazon is located, more than 3,500 square miles were lost in the 12 months ended in July, a 35% increase from the same period the previous year, according to preliminary data released by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research.
Environmentalists said that Mr. Mourão speaks in defense of the forest but that, in practice, deforestation is expanding fast. “If the government doesn’t act with a shock treatment, it is going to be very hard to reverse deforestation and burning of trees,” said Marcio Astrini, executive secretary at the Brazilian Climate Observatory, a coalition of environmental organizations.
Mr. Mourão counters that starting in June, after the army had been deployed, the government detected that deforestation and fires were trending down.
“It’s been a small decline, but a decline,” Mr. Mourão said.
Though deforestation had dropped in the Amazon starting in 2004, the vice president said it began rising in about 2012. The devastation, though, skyrocketed in 2019, according to the space agency. The vice president attributed the problem in part to the vastness of the Amazon—about the size of Western Europe—and the dearth of a government presence.
“The Brazilian state is not present in the Amazon, with some exceptions,” he said. Aside from the armed forces, Mr. Mourão said, state agencies only operate seasonally. “That is why illegality thrives, smuggling wood and ore,” he said. “All of this happens because of this absence of the state.”
In an administration that courts controversy, Mr. Mourão has become the public face of Brazil, working with ambassadors in Brasília and foreign governments to assuage concerns about the Amazon.
In August 2019, Mr. Macron urged leaders of the Group of Seven industrialized nations to make fighting deforestation in the Amazon a priority, tweeting: “Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rainforest—the lungs which produces 20% of our planet’s oxygen—is on fire.”
Some environmental groups have called for consumers to boycott Brazilian products, and executives from 38 of Brazil’s largest companies signed a letter in July asking the government to halt illegal logging. The biggest concern to Brazil regards trade negotiations with Europe, where Brasília is being pressured to do more to conserve the Amazon in exchange for final approval by European parliaments of an EU-South America trade pact.
While the size of the territory cleared of woodlands in the year ended July 31 went up, the vice president said the decreases in deforestation in the past few weeks means next year there will be a drop. According to official data, 499 square miles of forest were cleared last month as of Aug. 28, a 25% decrease over a year earlier. That follows a 26% year-over-year slowdown in July.
The vice president has publicly said he wants the government to have more agents working in the field for Brazil’s environmental protection agency, Ibama, which has undergone 25% in funding cuts since last year. Mr. Mourão said, if necessary, workers from the agency would spend more time in the field and less in the office.
Still, Mr. Mourão said that policing isn’t enough to curb deforestation in a region where land ownership is hard to prove and where many of its 20 million inhabitants live off slash-and-burn farming. He said Brazil needed to legalize land use and planning, as well as push forward on reforestation projects.
“It’s obvious that repressive action, pure and simple, will not solve the problem,” he said.
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Appeared in the September 5, 2020, print edition as ‘Brazil’s Vice President Admits Mistakes in Protecting the Amazon.’