Bolsonaro rejects 'Captain Chainsaw' label as data shows deforestation 'exploded'

Data says 2,254 sq km cleared in July as president says Macron and Merkel ‘haven’t realized Brazil’s under new management’

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon “exploded” in July it has emerged as Jair Bolsonaro scoffed at his portrayal as Brazil’s “Captain Chainsaw” and mocked Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel for challenging him over the devastation.

Speaking in São Paulo on Tuesday, Brazil’s president attacked the leaders of France and Germany – who have both voiced concern about the surge in destruction since Bolsonaro took office in January.

“They still haven’t realized Brazil’s under new management,” Bolsonaro declared to cheers of approval from his audience. “Now we’ve got a blooming president.”

The far-right populist repeated claims that his administration – which critics accuse of helping unleash a new wave of environmental destruction – was the victim of a mendacious international smear campaign based on “imprecise” satellite data showing a jump in deforestation.

Bolsonaro ridiculed what he called his depiction as “Capitão Motoserra(“Captain Chainsaw”).

But as he spoke, official data laid bare the scale of the environmental crisis currently unfolding in the world’s biggest rainforest, of which about 60% is in Brazil.

According to a report in the Estado de São Paulo newspaper, Amazon destruction “exploded” in July with an estimated 2,254 sq km (870 sq miles) of forest cleared, according to preliminary data gathered by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, the government agency that monitors deforestation.

That is an area about half the size of Philadelphia and reportedly represents a 278% rise on the 596.6 sq km destroyed in July last year.

Rômulo Batista, an Greenpeace campaigner based in the Amazon city of Manaus, said the numbers – while preliminary – were troubling and showed a clear trend of rising deforestation under Bolsonaro. What was not yet clear was if the devastation was “going up, going up a lot, or skyrocketing”.

Batista blamed Bolsonaro’s “anti-environmental” discourse and policies – such as slashing the budget of Brazil’s environmental agency, Ibama – for the surge.

“It’s almost as if a licence to deforest illegally and with impunity has been given, now that you have the [environmental] inspection and control teams being attacked by no less than the president of the republic and the environment minister,” Batista added. “This is a very worrying moment.”

The spike in destruction under Bolsonaro – who was elected with the support of powerful mining and agricultural sectors – has come as a shock to environmentalists, but not a surprise.

During a visit to the Amazon last year Bolsonaro told the Guardian that as president he would target “cowardly” environmental NGOs who were “sticking their noses” into Brazil’s domestic affairs.

“This tomfoolery stops right here!” Bolsonaro proclaimed, praising Donald Trump’s approval of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines.

Bolsonaro returned to that theme on Tuesday during a gathering of car dealers in Brazil’s economic capital, São Paulo, complaining that “60% of our territory is rendered unusable by indigenous reserves and other environmental questions”.

“You can’t imagine how much I enjoyed talking to Macron and Angela Merkel [about these issues during the recent G20 in Japan],” Bolsonaro added to guffaws from the crowd. “What a pleasure!”

In June Merkel described the environmental situation in Bolsonaro’s Brazil as “dramatic”.

In recent weeks the globally respected National Institute for Space Research has found itself at the eye of a political storm as a result of the inconvenient truths revealed by its data.

Earlier this month, with alarm growing about the consequences of the intensifying assault on the Amazon, its director, Ricardo Galvão, was sacked after contesting Bolsonaro’s “pusillanimous” claims he was peddling lies about the state of the Amazon.

Galvão’s successor, the air force colonel Darcton Policarpo Damião, looks set to follow a more Bolsonarian line. In an interview this week Damião said he was not convinced global heating was a manmade phenomenon and called such matters “not my cup of tea”.

Pope Francis – who is preparing to host a special synod on the Amazon in October – has also incurred Bolsonaro’s wrath on the environment.

In June the Argentinian leader of the Catholic church questioned “the blind and destructive mentality” of those seeking to profit from the world’s biggest rainforest. “What is happening in Amazonia will have repercussions at a global level,” he warned.

Asked about those comments, Bolsonaro offered a characteristically unvarnished response, suggesting they reflected an international conspiracy to commandeer the Amazon.

“Brazil is the virgin that every foreign pervert wants to get their hands on,” Bolsonaro said.


Tom Phillips Latin America correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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