Brazilian vice-president Hamilton Mourão is a former army general who has deployed thousands of troops to protect the Amazon rainforest. Yet, he is the first to acknowledge that using the military as environmental police is not a long-term solution. Instead he favours granting land titles and legalising mining in order to provide a better regulatory framework for the environment.
“We have a lot of indigenous lands that are rich in gold and whenever there is gold, men will go extract it. If they had permission to do this, the company or the group of people that are allowed to extract would have to comply with the environmental laws,” says Mr Mourão in an interview with the Financial Times.
“Second, they are going to pay taxes and the indigenous groups are going to receive fees, so everybody is going to win. What happens today is the gold is there, they extract it, destroy the environment and don’t pay taxes. Everybody loses.”
But environmentalists disagree. They argue that Brazil should instead be focusing its efforts on stamping out illegal gold mining, which alongside illegal logging fuels much of the devastation of the Amazon. If tree loss continues, they say, the region’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide will decline, which would accelerate climate change.
“[Legalising mining] would increase deforestation, it would increase degradation of the surrounding areas and — if we are talking about small-scale miners — then for sure we are going to have contamination from the mercury that is used to process the gold,” says Larissa Rodrigues from the Escolhas Institute, a sustainability think-tank.
Mining also endangers once-isolated indigenous communities, which find their traditional lands threatened by commercial interests that are sometimes linked to organised crime.
But the suggestion reflects Mr Mourão’s army background. For much of the 20th century, the armed forces saw developing the Amazon as crucial to ensuring the country’s sovereignty over its far-flung borders.
“It is worse for our image that people are mining illegally. In these territories, even if you catch the miners, they come back again. Wherever there is gold, men go,” Mr Mourão says. He points out that the government has sent a bill to Congress, which has, however, yet to move on the issue.
Mr Mourão also advocates a push to “regularise” hundreds of thousands of land claims in the Amazon.
“How can we have 600,000 rural properties in the Amazon and people don’t have the titles for the land? These people don’t have access to the banks, they don’t have technical assistance and they work in a very old-fashioned way,” he says, adding that it is the owners of such properties who cause many of the fires that grab international attention.
In May, the Brazilian government attempted to introduce legislation that would have offered settlers a way to obtain legal deeds for their properties. The effort, however, was lambasted by a broad spectrum of politicians, NGOs and businesspeople at home and overseas, who said it would encourage further seizures of protected forests. The bill has now been put on ice.
But looser environmental rules are not the only solution proposed by Mr Mourão, who heads the ministerial-level Amazon Council, which co-ordinates government action in the region. He says that there must be an “operational recovery of our environmental agencies. They are very depleted and we need to recover their capacity.”
These agencies, particularly armed enforcement group Ibama, have long been recognised as crucial in preventing illegality in the Amazon. Their members say, however, that their budgets have been gutted since Jair Bolsonaro became president last year.
But Mr Mourão says it comes down to “budgetary problems. That is the main point here in Brazil. Our budget is consumed 96 per cent by mandated expenses, and we only have 4 per cent left for everything else. That is why we need some measures in Congress to free up these mandatory expenses.”
Brazil’s mandated spending, devoted mostly to pensions and public sector salaries, can only be changed via constitutional amendment in Congress. The country also has a spending ceiling, which likewise can only be modified by Congress — although the Bolsonaro government appears less willing to pursue this latter measure.
“Congress is like the Amazon river, which every other river flows into,” says Mr Mourão. “So with Congress for Brazil, everything must pass through there.”
The vice-president declines to set a target for a reduction in deforestation next year, but says Brazil’s efforts to combat it need to be stepped up. He adds that the soldiers deployed in the Amazon will stay until April.
Mr Mourão believes, however, that the international pressure now being exerted on Brazil is about more than the environment.
“There is political pressure because our government is a rightwing one and people picture Bolsonaro as Attila the Hun, which he is not. There is economic pressure because our agriculture is very powerful and when we compete with western Europe, we are better than them.
“And then there is the environmental pressure because this is a vital question for the 21st century. We have to deal with this pressure. It is normal.”