RIO DE JANEIRO — Since coming to office, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil has enabled increased razing of the Amazon rainforest.
Now, the coronavirus has accelerated that destruction.
Illegal loggers, miners and land grabbers have cleared vast areas of the Amazon with impunity in recent months as law enforcement efforts were hobbled by the pandemic.
Those recently cleared areas will almost certainly make way for a rash of fires even more widespread and devastating than the ones that drew global outrage last year. The newly cleared patches are typically set ablaze during the drier months of August to October to prepare the land for cattle grazing, often spiraling out of control into wildfires.
“The trend line is shooting upward compared to a year that was already historic in terms of a rise in deforestation,” said Ana Carolina Haliuc Bragança, a federal prosecutor who leads a task force that investigates environmental crimes in the Amazon. “If state entities don’t adopt very decisive measures, we’re looking at a likely tragedy.”
The fallout from the pandemic has exacerbated the ecological degradation set in motion by government policies under Mr. Bolsonaro, who favors expanding commercial development in the Amazon and views environmental regulations as a hindrance to economic growth. But some career civil servants are still working to enforce environmental protections.
An estimated 464 square miles of Amazon tree cover was slashed from January to April, a 55 percent increase from the same period last year and an area roughly 20 times the size of Manhattan, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, a government agency that tracks deforestation with satellite images.
Already last year, deforestation in the Amazon had reached levels not seen since 2008.
At the same time, the coronavirus has killed more than 34,000 people in Brazil, which now has the highest daily number of deaths in the world. It has also fueled political polarization and dominated headlines and policy debates in recent months, eclipsing the increased razing of the rainforest.
Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, who supports Mr. Bolsonaro’s loosening of environmental regulation, said in late April that he saw the pandemic as an opportunity to reduce restrictions while attention was focused elsewhere.
“We need to make an effort here during this period of calm in terms of press coverage because people are only talking about Covid,” he said during an April 22 cabinet meeting. A video of the meeting was made public.
The remarks, which Mr. Salles later said referred to his efforts to streamline red tape, led federal prosecutors to call for an investigation into what they said amounted to dereliction of duty.
The association that represents government environmental workers issued a statement calling Mr. Salles a “criminal” who has been “hollowing out” his own ministry.
Enforcement actions by the country’s main environmental protection agency, the Brazilian Environmental and Renewable Natural Resources Institute, or Ibama, fell sharply during 2019, Mr. Bolsonaro’s first year in office, according to an agency document obtained by The New York Times.
In 2019, Ibama reported 128 instances of environmental crimes, a 55 percent decrease from the year before. The amount of illegally logged timber seized by the agency fell by nearly 64 percent from 2018 to 2019, according to the document.
Government officials and environmental activists say the rise in deforestation is being driven by a prevailing sense among illegal loggers and miners that tearing down the rainforest carries minimal risk of punishment and yields significant payoff.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s government fired three senior officials at Ibama in April after the agency carried out a large operation targeting illegal miners in Pará state in the north.
In May, a law enforcement official in uniform was swarmed by illegal loggers in Pará after a truck with timber was intercepted. After a small mob heckled the agent, one of the loggers struck him in the face with a glass bottle, according to a video of the incident.
Later in May, the government transferred oversight of federal natural reserves from the Ministry of the Environment to the Ministry of Agriculture, paving the way for commercial development in protected areas.
The government is also championing legislative initiatives that would give land titles to squatters who have taken possession of tracts in the Amazon and other biomes.
Roughly 50 percent of the tree cover lost during the first four months of this year was on public land, according to Ipam Amazônia, an environmental research organization. Ane Alencar, the director of science at Ipam Amazônia, said that much of the destruction is by people who expect to be ultimately recognized as rightful owners of the land.
“I see opportunism fueling illegality as people take advantage of the fragility of the moment we’re living, politically as well as economically,” she said. “This coronavirus crisis is turning into an environmental crisis, too.”
Eduardo Taveira, the top environmental official in Amazonas state, said illegal loggers, who usually take pains to avoid being fined and having their equipment destroyed by federal agents, are operating more openly than in years past.
“There’s a sense that the government is focused only on fighting the coronavirus, so this type of illegal activity is happening more boldly than in recent years,” he said.
After Brazil’s government came under withering criticism over the fires last year, Mr. Bolsonaro deployed the armed forces to put them out and prevent new ones from being set. That left much of the land that was cleared in 2019 ripe for burning this year.
“That means that the areas that were slashed last year, but weren’t burned, may be burned this year,” said Ms. Haliuc, the federal prosecutor. To make matters worse, she added, this year has been drier than 2019, increasing the risk that controlled blazes will turn into wildfires.
Criminal organizations appear to be making significant investments to expand operations, Ms. Haliuc added, based on sales data for the kind of bulldozers used to cut paths into dense forest.
Bulldozer sales more than doubled in Brazil between January and April compared to the same period last year, according to data from an industry group.
Fearing a new wave of international condemnation, the Bolsonaro administration in May dispatched a few thousand troops to the Amazon and tasked them with preventing environmental crimes for 30 days.
“We don’t want Brazil to be portrayed in front of the rest of the world as an environmental villain,” Vice President Hamilton Mourão said as the initiative was launched.
In an emailed statement, the Defense Ministry said it had devoted 3,800 service members, 11 aircraft, 11 boats and 180 vehicles to support the mission. The operation, it said, “clearly demonstrates Brazil’s firm determination to preserve and defend the Amazon.”
Environmental activists say they welcome any increase in enforcement, but most see the military operation as a public relations ploy that will not change the trajectory of deforestation or lead to punishment for the key people driving the destruction.
Brazil’s record on environmental matters during the Bolsonaro era has set off calls for boycotts of Brazilian exports and threatens the implementation of a trade agreement between the European Union and four South American nations.
Marcello Brito, the president of the Brazilian Agribusiness Association, said the lack of control over criminal deforestation could be tragic for his sector.
“Even though there is a clear barrier between the good agro and these people, the image always sticks to agribusiness,” he said. “This will bring losses to us.”
Adriano Karipuna, an Indigenous leader in Rondônia state where illegal deforestation has increased, said his community feels increasingly vulnerable.
“They launch a big operation but it’s just to put it on the news,” he said. “They never actually arrest anyone.”
Mr. Karipuna said the ease with which illegal loggers and miners are destroying the forest is putting remote Indigenous communities — including uncontacted tribes — in grave danger.
“The dynamic can set in motion a genocide by spreading the coronavirus,” he said. “The Brazilian government will be responsible.”