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Encore: Brazil's President-elect renews calls to crack down on Amazon deforestation

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Brazil's new president-elect, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is pledging a zero tolerance policy on deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Climate scientists are encouraged but also warn the damage may already be irreversible. With support from the U.N. Foundation, NPR's Kirk Siegler went to a remote research station in the Amazon, which itself is also threatened by illegal logging.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The Amazon rainforest is the most biodiverse ecosystem on our planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CALLING)

SIEGLER: From high atop a weather station at dawn, the lush green canopy looks endless. The birds and howler monkeys are waking up. They sound like the wind.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CALLING)

SIEGLER: You could almost overlay the entire lower 48 states into the Amazon. It's huge and can feel lawless. Under right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, illegal logging to clear fields for cattle is rising at record levels.

RITA MESQUITA: We hop into the car when they cross.

SIEGLER: Scientists at a research camp deep in the jungle are studying how this deforestation is accelerating global climate change. Getting there is a six-hour, bone-busting ride in four-by-fours from the Amazonas capital of Manaus.

You can feel every bump in the backseat of this pickup.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAINSAW BUZZING)

SIEGLER: Sounds of chainsaws and machetes, not from loggers but our drivers. A storm brought massive wind, toppling trees and huge rain all at once, which is unusual. So is what preceded it.

MESQUITA: Even this year, we're experiencing a extreme drought. And there are whole areas of the Amazon right now that are completely dry and communities that are completely isolated.

SIEGLER: This is Rita Mesquita, a Brazilian government scientist and our guide at Camp 41. She's dedicated her life's work to protecting the rainforest.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CALLING)

SIEGLER: The Amazon is an important carbon sink. All this jungle soaks up those harmful CO2 gases that are making the planet warm. As more of it gets chopped down, that leads to more extreme weather elsewhere, like the fires in the American West and drought back here.

MESQUITA: In this particular area where we are, we are right now in the middle of this huge dispute - if the forest is going to fall for cattle ranching or not - because, amazingly, even though we have been here for 43 years straight, people still have not gotten the message.

SIEGLER: But scientists like Mesquita see last month's presidential election in Brazil as a possible turning point.

MESQUITA: I'm very hopeful that we're going to see change and that this change is going to be positive for the Amazon. But at the same time, I still think that we lack a concrete plan for the Amazon.

SIEGLER: You hear this a lot. Until rich Western countries recognize that extreme poverty is not OK, the illegal logging and other development will continue no matter who's president. People are desperate for work.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE TURNING OVER)

ROBERTO BRITO MENDONCZA: (Speaking Portuguese).

SIEGLER: This was the case until recently in an Indigenous village a day's boat ride from Manaus, along the Rio Negro River, where there are signs of change. A collection of brightly painted buildings and huts sits atop a steep riverbank.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

SIEGLER: Roberto Brito Mendoncza says he's a fourth-generation logger but lately realized that what's going on in these forests is a direct threat to his people's survival.

BRITO MENDONCZA: (Speaking Portuguese).

SIEGLER: "My grandparents knew basically everything about the seasons," he says. Today we can't predict anything. Summers are 10 degrees hotter. It's smoky. Droughts come every couple of years instead of every 30.

BRITO MENDONCZA: (Speaking Portuguese).

SIEGLER: With the help of an NGO, Mendoncza stopped logging and is transforming this village into an ecotourism destination.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking Portuguese).

SIEGLER: The jungle surrounding it is now protected as a sustainable forest reserve, allowing for some small-scale logging and farming. Locals sell artisan products. Julia Freitas with the Foundation for Amazon Sustainability wants to replicate this model across the Amazon.

JULIA FREITAS: We believe that we cannot attack the deforestation problem if we don't give the people that lives in the forest the possibility of living with a high quality of life.

SIEGLER: And there's hope that incoming President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will be more friendly toward Indigenous rights. He's also expected to restore funding for environmental agencies that were gutted under Bolsonaro. A string of murders of Brazilian environmental enforcers in this jungle drew international headlines.

(CROSSTALK)

SIEGLER: At a reception in Manaus, I meet Carlos Travassos, who's taking over for one of the men recently killed.

CARLOS TRAVASSOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

SIEGLER: "I've been working to protect isolated Indigenous people for 14 years. It's always been risky," he says. Criminals felt emboldened under Bolsonaro, and enforcers like Travassos are still way outnumbered. But he won't give up.

TRAVASSOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

SIEGLER: "Soon," he promises, "there will be an army of forest guardians fighting to save the Amazon." Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Manaus, Brazil.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD'S "TIMID, INTIMIDATING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.