(Bloomberg) -- Brazil is drawing up plans to curtail a surge in deforestation of the Amazon rainforest that’s provoked an international outcry, the country’s top security official said.
“We are already preparing a stronger policy to contain fires,” General Augusto Heleno Pereira, the country’s Institutional Security Minister, said in an interview in Brasilia, in a rare acknowledgment of the problem. “Everybody is convinced we must tighten enforcement,” he added, referring to farmers who set fires on agricultural lands to improve productivity.
The government of President Jair Bolsonaro needs to raise awareness among farmers of the damage caused by deforestation, and find alternatives to their illegal -- but profitable -- activities, he added.
Brazil’s policy toward the Amazon was thrust into the spotlight earlier this year after a sharp increase in fires prompted international concern that the Bolsonaro administration was failing to protect the rainforest. Heleno’s comments came two days after the National Institute of Space Research, known as INPE, reported a key gauge of Amazon deforestation jumped the most in over a decade. Bolsonaro has repeatedly downplayed such data.
Read more: Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon Forest Surges Most in a Decade
Just under 10,000 square kilometers (6,200 square miles) of the so-called Amazonia legal were cut down between August 2018 and July 2019, according to the institute. That’s a jump of almost 30% from the previous 12-month period, and it marks the third-highest advance of deforestation since the series began in 1988.
“Of course numbers can and must improve,” said Heleno, who oversees the government’s military and intelligence decisions, as well as the personal security detail for Bolsonaro and his family.
Heleno’s comments echoed those of Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, who on Wednesday vowed to reduce deforestation, though without providing concrete targets. On the same day, Bolsonaro said that setting fires in the region is a cultural practice, and that not much can be done about it.
Bolsonaro has repeatedly emphasized that the Amazon belongs to Brazil and that it requires economic development. In August, he fired INPE Director Ricardo Galvao over the institute’s preliminary figures showing an increase in logging in the region. The president also supports freeing up indigenous and environmental reserves for mining.
To be sure, it is impossible to completely eliminate deforestation, Heleno said in the interview, arguing the Amazon is so big that any fire can easily burn out of control. The four-star general, who was once the head of United Nations troops in Haiti, pointed to challenges in other countries including the U.S., where officials are unable to prevent yearly fires in California.
“We can create measures, tighten rules, but just by the size of the Amazon, everything is complicated, expensive,” Heleno said.
Images of the forest fires burning drew global attention in August, with world leaders and celebrities weighing in on the need to protect the Amazon. The number of fires jumped amid especially dry weather, though critics also said a lax environmental policy was to blame.
Read more: As Fires Rage in Amazon, Brazil Pushes Back Against Global Scorn
Deforestation carries a direct economic cost for Brazil. The 1.8 billion reais ($427 million) Amazon Fund, created to raise donations to combat deforestation, uses the INPE figures as a reference to determine the disbursement of cash to projects in the region.
Both Norway and Germany, the two main backers of the fund, suspended their contributions over the Brazilian government’s environmental policies.
“I’m not concerned the Amazon will burn down,” Heleno said. “I have big aspirations about the Amazon and the Northeast -- they’re the future of Brazil. We need to focus on those two regions, they’re fundamental in getting Brazil to grow.”
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