Brazil authorities probe Amazon ties to capital attacks

An investigation into anti-democratic protests and a recent attack on Brazil's capital is centering in part on areas along an important highway that goes through the Amazon

ByFABIANO MAISONNAVE AND JOSHUA GOODMAN Associated Press
February 1, 2023, 10:06 AM

SAO PAULO -- On the edge of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, the Rovaris family is a symbol of a pioneering success story.

The family arrived in the state of Mato Grosso in the 1970s as part of a wave of agricultural expansion promoted by the country’s then-military dictatorship. In a short span, the Rovaris clan accumulated vast wealth as agronomists figured out how to successfully grow soy in the hostile tropical climate.

Now, the family’s scion, Atilio Rovaris, is being investigated in the sprawling criminal probe into how supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro tried to subvert Brazil’s democracy when they blocked highways right after the election and temporarily took over several government buildings in the capital of Brasilia in early January. Bolsonaro lost October's election to President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a result that many Bolsonaro supporters don't accept.

Much of the investigation is centered along the northern stretch of highway BR-163, built in the 1970s. It connects two of Bolsonaro’s most substantial support bases. In Mato Grosso, these are Rovaris and other businesspeople from wealthy cities such as Sorriso, Brazil’s largest soybean producer. In Para, they are land-grabbers, illegal gold miners, and loggers who sustain impoverished cities such as Novo Progresso, 700 km (438 miles) north of Sorriso.

Days after the failed takeover, Justice Minister Flávio Dino said that “agribusiness sectors” were among the leading financiers. And Environment Minister Marina Silva said some of the rioters were linked to criminal activities in the Amazon.

“A significant portion of the enraged crowd were individuals who, under the Bolsonaro government, believed their criminal activities, such as deforestation, land grabbing, illegal logging, illegal fishing, and illegal mining, would go unpunished,” Silva told daily Folha de S.Paulo a few days after the Jan. 8 attack.

Bolsonaro won by big margins in population centers along the highway, as many people in theses areas share his view that Brazil needs to push economic growth by rolling back environmental regulations aimed at slowing deforestation. They deem conservation units and Indigenous territories as barriers that undermine agribusiness. Protected areas in the region are reeling from invasions from cattle farmers, loggers and gold miners.

That so much support for Bolsonaro came from these areas could complicate Lula's promise to reach “zero deforestation” in the Amazon, as such efforts will require the buy in of locals and must be joined with sustainable forms of development.

Rovaris, an amateur rally car driver, has made no secret of his support for Bolsonaro. He was one of the biggest donors to his presidential campaign, contributing close to $100,000, according to public election data.

Although no evidence in the fledgling probe has emerged publicly tying him to the rioters who vandalized Brazil’s presidential palace and congress, he is being investigating for alleged support of protests that blocked major highways for weeks in attempts to restore Bolsonaro to power after the lost the elections in October.

In November, a bank account belonging to a trucking company that Rovaris owns was one of 43 frozen by the Supreme Court as part of an investigation into possible crimes against Brazil’s democracy. In total, 30 of the frozen accounts belonged to individuals or companies from Mato Grosso — a sign of how deep support for Bolsonaro remains in one of Brazil’s key economic hubs.

“There is a repeated abuse of the right of assembly, directed illicitly and criminally, to propagate non-compliance and disrespect for the result of the election for president,” Justice Alexandre de Moraes wrote in the ruling.

Rovaris merely supported Bolsonaro in the campaign and had no involvement in anti-democratic acts, Larissa Gribler, his spokesperson, told The Associated Press. Gribler said Rovaris declined to answer further questions or give an interview.

During his first term as president, between 2003 and 2006, Lula started paving BR-163, a job later completed by Bolsonaro. As part of the environmental licensing to authorize the paving, conservation units were created along the highway. The goal was to “close the agriculture border” to prevent uncontrolled deforestation, as had happened in Mato Grosso.

In the Novo Progresso region in Para state, these conservation units have been largely invaded by land-grabbers, who have fought to annul them. The most prominent example is Jamanxin National Forest, the most deforested federal conservation unit in the Amazon.

A roadblock there lasted several days in November. Footage shows police cars being attacked with stones by an angry mob and a felled Brazil Nuts tree, a protected species, across the road. According to local press reports, about 30 Novo Progresso residents were arrested in Brasilia following the attack. Those included the owner of a sawmill.

"The city relies on illegal activities such as illegal gold mining, illegally harvested wood, cattle raised in off-limits areas within conservation units, and land grabbing,” said Mauricio Torres, a geographer from Para Federal University.

“Bolsonaro supported these illegal activities. And the people are willing to kill and die for it because they have no other option. So I don’t know how Lula will be able to implement the rule of law," he added.

That is a different situation from Sorriso, where initial deforestation and land-grabbing were legalized decades ago, and the economy depends on soybean exports, Torres said.

Just as the profile of the Amazonian strongholds for Bolsonaro differ, combatting deforestation will require different approaches, depending on the place, according to deforestation experts.

Lula's administration will have to act on many fronts, said Brenda Brito from Amazon Institute of People and the Environment, a group focused on sustainable development in the Amazon. It will have to reverse court decisions that have favored land-grabbers inside conservation units and a offer wide range of economic incentives, from forest land concessions to supporting ecotourism.

“Otherwise, even if we manage to remove invaders, the protected areas will be invaded again,” she said.

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