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Scenes From The International Desk: Deep Inside The Amazon Rainforest


One of the biggest news stories of the year played out in the depths of the Amazon rainforest. Fires, many set by illegal clear-cutters, consumed more than 2 million acres of the forest. Our international correspondent Philip Reeves was there to talk to people at the center of the story, and there was one moment that never made it into a radio story but that stuck with him ever since. Now, all this week, we're asking our international correspondents to bring us scenes that hit the cutting room floor that they haven't been able to shake - today, Philip Reeves and the Amazon rainforest.

Welcome back, Philip.


CORNISH: So I understand you're taking us now to the western part of the Amazon rainforest. Set the scene for us.

REEVES: Yeah. We're going to a Brazilian state called Acre. I heard during the time of the fires that people there were getting particularly worried this year about what's been going on since the arrival and power of President Jair Bolsonaro, and I wanted to meet one man in particular. He works for a government agency that is supposed to enforce environmental laws in the forest by tracking down illegal ranchers and loggers. There are a couple of these agencies in Brazil. He works for one of them.

CORNISH: And given the politics of Bolsonaro, what does that mean for people in this agency?

REEVES: They feel that they - and they have been greatly weakened by Bolsonaro since his government took over. He's cut budgets. He's replaced staff. People working for him are most concerned and mostly too frightened to speak on the record, but this man wasn't. His name is Fluvio Mascarenhas. He's so worried that he checks the satellite data on the entire Amazon rainforest about twice a week on his computer, and he described to me what it feels like to be in his position and to see the forest shrinking in front of your eyes.


FLUVIO MASCARENHAS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: He says that his first feeling is one of worry, and the second is of outrage. His people don't understand what they're doing to society by enabling the destruction of the forest, the threat that they represent and their actions to the ecosystem, to the water, to climate - things that are essential to humanity itself.

CORNISH: You've heard these complaints from other people in your reporting, though. I mean, what struck you about this interview?

REEVES: Yeah, that's true. But to be sitting in the Amazon and hearing it from someone on the frontline of the battle trying to stop this stuff happening, a person who's in despair right now because he can't do his job - that was very striking. And the day after that conversation, I got a Jeep, and I went inside the forest. And I saw for myself what he was talking about. We went along a mud lane for about an hour, surrounded by this wall of forest on either side. I came across a cluster of shacks belonging to some farmers, and next to these shacks, there was a really large stretch of scorched forest where they'd just taken a bite out of the Amazon rainforest. The smoke was still rising from the ground.

CORNISH: What's the situation now? So much of the international news coverage was focused back in August and September.

REEVES: Yeah. The fires have died down, but the numbers are coming in, and they show that deforestation is up more than 80% in the Brazilian Amazon in the first 11 months of this year compared to last. Bolsonaro continues to argue that the Amazon should be open for development and its resources, its minerals exploited. He claims that can be done and combined with protection. Of course, many, many others disagree. He's facing accusations of encouraging these land grabs, as I mentioned, but also of encouraging violence. This is going to be one of the big issues of next year and also the new decade.

CORNISH: That's Philip Reeves, our correspondent based in Brazil.

Philip, thanks so much.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.