The world's largest rainforest is once again in grave danger.
Since 1978, the Amazon has lost some 289,000 square miles to cattle ranchers, soy producers, loggers, and industrial activity. Such rapid deforestation sparked a global "Save the Rainforest" movement in the late '80s and '90s that led to T-shirts, posters, concerts, and celebrity-led foundations.
Such attention proved successful. In 1989, Brazil, which is home to roughly two-thirds of the rainforest, launched the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Natural Resources (known as "Ibama") — a federal agency equipped with a fierce legion of armed environmental police. Deforestation immediately began to slow.
Then, in 2004, the government increased forest patrol again, cracked down on illegal harvesting activity, and offered incentives to farmers who otherwise survived off milling Amazonian lands.
Together with market forces, which made Amazon staples like beef and soy less profitable, these initiatives reduced deforestation by nearly two-thirds between 2005 and 2012.
The Acari river in the town of Apui, in the southern region of the state of Amazonas, Brazil. | (REUTERS/Bruno Kelly)
But despite the conservation efforts of the 1990s and aughts, deforestation has spiked once again. In 2016, 3,085 square miles of forest were destroyed — a remarkable 29 percent increase from the previous year and nearly double the losses from 2012.
There are many reasons why: The global demand for soy products — often planted over burned-down forestland after cattle ranchers have grazed it beyond use — has spiked in recent years. Brazil is also being hit with one of its most brutal recessions in decades.
The Ibama agents still guard the forest. Today, there are 1,300 such armed defenders roaming Brazil's Amazon by truck and foot. They have broad authority to punish troublemakers on the spot. They burn lumber-carrying trucks to the ground, raid logger camps, confiscate chainsaws and other equipment used to destroy the forest, and arrest the perpetrators at gunpoint. But Brazil's recession has severely depleted the force's funds.
"The loggers are better equipped than we are," one agent told Reuters, citing their outdated radio equipment and easily recognizable patrol vehicles. "We haven't even had enough money to pay for aptitude tests to allow our agents to carry guns."
Agents of the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama) check a motorist riding through the Amazon. | (REUTERS/Bruno Kelly)
Trucks loaded with tree trunks are burned by Ibama agents. | (REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino)
The Brazilian government has also eased its stance on protecting the trees in recent years, waiving fines for illegal deforestation and delaying its plan to completely halt destructive activity until 2030. In August, Brazil officially opened parts of the Amazon to mineral miners, causing outrage among environmentalists. (The rainforest is home to hundreds of thousands of rare plants and animal species, and absorbs more greenhouse gases than any other tropical forest in the world.)
"Forest loss is detrimental to the Earth's climate," The New York Times reports. "The clearing of woodlands and the fires that accompany it generate one-tenth of all global warming emissions, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, making the loss of forests one of the biggest single contributors to climate change."
Below, see how the Amazon's defenders battle for the jungle's future.
Ibama agents check men found at an illegal logging camp. | (REUTERS/Bruno Kelly)
An Ibama agent carries away confiscated chainsaws. | (REUTERS/Bruno Kelly)