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RIO DE JANEIRO -- Under pressure from European governments, foreign investors and Brazilian companies concerned about the country's reputation, President Jair Bolsonaro has banned forest fires for the four months of the dry season and set up a military operation against deforestation.

The new stance represents a notable turnaround by a government that has drawn widespread global condemnation over its environmental policies.

A year ago, as fires engulfed the Amazon, Bolsonaro of Brazil reacted to criticism from abroad. "The Amazon is ours," he said, arguing that the fate of the rain forest was for his country to decide.

Environmentalists, experts and foreign officials who have pressed Brazil on conservation matters are skeptical of the government's commitment, afraid these actions amount to little more than damage control at a time when the economy is in deep trouble.

Bolsonaro and many of his political allies have long favored opening the Amazon to miners, farmers and loggers, which threatens land rights of indigenous communities. Deforestation has spiked under his tenure.

But as the political and business costs of policies that prioritize exploration over conservation escalate, some activists see an opportunity to slow, or even reverse, that trend by promoting private sector support for greener policies.

"Brazil is becoming an environmental pariah on the global stage, destroying a positive reputation that took decades to build," said Sueley Araujo, a veteran environmental policy expert who was dismissed as the head of the country's main environmental protection agency soon after Bolsonaro took office.

Brazil's worsening reputation on the environment has also put in jeopardy two important foreign policy goals: the implementation of a trade deal with the European Union and its ambition to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a 37-country group. Both deals require Brazil to meet baseline standards on labor and environmental policies.

A sign of the potential economic damage to Brazil's interests came in late June, when more than two dozen financial institutions that collectively control some $3.7 billion in assets warned the Brazilian government in a letter that investors were steering away from countries that are accelerating the degradation of ecosystems.

The message has registered within Brazil. The country's three largest banks announced last week a joint effort to press for and fund sustainable development projects in the Amazon.

And a group of former Brazilian finance ministers and central bank presidents argued in a joint statement in July that the best way to jump-start the economy is by investing in greener technologies, ending fuel subsidies and drastically reducing the deforestation rate.

Brazilian leaders have often bristled at foreign-led campaigns to save the rain forest, regarding such efforts as an underhanded way to hinder the economic potential of the vast nation, which is a leading exporter of food and other commodities.

In July 2019, Bolsonaro told a conference of international journalists that the rate of deforestation in the Amazon should concern Brazil alone.

During the first six months of this year, loggers razed approximately 1,184 square miles of the Amazon, according to Brazil's National Institute for Space Research. That area -- slightly smaller than the state of Rhode Island -- is 25% larger than the forest cover lost during the same time period in 2019.

Environmental experts say the military operation to curb deforestation, which includes more than 3,600 troops and law enforcement agents, will at best make a dent in deforestation and fire trends this year. To fundamentally reverse them, they say the government would need to make sweeping changes to bolster the staffing level, tools and political backing of the environmental protection agencies.


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