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BRASILIA - Two years ago, the Amazon was aflame, ravaged by arsonists and loggers. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro went to war.
Air Force C-130 aircraft spewed water and flame retardant over the burning jungle. The effort, in August 2019, launched a new and unprecedented military deployment to quell fires in the world's largest rainforest. He called it Operation Green Brazil.
"I am authorizing an operation to guarantee law and order," said Bolsonaro, the far-right president and former paratrooper, announcing the operation. "The armed forces, they readily took action," he added in a separate speech.
But after 19 fruitless months, the military has failed to safeguard the Amazon, a jungle larger than Western Europe that scientists consider a crucial buffer against climate change.
Government data show that deforestation last year surged to a 12-year high. Areas equal to seven times the size of London were destroyed.
And Operation Green Brazil has raised the white flag.
Late last year, Vice President Hamilton Mourao, a retired Army general and Bolsonaro's deforestation czar, announced that efforts to protect the rainforest in April will revert to Ibama, the civilian environmental-protection agency the deployment had bigfooted despite its history of success combating deforestation.
The military deployment was part of the Bolsonaro toolkit.
In his two-plus years in office, Bolsonaro has turned to soldiers to fill everything from cabinet posts to executive suites at state-run companies to Brazil's troubled response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The failure, according to environmental agents who accompanied soldiers during the deployment, was all but inevitable.
The military, they argue, has neither the tools, the mentality, nor the structure to target and pursue those responsible for the destruction. Its primary objective, national defense, shares few similarities with the law-enforcement expertise and forestry know-how required deep in the jungle, they say.
What's more, many in Brazil's military, as well as Bolsonaro himself, have historically called for developing the Amazon. They tout the rainforest's potential as a driver of economic growth and argue that developing the region can help keep covetous foreign powers from using its land, water, and minerals first.
Early in the administration, another former general and top advisor to Bolsonaro shocked many with a video in which he called for damming an Amazon tributary and extending a grain corridor toward Suriname. The project would have quintupled the human population of the northern Amazon, he said.
Izabella Teixeira, a leftist and former environment minister, likened the environmental views espoused by Bolsonaro to those of the military dictatorship that sought to populate the Amazon five decades ago.