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The fate of the Amazon rainforest may rest on the results of Brazil's vote on Sunday

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Brazilians go to the polls Sunday to decide rather to - whether to give their right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, another four-year term. Bolsonaro has spent the past four years encouraging logging, mining and ranching in the Amazon rainforest, and this has led to record deforestation. More than 13,000 square miles of jungle have been lost, and that is an area larger than the state of Maryland. NPR's John Otis has been traveling through the Amazon and filed this report.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: So we're seeing a big black plume of smoke rising into the sky, so we're going to stop and check it out.

After driving just a few hours into the jungle, we spot our first fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIRE CRACKLING)

OTIS: Farmers and ranchers are torching the land to clear it of trees and underbrush.

It looks like a couple of acres have burned up already, and there's nobody watching over this, so this thing could spread.

Suddenly, the fire gets a lot louder as flames shoot to the top of palm trees.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIRE HISSING)

OTIS: Back in our truck, translator Monica Prestes and I have a hard time keeping track of all the fires.

So this looks like two fires. Oh, there's one on the other side of the road, too.

MONICA PRESTES: The color of the sky changed. It's gray now. We can no longer see the blue sky.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIRE CRACKLING)

OTIS: Until recently, Brazilian governments tried to clamp down on rainforest destruction. But since taking office in 2019, President Bolsonaro has incited it by promoting cattle ranching, gold mining and agro-industry in the Amazon. Eduardo Taveira, the top environmental official for Amazonas State, which includes most of the jungle, says the goal is to create badly needed jobs.

EDUARDO TAVEIRA: More than 50% of all the population are living below the line of the poverty. So it's not just about environmental issues that you're talking about.

OTIS: But there's been a free-for-all of deforestation. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro has gutted the environmental agencies tasked with preventing it, says Philip Fearnside of Brazil's National Institute of Amazonian Research.

PHILP FEARNSIDE: It sends a message to people who are at the front lines deforesting and so forth that they can violate any environmental laws they want, and later on all will be forgiven.

OTIS: Indeed, during our four days driving through the jungle, we're unable to find a single police officer or park ranger taking action to stop the destruction.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAINS RATTLING)

OTIS: We do come across numerous road maintenance crews, but their work makes it easier for newcomers to move into the jungle.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRANCHES BEING CHOPPED)

OTIS: Many, like Douval Costa, equate scorched earth with progress. He's just finished burning five acres of jungle to make way for a herd of cattle.

DOUVAL COSTA: Two days ago.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, really?

COSTA: Two, two, two.

OTIS: He freely admits that what he's doing is illegal.

COSTA: (Speaking Portuguese).

OTIS: In fact, Costa has been ticketed three times for chopping down the jungle. But he shrugs and says, nobody around here ever bothers to pay environmental fines.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRANCHES BEING CHOPPED)

OTIS: However, the situation could change soon. Ahead of Sunday's election, polls show Bolsonaro trailing Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. He's a former two-term president who has pledged to preserve the Amazon.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIRE CRACKLING)

OTIS: In the meantime, settlers here are rushing to raze the jungle while they still can. One farmer has only been here a month but has already cleared 30 acres.

UNIDENTIFIED FARMER: (Speaking Portuguese).

OTIS: Shirtless and lying in a hammock, he claims to be opening up space to plant pineapples and coconuts. But there's a for sale sign out front, and it's common practice for speculators here to pay people to live on their land and burn the jungle, which actually raises property values.

UNIDENTIFIED FIREFIGHTER: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: As our trip winds down, we finally spot some people trying to stop the destruction - a team of firefighters.

JOAO FILHO: (Speaking Portuguese).

OTIS: Fire Chief Joao Filho admits that it's frustrating to see so many jungle arsonists get off scot-free, but he doesn't dwell on it. He's too busy saving whatever patches of rainforest he can.

John Otis, NPR News, the Amazon Rainforest, Brazil. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.