The scale of Brazil’s military deployment to the Amazon rainforest is best illustrated with numbers: over the past two years, almost 4,000 soldiers have launched hundreds of missions to tackle illegal deforestation, resulting in millions of dollars in fines, and the seizure of 500,000 cubic metres of contraband wood.

But, unfortunately for the country’s armed forces — which last month retreated from the world’s largest rainforest after the termination of Operations Green Brazil 1 and 2 — the most important figures are less impressive.

Despite the presence of the troops, deforestation in the Amazon last year reached its highest level in 12 years, with illegal loggers, gold miners and land grabbers tearing down more than 11,000 sq km of forest — an area seven times the size of London.

This destruction has sparked growing global pressure on Brazil, amid concerns over the impact of widespread tree loss on climate change.

Map of Operation Green Brazil

“The troops did the best they could,” says Ricardo Salles, Brazil’s environment minister. “Law enforcement in the Amazon is not an easy task and we recognise that. It is a large territory with many obstacles and it is very, very expensive.”

However, others are less forgiving, with independent analysts and environmental enforcement professionals describing the deployment as a costly and poorly planned stunt.

“The army came with expensive and flashy operations — and they came with a certain arrogance,” says José Augusto Pádua, a professor of environmental history at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. “Instead of learning from those who actually know the rainforest, they came with the belief they know how to solve everything.”

Critics say the deployed personnel — which included the army, air force and navy — lacked the agility required to catch highly mobile teams of loggers and gold miners in the dense rainforest.

“The army’s structure is not suitable for combating deforestation,” says one agent from Ibama, Brazil’s main environmental enforcement agency alongside sister group ICMBio.

“For example, Army helicopters are very large and therefore cannot land at deforestation sites, in addition to being very expensive.”

For Ibama, the military’s presence on its turf has been a sore point, having been starved of funding since Jair Bolsonaro became president and appointed Salles to the environmental brief in 2019. Both men are regularly accused by environmentalists of tacitly supporting illegal loggers and wildcat gold miners. Ibama and ICMBio, which primarily focuses on Brazil’s national parks, have had their budgets slashed by more than 30 per cent in each of the past two years.

Column chart of km² showing Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon*

Ibama currently has an annual budget for fighting environmental crimes of R$64.5m ($12m) per year. In comparison, the two-year-long military deployment cost almost $100m, according to Brazil’s Defence Ministry.

“We had isolated actions by the army, which generated some results, some impact, but far below what could be achieved if we had integration with federal agencies such as Ibama,” says André Guimarães, executive director of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, a non-profit promoting sustainable development. He points out that Ibama was forced to play second fiddle in many of the military’s operations.

“Intelligence on deforestation comes from Ibama,” he says. “But Ibama has been weakened and isolated since the beginning of this government.”

Brazil’s army has long taken a pronounced interest in the Amazon and, for much of the 20th century, saw developing the rainforest as crucial to ensuring the country’s sovereignty over its far-flung borders. Under Brazil’s military dictatorship, between 1964 and 1985, units were sent to the region to build roads, few of which have withstood the withering heat and rain.

“Defence is the armed forces’ primary function, but they also engage in construction, education and sanitation,” says Alcides da Costa Vaz, director of the Brazilian Association for Defence Studies. “Fighting deforestation is not typical, but they do have equipment and capabilities that are useful for this type of mission.”

In a note to the Financial Times, Brazil’s Ministry of Defence says the forces’ deployment was a “success” and this “can be seen when we observe the results already obtained”.

“Deforestation alerts in the region fell by 19.1 per cent between August and March of 2020/2021 compared to the same period [a year earlier],” the ministry says, adding that more than 100,000 patrols were carried out.

“In terms of effective results, there is the seizure of 504,000 cubic meters of wood, 2,067 vessels and 899 vehicles and tractors. In all, 5,422 fines and infraction terms were applied, totalling R$3.3bn,” the ministry says, emphasising that the army worked in partnership with Brazil’s environmental agencies.

The soldiers withdrew from the rainforest at the end of April and the onus of enforcement has now returned to Ibama and other agencies.

“The deployment of the armed forces was an attempt to generate hope, but ended up frustrating more than actually bringing results,” says Guimarães.

“There was an increase in deforestation and fires last year. The numbers do not lie.”

Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice