Brazil on Verge of Legitimizing Amazon Land Theft on a Grand Scale

Line of trucks carrying soy through the Amazon. (Photo: Daniel Paranayba)

The Amazon is the sort of wild place where you often go looking for one thing, but find another. So it was when Mongabay travelled in May on a mission to observe illegal logging operations within federal conservation units beside the BR-163, the Amazon highway linking the city of Santarém on the Amazon River with Cuiabá, the capital of Mato Grosso state.

What we expected to find was a serious crime involving illegal timber extraction on federal lands, and possible infringement of labor laws, with workers held in conditions analogous to slavery.

What we encountered instead was a broader context of criminal activities that appears to explain legislation just rushed through Brazil’s National Congress and awaiting President Temer’s signature to turn over very large swaths of already protected Amazon rainforest to land thieves, mining interests and agribusiness.

On the trail of illegal loggers and miners

Using satellite images, experts had identified illegal logging activities to the east of BR-163, just south of the town of Vila de Três Bueiros, in the rural district of Trairão, in Pará state. To reach the illegal logging camp, we needed to drive a precarious dirt road that crossed the Branco River on a bridge built by the loggers themselves.

After a few miles, our truck got stuck and we got out to push. As we sank deeper into the mud, a man, about 40, appeared from the direction of the river. Visibly exhausted, and initially mistrustful, he said he’d come from a garimpo, a mine.

That was the first inkling we had that in addition to illegal loggers, there were miners operating inside the conservation unit illegally extracting cassiterite, the ore from which tin is extracted.

The miner, on the verge of collapse, begrudgingly told us he’d left the mine due to the terrible working conditions and because he hadn’t been paid. He’d been walking since the previous day, initially with a companion, who had given up, completely worn out. Turning one last look eastward to the way he’d come, he walked quickly west.

Then a logger arrived on a tractor and, thanks to his vast experience with Amazonian mud, we were soon hauled out. He warned us in a friendly, unembarrassed way: “The bridge [you need to cross] doesn’t exist anymore. We destroyed it so IBAMA and ICMBio [Brazil’s environmental agencies] won’t disturb us. Without a bridge, they only get there by helicopter.”

We weren’t sure whether to believe the logger, but just to be sure, we detoured south to where the BR-163 crosses the Branco River. There we rented a canoe with an outboard motor and travelled upriver for an hour to where the bridge should have been.

Sure enough, we came round a river bend and saw the wrecked bridge, plus a dilapidated ferryboat on the east bank at the border of the conservation unit. So the logger had been truthful: the illegal loggers decided who came across and who didn’t.

Another surprise at the ferry port: six men were stranded on the opposite bank, trying to get hold of the cables to haul the ferry over. Reluctant to say much, they indicated that they weren’t working for the loggers. They, too, were miners, who had fallen out with the mine owner, who, they said, had “done them over.” Trying to get away, they’d set up an impromptu camp two days earlier and now had little food and no drinking water.

The predicament in which these men found themselves was no surprise: impoverished workers at clandestine mines are almost always severely exploited by the mine “owners,” who make fortunes at their expense. Something similar goes on with illegal logging operations in the Amazon, where sawmill owners, hiding behind a façade of legality, exploit local rural laborers who often work in slavery-like conditions.

What we hadn’t expected in our search for illegal loggers on federal lands, was to instead find illegal miners there. But, as we learned first hand, for the wealthy men behind such operations, it makes no difference whether they are extracting timber or tin: what is important is to make money.

Illegal logging “forest degradation”

Brazilian authorities have known for some time that illegal logging was occurring on a considerable scale in the region. In February 2006, the federal government created a corridor of conservation units on both sides of the BR-163 to put an end to illegal deforestation, which had grown exponentially due to the access the road offered.

The conservation units had not been implemented, but their creation had stopped most deforestation, since it was mainly land thieves who were partially clearing the forest at that time with the intention of selling the cleared land at high prices to cattle ranchers. Once the conservation units were created, it meant the land could not be as easily bought or sold for big profits, so the cutting declined.

But other ways of exploiting the land and making money were found.

According to Juan Doblas, from the geoprocessing laboratory of the Brazilian NGO Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA), “while deforestation [for cattle ranching] ended, the plundering of the forest by loggers gained momentum.” This activity was more difficult to monitor and control because the loggers don’t clear the entire forest, but only extract the valuable trees. The severe damage they do to the understory, officially called “forest degradation,” mostly goes undetected by satellite monitoring, which only records what is known as “forest devastation” — the clear cutting of rainforest.

“Warming” wood

According to studies, almost all timber leaving this region is illegal, as it is mainly harvested on indigenous lands and conservation units. But once cut, the wood is transported, traded and even exported as if it had been logged legally.

Public Prosecutor Fabiana Schneider explained to Mongabay that there are various ways of “warming” wood, as the magic of legalizing illegal timber is called. “The techniques go from attaching licences granted for one area [where logging is permitted] to timber plundered from protected areas; to using sophisticated devices, such as license cloning; or even to the hacking of the computers of [federal] environmental bodies to print licenses.”

“In the Amazon, it is quite common for those committing environmental crimes, such as Tremonte and Climaco, to hold political positions.”

The claims as to timber origins on these licenses are often patently false. Mongabay was shown a license, issued in 2007, for timber in a sawmill yard owned by Valmir Climaco, now mayor of the town of Itaituba. According to this document, the timber was bought in the city of Belém close to the Atlantic Ocean and had been transported 1,132 kilometers inland, up the Amazon River to Itaituba on the Tapajós…