Under Brazil’s radar, illegal logging abounds


Outside this rainforest town in the Brazilian state of Pará, 180 families engaged in a sustainable-development project called Virola-Jatobá have been doing their best to stop loggers from destroying their settlement’s forest. Taking turns to man a sentry box day and night, residents monitor the dirt track that links Virola-Jatobá to the Transamazon Highway.

The challenge, though, is daunting. Their settlement occupies 32,345 hectares (125 square miles)—a vast expanse that is almost entirely forest—and illegal loggers have clandestinely cleared their own track to gain access. At the end of September some families began to hear the unmistakable roar of skidders and tree-harvesting equipment at the back of their settlement. They discovered loggers were beginning to fell valuable timber—particularly ipê, or Brazilian walnut (Tabebuia spp.), a highly prized hardwood—with the idea of carrying it off by barge along a tributary of the Amazon River.

A small group of the settlers decided to act. Seven of them, accompanied by three officials from Brazil’s federal land-reform agency, the National Colonization and Agrarian Reform Institute (Incra), confronted the loggers.

“We drove by jeep as close as we could, and then we walked all day through the forest, guided by the sound of the machines,” says one of the men, a farmer who, like other residents, did not want to give his name for fear of reprisals. “We slept in the forest, and then early the next morning we confronted them. We were all scared, as we thought they might have armed guards protecting them.”

As it turned out, there was no violence. “There were only workers, not bosses or armed guards, and they seemed even more frightened than we were,” he said. “They shouted ‘Don’t shoot!’ and immediately handed over the keys to their machines. They even shared their lunch with us.”

The next day, an official from Ibama, the enforcement arm of the Brazilian environment ministry, arrived and fined the logging company for cutting without government permission and holding workers in slave-like conditions. Settlers drove some of the logging equipment out to the road leading to the settlement and hid them in the forest not far from their houses so that the logging company could not come back and reclaim them, as has happened elsewhere in the Amazon. (Ibama has impounded the vehicles.)

The episode underscores the difficulty of curbing illegal logging in Brazil’s Amazon region. With distances vast and regulatory personnel spread painfully thin, even forest dwellers committed to conservation often find that the only way to save their woodlands is to play a dangerous, de-facto enforcement role.

“We have to have people, men and women, guarding the entrance to our settlement day and night,” another of the community members says. “It’s the only way we can stop the logging companies from invading our settlement and stealing our timber. It’s dangerous work and we shouldn’t have to do it. It’s the government’s responsibility. But if we don’t stop the timber companies, there will be nothing left in ten years’ time and our children won’t have a future.”

Virola-Jatobá and its sister sustainable-development-project settlement, Esperança, were set up at the initiative of Sister Dorothy Stang, a U.S.-born nun who was gunned down in the eastern-Amazon state of Pará in 2005. Stang, 73 at the time of her death, allegedly was killed for opposing logging and ranching interests as she advocated for settlers engaged in sustainable use of the rainforest. (See “Factoring people into Amazon conservation”—EcoAméricas, March ’05.)

“Sister Dorothy saw that logging companies were beginning to take over the region, so she had the idea of setting up a series of sustainable-development projects right in the heart of the forest to stop them,” says Father Amaro Lopes, the Catholic priest in Anapu. “Her idea was to settle small farmers on 100-hectare plots. They would be able to clear one fifth of their land [as Brazilian law allows] while the rest would become a forest reserve.”

Virola-Jatobá and Esperança were created on public land, destined for agrarian reform. However, some landowners were claiming part of the land, and one of them was convicted of paying a gunman to kill Stang while she was visiting Esperança in 2005.

Although the idea was not taken up elsewhere in the Amazon as Stang had hoped, the first two settlements are firmly established. Both have internal divisions, with some families keen to accept payments offered by logging companies in exchange for allowing illegal cutting on their land. Other families, however, are more committed than ever to the course Stang charted. Fábio Lourenço de Souza, a settler in Esperança who is building a new house for himself and his family, is one of these. “We need to keep the loggers off our land because they wreck the forest,” he says. “We can earn enough to sustain our families by planting cacao, which brings in a good price, and keep our forest reserve intact.”

The conflict with big landowners and logging companies continues to simmer. Just like Virola-Jatobá, Esperança has a sentry box, but residents fear that loggers will resort to violence to get their way. Says Father Amaro: “I’ve heard several times that big landowners have offered gunmen R$25,000 (US$12,000) to kill me and even more to kill some of the community leaders. They offered R$50,000 ($24,000) for a gunman to assassinate Sister Dorothy and someone did it.”

In 2009 a plaque was nailed to a tree close to where Stang was murdered, paying homage to “the martyrs who have died in the struggle for the preservation of the forest and agrarian reform in the Amazon.” Within a few days, the plaque was riddled with bullets.

Further to the west, in the settlement of Rio Trairão, families are trying to take Stang’s idea a step further by avoiding logging even on a legal, sustainable basis, and living on the sale of products such as nuts and oils that they collect from the forest. They, too, are facing serious conflicts with loggers. The settlement was not officially created until the late 1990s, and by then logging companies were terrorizing the region.

“The loggers arrived in 1994,” explains Derisvaldo Moreira, known as Dedel, the leader of this settlement. “We were already there but Incra hadn’t yet made the settlement. The loggers wanted almost all of us to leave, but we said we wouldn’t go.” In the end an accommodation was reached, with the loggers agreeing that the settlers could take over a band of land, three kilometers (two miles) wide, beside the Trairão River.

For many years there was an uneasy truce, but in 2007 the settlers, most of whom are Catholics, began to discuss the Catholic Church’s theme for that year—Fraternity and the Amazon. With the encouragement of a Catholic nun, Sister Ângela Sauzen, they decided that they should start changing the way they farmed. As one of the settlers, Miguel Padre, put it: “It fell into our heads that we should be planting trees, not destroying them.”

This is how their project Sementes da Floresta (Seeds of the Forest) was born. All the families come from the northeast of Brazil, and until then they had conducted slash-and-burn agriculture, in which they clear forest, burn it and plant subsistence crops on the temporarily enriched soil. It was not easy for them to start thinking of the forest as a resource they should protect. They received visits from members of traditional river communities, called ribeirinhos, who have made sustainable use of the forest for many decades, and some of them visited nearby towns to take technical courses on the subject.

Today they walk confidently through the forest, identifying trees. “That’s the copaíba tree [Copaifera paupera],” says Dedel. “We’ve learned how to make a small slash in the trunk, collect the oil and then fill in the hole so the tree recovers.” They are collecting the oil for medicinal and cosmetic uses. They also make oil from Brazil nuts and from the seeds of various tree species. They have had difficulty meeting the quality standards of beauty-product makers, their main customers, and are struggling with the bureaucracy of setting up a community-owned company through which they hope to manage their venture.

Their most serious concern, however, is the hostility of illegal loggers. The settlers want to annex a large area of forest near their settlement for the Seeds of the Forest project, but the loggers see this as a direct challenge. Dedel and others have been approached by groups of men while working in the woods and have been told to halt the Seeds of the Forest initiative “or take the consequences.” In October, loggers felled timber with an export value of at least US$60,000 in Miguel Padre’s plot while he was away doing a course in sustainable forest management. EcoAméricas saw the area that had been cut shortly afterwards, and stopped Miguel Padre as he was driving back to his plot on a motorbike with his wife and two of his six children, to give him the bad news.

The logging companies are keen to maintain control in the region because they are making huge amounts of money. Indeed, illegal logging is so common that even loggers in the town of Uruará said off the record that they did not know a single logging company that was not skirting the law.

Signs of illegal activity abound. Traveling in the region, one routinely sees trucks loaded with valuable timber and displaying no number plates as they leave indigenous reserves or protected areas. At night these trucks arrive at the timber yards in Uruará and unload their cargo. During the day trucks with number plates carrying sawn planks of timber, each with an identification tag as required by law, leave the yards. How does the transformation happen?

The scam is simple. To get Ibama’s permission to extract timber, landowners must present the agency with a Plan for Sustainable Forest Management that includes an inventory of tree species on the property as well as a sustainable-logging plan. Once the plan has been approved, which generally occurs without the inventory being checked by authorities, the landowner receives what are popularly known as logging “credits.” Loggers prize these credits, which they use to make illegal timber look legal—a process known as “heating” the timber.

Many settlers in the region report that loggers bully them to draft sustainable-forestry plans, even if they have no timber on their land, so the loggers can buy the resulting credits. Others say that loggers have come to their settlement and promised to build bridges, maintain roads and erect schools if the community gave them credits. As the state often fails to provide these basic public services, such offers can be tempting.

The harm caused by illegal logging often is not detected by the government’s satellite-based deforestation monitoring systems, the most finely focused of which captures cleared areas of 6.25 hectares (15 acres) or bigger. That’s because rather than clear cutting, illegal loggers often fell only the most valuable trees—a form of selective cutting with a strong emphasis on economic value and very little concern for environmental stewardship.

The forest, while not devastated, can be seriously degraded as a result. A visit to the Irmã Dorothy settlement, an area awaiting designation as a sustainable-development project, underscores how illegal logging of this kind is occurring on a huge scale. Dozens of tracks branch off a road built unlawfully by the loggers, with scores of further tracks leading off the feeder roads, each with a so-called esplanade—a level piece of ground where timber is collected before it is transported out. The logging area resembles a secret town, yet the bulk of it is nevertheless screened by forest canopy, so the damage being done is not captured by the government’s satellite monitoring systems.

Juan Doblas, who analyzes digital geographic data for the Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA), a leading Brazilian environmental organization, used the GPS coordinates EcoAméricas had taken at the site and carried out a detailed analysis on the basis of satellite images from August 2012. He detected “nine areas, totaling 3,500 hectares (8,600 acres), that showed serious degradation.” This damage is not included in the Brazilian government’s annual Amazon deforestation figures, however, because none of the clearings exceeded 6.25-hectare minimum reported in the government’s monitoring system.

Though not as damaging in some ways as slash-and-burn clear cutting, selective logging—particularly the illegal variety, which often is not followed by the reforestation required under Brazilian law—has worrisome consequences. Gregory Asner, a Stanford University professor of environmental earth system science, and other scientists conducted a study to gauge the impacts of selective logging operations in the Brazilian Amazon from 1994 to 2004. In a 2006 paper published in the U.S. journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, his team concluded that “at least 76% of all harvest practices resulted in high levels of canopy damage sufficient to leave forests susceptible to drought and fire.”

On-the-ground observation such as that carried out by EcoAméricas in Pará state suggests that in areas along the Transamazon Highway, a great deal of such damage is being done to the rainforest, much of which will not be reflected in figures generated by Brazil’s satellite monitoring systems.

Those systems tell a story of recent success. According to the government’s latest annual report, 4,655 square kilometers (1,798 sq. miles) of rainforest was felled during the 12 months that ended on July 31. Though that’s an area the size of Rhode Island, it’s a far cry from the 27,700 square kilometers (10,700 sq. miles) of forest loss reported during the same period in 2003-04.

In Pará state, settlers say illegal loggers have moved steadily west along the Transamazon Highway and doing great harm to the forest. Says Dedel: “The teams the loggers send in don’t care how much damage they do. If we don’t stop the loggers, they will kill the forest.”

Dedel’s mother worries that her son’s outspokenness will cost him his life. Says his mother: “I can’t sleep at night for fear that Dedel, the oldest of my children, will be killed.”

- Sue Branford and Maurício Torres

Gregory Asner
Department of Global Ecology
Carnegie Institution for Science
Stanford, CA, United States
Tel: (650) 223-6902
Juan Doblas
Socio-Environmental Institute
Altamira, Brazil
Tel: +(55 93) 3515-5749