Pressure builds on Brazil protected areas


The audio, circulated July 7 to a WhatsApp message group, might at first be mistaken for military reconnaissance. But in reality, the activity being described was the transport of 16 pickup trucks belonging to Ibama, the enforcement arm of Brazil’s Environment Ministry. “I am here in Sorriso,” the speaker says, referring to a town in the state of Mato Grosso. Then, using a derogatory term that those with illegal landholdings reserve for Ibama enforcement vehicles, he adds: “I’ve come across 16 dirty pick-ups.” Before concluding, the message refers to pressure exerted on Brazil by Norway—a key funder of Amazon conservation projects—to hold the line on deforestation. Says the speaker: “Well, it’s the Norway effect reaching us here.”

The pickups were being sent north on two vehicle-transport trucks to bolster Ibama’s ability to combat illegal land clearing in the southwest portion of neighboring Pará state, an area where some of the Amazon region’s heaviest deforestation is occurring. Early the following morning, one of the carriers and all eight pickups on it were torched at a gas station further up the highway. The other managed to escape with its cargo of eight pickups intact. Investigators believe the July 7 audio, which was given to police and obtained by EcoAméricas, played a role in precipitating what authorities describe as a deliberate attack on Ibama. For their part, Ibama officials say they have no doubt that the motive was to hamper their agency’s ability to fight illegal land seizure and forest clearing in the region. Citing the arson, the federal government on July 25 sent 100 law-enforcement personnel to Pará state to bolster Ibama’s forest-protection operations.

The incident coincided with an outpouring of anger at the government this month by rural pressure groups that have an economic stake in undermining rainforest protections in Pará. The proximate objects of their ire were President Michel Temer’s vetoes in June of two measures that he had previously supported to reduce the size of a national park and a national forest in Pará. The excised portions would be reclassified as Areas of Environmental Protection (APA), a much less restrictive conservation status under which private ownership and economic activities such as ranching, mining, logging and arable farming are allowed with government approval.

The vetoes, if not eclipsed by subsequent legislation, would have effectively scotched the reclassification. That means all land within the original boundaries of the park and national forest would continue to be subject to their respective use restrictions, except in the case of a small corridor in Jamanxim National Park. There, conservation protection was removed to accommodate a right of way for a planned railway that will carry export soy and corn to a new barge terminal on the Tapajós River.

The about-face enraged proponents of reclassification in Pará as well as those advocating conservation rollbacks elsewhere in the Amazon. The quantity of Pará property involved was enormous. Had it not been vetoed, the provisional measure addressing Jamanxim National Forest alone would have reduced the forest’s size by 37%, or 486,000 hectares (1,876 sq miles)—a land area nearly equivalent in size to that of the U.S. state of Delaware. Activists, believed to include many who have engaged in illegal land-grabs in Pará, staged highway blockages, penned angry articles in local newspapers and vented on social media.

In issuing the vetoes, Temer was responding in part to criticism that environmental groups, scientists and international funding partners had leveled after Congress approved the reclassifications in June. Those critics portrayed the provisional measures—which are meant to address matters of urgency and must be supported by the president—as a worrisome weakening of Brazil’s commitment to forest conservation and to controlling greenhouse-gas emissions from deforestation.

On June 16, shortly before the president paid an official visit to Norway, his environment minister, José Sarney Filho, received an unusually frank letter by Vidar Helgesen, his Norwegian counterpart. Helgesen expressed concern about a recent surge in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon and the “the rollback of protection of significant tracts of the Amazon.” (See “Veto of Brazilian protected-area bills questioned”—EcoAméricas, June ’17.) Norway later announced a significant reduction in its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund, which was created to finance forest-protection efforts in the country and to which Norway—the leading donor—has given US$1.1 billion since 2008. (See “Norway blunt with Brazil on forest-protection concerns”—EcoAméricas—June ’17).

Rural activists in Pará ranging from land speculators to illegal loggers reacted angrily to what they termed foreign interference. Meanwhile, a Pará state lobbying group—the Forum of Entrepreneurial Entities in Pará—sent a letter to Temer demanding “the immediate suspension of the Amazon Fund.” Using national-security slogans reminiscent of those employed by the military government in the 1970s, the group accused the fund of serving “foreign interests” and “obstructing the productive sectors of Pará.”

Such sentiment is not lost on Temer, a conservative who became president after the impeachment last year of his predecessor, Dilma Rousseff, for budgetary malfeasance. Temer now faces corruption charges, is deeply unpopular and relies on support from the powerful “ruralist” caucus in Congress, which is allied with agribusiness, landowners and also reportedly some who engage in land grabs. Even as Temer issued the vetoes, his administration let it be known that the action was taken partly out of concern that the provisional measures might be vulnerable to court challenge unless approved in the form of regular legislation. His administration made clear it would make another, more definitive attempt at prying away protected public forestland for potential sale and commercial use.

That effort was launched on July 13, when the government introduced a new bill to shrink Jamanxim National Forest (PL 8107/2017)—this one in the form of regular legislation, not a provisional measure. In effect, the administration would let stand—at least for now-—the veto affecting Jamanxim National Park, but take another run at freeing up a portion of the national forest. The bill would shrink the national forest by 27%, or 349,000 hectares (1,347 sq miles), an area not as large as the one targeted in the vetoed provisional measure but one nevertheless nearly equivalent in size to the U.S. state of Rhode Island.

That the excised national forest land will have APA status is no insurance against deforestation. Juan Doblas, who monitors deforestation for the Geoprocessing Laboratory at the Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA), a Brazilian environmental organization, has compared the efficiency of APAs with other types of conservation units. “In 2016, 95.5% of the deforestation of the Terra do Meio mosaic of protected areas, which lie to the east of the Jamanxim National Forest, took place in an APA that accounts for only 20% of the area.”

The new bill represents an attempt to placate ruralist lawmakers while removing some of what conservationists considered the provisional measures’ worst excesses, most of which ruralist lawmakers had added by amendment. But the legislation has outraged environmental advocates. Said the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), a research nonprofit: “If passed, the bill will confirm once again that deforestation is out of control and, paradoxically, it has the backing of the government… This casts enormous doubt over the capability of the country to fulfil its greenhouse-gas commitments made in Paris in 2015.”

The Jamanxim National Forest lies west of the BR-163 highway, which runs north from Cuiabá, the capital of the soybean-producing state of Mato Grosso, to the Amazon River port of Santarém in western Pará state. Along with seven other protected areas, it was created in conjunction with an innovative set of conservation measures known as the Sustainable BR-163 Plan, which was drafted after a project to pave the highway was announced in 2003. The history of the Amazon is peppered with examples of road-improvement projects that attract settlers whose arrival then precipitates deforestation—a pattern the BR-163 plan aimed to break.

Key components of the plan, however, were never properly implemented. In 2004, deforestation in southwest Pará exploded amid expectations the paving would dramatically boost land access and prices. Property in reach of the roadway experienced some of the heaviest deforestation in the whole of Amazonia. Says Doblas: “Deforestation exceeded the most pessimistic projections. The loss of forest has been so uncontrolled that for every year between 2004 and 2013, except 2005, deforestation declined in the rest of Amazonia but continued rising in the region around the BR-163.”

The main reason for illegal forest felling on the Amazon frontier is “speculative deforestation,” or clearing publicly owned land and selling it to ranchers at a profit in the expectation the government will grant title to it once it is deforested.

“By just clearing the forest, land grabbers increase the value of [the property] by 100 or 200 times,” says cattle rancher Lincoln Queiroz Brasil, whose family legally bought a plot of land in the Pará state town of Novo Progresso from Incra, the government’s land-settlement agency, many decades ago. “Programs like Terra Legal [a government land-titling initiative] have also played a role, for they have made it easy for land thieves to gain amnesties for their illegal occupation of public land.”

The creation of protected areas, ranging from national parks to sustainably managed extractive reserves for traditional communities, has helped disrupt this process. Says Doblas: “The situation [around the BR-163] would have been much worse had it not been for the creation of the conservation units.” Even though many protected areas are not fully implemented and thus are vulnerable to illegal incursions, speculators cannot register deforested areas as theirs. Since private ownership is not permitted, deforestation loses its raison d’être. So like other protected lands, the Jamanxim National Forest, covering a huge 1.3 million hectares (3.2 million acres), has undoubtedly helped deter deforestation.

But with Brazil now led by a politically weak president beholden to the ruralist caucus, those looking to dismantle protected areas are becoming much bolder. After years of delay, the paving of BR-163 is almost finished, with just 200 kilometers (120 miles) still to be paved along the 1,800-kilometer (1,100-mile) route. Dramatically improving the transport logistics for Mato Grosso’s soy, the road already has become the state’s main export route to the north. Land prices have galloped along the highway in both Mato Grosso and Pará. Even though much less deforestation occurs within protected areas than on unprotected public lands, some profiteers have come to believe that if they destroy large areas of protected forest, they can get the conservation status lifted. It is the law of the fait accompli.

Jamanxim National Forest has become a prime target. For years those pushing for the forest’s reclassification have staged highway blockages and generated flurries of blog posts arguing, as one did, that the protected area has “frozen the region and stopped farmers from producing.” In 2009, they pressured the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), the agency that administers federal protected lands, to examine a claim aimed at establishing social legitimacy for their position. The claim was that when the national forest was established, large numbers of peasant families had already been living on the land, and that their livelihoods were destroyed when the area gained protected status.

The study didn’t substantiate the claim. It found that 67% of the holdings in the area had been established after the creation of the forest; that the average tract was 1,843 hectares (4,554 acres), far larger than a peasant holding; and that 60% of the new “residents” didn’t live on their plots. ICMBio did, however, agree to small adjustments to satisfy the genuine claims of some of the families, removing from the unit an area of 35,000 hectares (86,500 acres)—3.7% of the total.

Ibama and ICMBio have tried hard to regain control of the area, carrying out expensive enforcement operations. Forest felling declined as a result. But over the last few years both agencies have sustained huge budget cuts, forcing them to cut back dramatically on policing. As a result, illegal deforestation rates in Jamanxim National Forest rank among the highest of all Brazilian protected areas. According to satellite image analysis conducted by The Nature Conservancy, a U.S.-based environmental group, Jamanxim National Forest during 2014-16 lost 13.55% of its forest cover.

In June 2017 Ubiraci Soares da Silva, the mayor of nearby Novo Progresso who goes by the nickname Macarrão, was fined by Ibama for illegally clearing an area within the national forest. Paradoxically, proponents of reclassification use such illegal cutting to build their case. Indeed, the government is now saying that it must reduce the size of Jamanxim National Forest because so much of the area already has been cleared. When EcoAméricas visited the region last November, rumors were rife that the status of the national forest would soon be changed. A smiling Agamenon da Silva Menezes, president of the Rural Union, a landowners’ association in Novo Progresso, hinted that the growing clout of the ruralist bloc in Congress under President Temer would tip the balance.

Meanwhile, failure to fully implement and enforce the BR-163 corridor conservation plan created openings for destructive activity. Juan Doblas explains that after protected areas had been created along the highway, speculators found a new way to earn money: “While deforestation for cattle ranching ended, the plundering of the forest for timber gained momentum.” Loggers, he says, became expert in extracting valuable timber from the forest understory, seriously degrading the woodland without being spotted by government satellites. Using satellite images with a higher degree of resolution, however, experts earlier this year detected extensive illegal logging of this type east of BR-163.

Keen to see an illegal logging operation, EcoAméricas set out to do so in a visit in May to Jamanxim National Park, but found it difficult to reach the camp. Loggers had destroyed the bridge over the only access road. One unashamedly explained: “We destroyed it so Ibama and ICMBio won’t disturb us.” When we eventually got to the camp we had a surprise in store: illegal logging was going on, to be sure, but so was a substantial amount of illegal mining for cassiterite, the ore from which tin is extracted.

“You’re out of touch with reality here,” said one of the miners working illegally inside the national park. “The road was built because of logging, but now the big money is in mining.”

No longer gold as in the past, cassiterite is the new target of miners. “Today I’m only interested in mining”, said one man who claimed to “own” several thousand hectares within the park. For land thieves, it makes little difference which product they illegally extract—timber or cassiterite. For both, they use unregistered workers, often held in conditions akin to slavery, and make large profits. But there is one important distinction: it is impossible to conceal open-cast mining from detection from the air. This is one reason why the speculators are keen to have the status of the conservation units changed.

The illegal forest felling happening today in the southwest of Pará is among the heaviest in the Amazon basin. Most of those involved don’t own a single head of cattle or cultivate crops. Deforestation is carried out to gain ownership of the land. For many involved in Brazilian rainforest-protection, a commonly heard maxim in the region, “Dono é quem desmata,” or “he who fells the forest owns the land,” is becoming all too true.

- Sue Branford and Maurício Torres

Agamenon da Silva Menezes
Association of Rural Producers of Novo Progresso
Novo Progresso, Pará, Brazil
Tel: +(55 93) 3528-1177
Juan Doblas
Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA)
Brasília, Brazil
Tel: +(55 61) 3035-5114
Documents & Resources
  1. For new bill to downsize Jamanxim National Forest (PL 8107/2017): (Click on text next to “PL 8107/2017”) Link