Bernardino Miquiles and his Sateré Mawé people face relentless pressure from illegal loggers in a remote part of Pará state.
In Brazil these days, Covid-19 isn’t the only destructive force characterized by a relentless spread and a feckless government response. The same can be said about the illegal logging of ostensibly protected rainforest lands, and nowhere is the point illustrated better than in the state of Pará.
“There is no pandemic for land grabbers and loggers,” says an indigenous man from Cachoeira Seca, an indigenous reserve in Pará. “They bring the virus, take out the wood and threaten those who dare to report the illegal logging.”
A survey by the Socio-environmental Institute (ISA), a respected Brazilian research and advocacy nonprofit, found that Cachoeira Seca over the past six years suffered one of the highest levels of deforestation among protected areas nationwide. Locals are too frightened to complain, adds the indigenous man, who declined to be quoted by name for fear of retribution from illegal loggers. “Here, everyone needs to be deaf, dumb and blind,” he says.
Located close to this indigenous territory is another hotspot of illegal logging—the Riozinho do Anfrísio, a publicly owned extractive reserve. Such reserves are set aside for traditional communities engaging in environmentally friendly activities including hunting, fishing and subsistence agriculture as well as gathering and selling marketable forest products ranging from Brazil nuts to oil from the copaiba tree (Copaifera langsdorffii). Riozinho do Anfrísio’s traditional ribeirinhos, or “river people,” have occupied the land since migrating from elsewhere in Brazil to work in rubber plantations over a century ago. But the government did not formally recognize their ties to the land until it created the extractive reserve in 2004. Until then, land thieves had tried to force the ribeirinhos out through harassment ranging from death threats to setting their houses on fire. The trespassers also clear-cut nearby forest, often the first step in stealing the land for other uses such as cattle ranching. The local population resisted fiercely, ultimately prompting the government to designate the land an extractive reserve.
The move changed the dynamics within Riozinho do Anfrísio. “The simple act of turning this public land into a protected area meant that land thieves would never be able to get land titles for the property so there was no point in clear-cutting more areas,” explains Maurício Torres, a lecturer at the Federal University of Pará who has been researching the region for nearly two decades.
The extractive reserve forms part of a mosaic of protected areas that covers over 28 million hectares (108,000 square miles), an area the size of the U.S. state of Colorado. Known collectively as Terra do Meio, the protected areas are intended to act as a cordon sanitaire to stem the advance of land clearing and illegal logging in Pará state. But while effective in slowing the illegal clear-cutting and appropriation of land, they have not stopped the illicit extraction and sale of select, high-value tree species.
“Today they [the loggers] have even installed a sawmill inside the extractive reserve,” says a local who asked to remain anonymous. “We have reported what is going on to ICMBio [the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation, the public agency that administers the reserve], but no action has been taken.” ICMBio has not responded to EcoAméricas’ request for comment.
Data from the Xingu+ Network, a grouping of nonprofit organizations that monitors forest destruction, corroborates what Riozinho do Anfrísio residents say. Thaíse Rodrigues, a geoprocessing analyst for the network, says that in the two years ending in July 2020, “we detected within the [extractive reserve] more than 360 kilometers [224 miles] of new roads, of which 169 kilometers [105 miles] were opened in 2020 alone.”
The trespassers use different strategies for different protected areas. When they believe the government will one day reduce the size of a reserve, possibly allowing them to gain ownership of the land, they continue to have the forest clear-cut. This is the case in the Cachoeira Seca Indigenous Territory, a disputed area where non-indigenous farmers, with the help of local politicians, are trying to get an area excised from the reserve so they can obtain legal title. In other areas, like the Riozinho do Anfrísio extractive reserve, loggers realize the government is unlikely to shrink the safeguarded area, so they selectively target the most valuable tree species and fell that timber, in some cases nearly to the point of local extinction. A study ISA conducted in partnership with the European Commission showed that illicit extraction of high-value tree species affected almost twice as much land in indigenous territories as illegal clear-cutting did in those areas.
The result of this opportunistic felling of high-value species is forest degradation rather than outright deforestation, and in some indigenous reserves it already affects more than 90% of the land. Yet this targeted timber extraction is not accounted for in Brazil’s deforestation figures, which only measure the clear-cutting of continuous areas of primary forest larger than 6.25 hectares (15.4 acres). Clear-cutting alone, to be sure, takes an enormous toll. According to figures published by Prodes, the satellite monitoring service run by the Brazilian government’s Institute for Space Research (INPE), 11,088 square kilometers (4,281 sq. miles) of Amazon forest were cleared between August 2019 and July 2020, the highest level since 2008. But experts say that for a full picture of the damage being done to Brazilian woodlands, forest degradation must be measured as well.
“You need high-resolution satellite images, which can detect small clearings in the forest, and for the images to be taken frequently before vines grow over the gap left by the felled tree in the canopy,” says Juan Doblas, an expert in remote sensing. But as yet there is no reliable automatized system for doing this, he says, so it has to be carried out by specialized labor, which increases the cost.
Though forest degradation is less obvious to the eye than clear-cutting, over time it can erode a woodland’s health to the point that forest-dwelling wildlife and human communities cannot survive. Several factors, such as climate change, forest fires and disease, can bring about forest degradation; but the main cause is illegal logging. According to WWF, forest degradation—in terms of the area affected—is an even bigger problem worldwide than outright deforestation. In a 2016 article in Nature, scientists from a variety of institutions, 11 of them Brazilian, analyzed biodiversity loss caused by loggers opening small clearings in the forest and building rough tracks to permit access. They concluded the impact was almost as damaging as that of full-on forest clearing.
“Even small roads can inhibit the movement of understory forest birds,” says Jos Barlow, Professor in Conservation Science at Lancaster University and one of the authors of the Nature article. “They also reduce water quality and create barriers to fish movement in the network of small streams that criss-cross Amazonia and hold much of its aquatic biota. Small roads will have an impact on the microclimate forest, enabling forest fires to enter deeper into protected areas.”
Ageu Lobo, leader of the Montanha and Mangabal community on the banks of the Tapajós River in western Pará, corroborates the researchers’ conclusions from his everyday experiences. “This illegal activity has a strong impact on our way of life: trees whose fruits are part of our traditional basic diet are cut down, and some species of game become scarce as the animals lose their sources of food and migrate.”
Among those most affected by forest degradation are forest peoples. Often the principal guardians of the forest, they become caught in a vicious circle: the weakening of their communities leads to more forest degradation and more deforestation, all of which lessens the capacity of the forest to absorb carbon, exacerbates the climate crisis and increases forest fires.
The main exit route for the high-value timber taken from the Riozinho do Anfrísio extractive reserve is through Areia, an agrarian-reform settlement just outside the reserve. As land-tenure questions are not fully resolved there, Areia residents don’t have access to government programs that support family farming, and thus are at the mercy of local timber traffickers.
Overall, illegal logging—both in the form of clear-cutting and the targeting of select species—boosts the total volume of timber extracted from the Brazilian Amazon far above the levels that are legally allowed. A study conducted in Pará state by the Institute of People and the Environment of the Amazon (Imazon), a Brazilian research nonprofit, gets at the scale of the problem. Focusing on the 12 months ending in July 2018, Imazon compared the amount of timber that could be felled legally under government-approved forest-management plans with the amount that was actually extracted. It concluded that just 30% of the timber brought to market from Pará state in that period was felled legally.
So much money can be made from illegal logging that the region has become a veritable Wild West. In 2011 João Chupel Primo, a mechanic from the city of Itaituba, made a formal complaint to the Federal Public Ministry (MPF), an independent body of federal prosecutors, saying that timber traffickers in a single day had transported about 3,500 cubic meters of ipê, a valuable hardwood, worth around US$9 million at its final destination. Two days later gunmen entered Primo’s workshop in Itaituba and shot him dead. Over 20 people were murdered between 2010 and 2018 after running afoul of timber traffickers, according to conservative estimates.
The only way that those opposing traffickers can try to protect themselves is to register with the Brazilian government’s Program for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. This was the route that Osvalinda Pereira, president of the Areia Women’s Association, followed. Though Pereira tried to avoid direct confrontation, the loggers saw her as a threat because she was trying to involve the settlers in an agro-ecological farming initiative as an alternative to working for timber traffickers. She and her husband now live under constant death threats. (See Q&A—this issue.)
Further west in Pará, on the border with Amazonas state, the Sateré Mawé indigenous leader, Bernardino Miquiles, faces similar pressure. He is even farther from any state presence that might offer him a minimum of security, since it takes at least two days to travel by motorized canoe from Campo Branco, the village where he lives, to Parintins, the nearest city.
In early 2019, EcoAméricas followed this route, hearing the incessant whine of machines working in the forest and seeing barges loaded with timber. (See "Amazon ‘retakings’ challenge Bolsonaro" —EcoAméricas, July 2019.) It was in this region that a massive amount of timber, scattered across different landings along the Mamuru and Arapiuns Rivers, was seized in November and December of last year—43,700 logs, amounting to 141,100 cubic meters, the largest seizure of native wood in the history of Brazil. (See "Huge seizure spotlights timber-trafficking loophole" —EcoAméricas, January 2021.) There are many common elements in the accounts given by Miquiles, Pereira, Lobo and other “peoples of the forest” who are resisting illegal loggers: the attempted co-optation, the repeated visits by gunmen, the escalation of tensions.
Trafficking persists due in no small part to a veneer of legality. Trees can be felled legally under government-approved forest-management plans, which are used to guide sustainable logging on private and public land—including, in some cases, protected areas. These plans call for a certain number of trees to be removed based on a required timber inventory of the site.
Through bribery or negligence, however, this system is widely abused. Sometimes the inventories exaggerate the volume of valuable species. For instances, according to scientific studies, the average density of ipê in the Amazon forest is 0.2 to 0.4 trees per hectare. But some plans claim a much higher number per hectare, thus generating “credits,” or authorizations, for the felling of far more ipê than is justified. At other times the management plan that a timber company files with authorities includes logging credits for land which, unbeknownst to regulators, is already deforested. The credits are then used to mask excess cutting by the company in other, unauthorized locations.
To engage in such maneuvers is often referred to as “esquentar a madeira,” or to heat the wood. Hugo Loss, an analyst at Ibama, Brazil’s environmental-enforcement agency, describes three main stages when this “heating” takes place: when timber is felled in unauthorized areas using credits for harvesting in authorized areas; when timber being transported is falsely described as coming from an authorized area; and when the wood is turned over to a sawmill under a fraudulent credit.
Since right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro took office on Jan. 1, 2019, his country’s already inadequate controls over illegal logging have been further weakened. A key rollback occurred in February 2020, when the government revoked part of a 2011 Ibama regulation on forest-product port inspections. The move effectively stopped Ibama personnel from verifying whether foreign-bound timber shipments matched authorized species and volumes. (See "Huge seizure spotlights timber-trafficking loophole" —EcoAméricas, January 2021.)
Suely Araújo, a former Ibama president who is now a policy specialist at the nonprofit Climate Observatory, says the rollback of the regulation was not an isolated event. “From January 2019, the president and other government officials started to dismantle and publicly delegitimize Ibama and the ICMBio,” Araújo says. “After they had carried out successful operations to curb environmental crimes, highly experienced officials were removed from their positions. Military officers with no relevant experience were put in charge of field operations in the Amazon. It is sad to witness this dismantling, as the promises directly or indirectly made in the electoral campaign are being carried out.”
Amazon region river dwellers, peasant farmers and indigenous people interviewed by EcoAméricas say speeches by Bolsonaro and his ministers have put their woodlands—and their personal safety—at risk by emboldening timber traffickers. Says Pereira: “Here at home, we take turns sleeping. One of us is always awake, watching, because it is impossible to relax when there is a bounty on your head.”
- Thais Borges and Sue Branford
In the Index: Brazilian timber traffickers often operate on a large scale, using flatbed trucks such as the one shown on the right, removing illegally cut logs from the Cachoeira Seca indigenous reserve, and barges of the kind pictured above, carrying illegally cut logs on the Mamuru River. (Photos by Thaís Borges and Maurício Torres)