Brazil Pursues Crackdown on Loggers After Surge in Cutting

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 21, 2008

TAILANDIA, Brazil -- The Brazilian government has launched an aggressive crackdown on logging in the Amazon, an operation that pits environmental regulators against people who say they depend on those protected resources to survive.

After three years of declining rates of deforestation, satellite images released in January showed that as much as 2,700 square miles of land in the Brazilian Amazon had been cleared in the final five months of 2007 -- a rate that would represent more than a 60 percent increase over the five-month average of the previous year.

The government quickly declared a moratorium on logging in the hardest-hit areas, including this town, which sits about four hours by car from the mouth of the Amazon River. Officials estimate that 70 percent of the population of about 65,000 here depends on the wood industry. Some work for big logging operations. Many more are like Ediline Natos, the wood industry's version of sustenance farmers.

Natos, 18, stood motionless in the door of her slat-board house here last week, watching a line of trucks rumble to a stop on the isolated dirt road out front. Dozens of federal police spilled out, protected by national guardsmen wearing bulletproof vests and bearing machine guns. Soon, environmental regulators armed with metal poles began destroying her livelihood: seven brick ovens used to bake wood into charcoal.

"These ovens are illegal, so we have to do it," Juner Caldeira Barbosa, a federal police commander, informed Natos.

About 35 percent of all logging here in the state of Para feeds charcoal ovens. That charcoal is purchased by companies that resell it for use in steel production. The two biggest importers of that charcoal are China and the United States, according to environmental officials here.

After Natos's ovens collapsed in shifting heaps of smoke and ash, police tried to comfort her. It didn't work.

She said her husband was away for the day in the city, her eyes welling up as she thought of his return. The ovens, she explained, cost $300 each to make. When the police searched the house, they found her husband's chain saw and confiscated it.

"This is going to be a problem," she said, wiping away a tear. "I have no idea what we are going to do. This is how we survive."

They live miles from their nearest neighbor, so they would likely have to move to find new work that is both legally sanctioned and economically viable. Or they could wait a few weeks until the police and regulators shift their focus elsewhere and rebuild the ovens. The companies that profit on their charcoal might finance the rebuilding.

Just before the police and inspectors drove away, one of the environmental agents told Natos that she would be fined about $600 for each oven she tried to rebuild. He also said that they found some cages behind the house. The birds inside were her pets.

"Those are illegal, too," he said. "So we opened the cages and set them free."

Her face was blank as they walked to their trucks. She might have been sad, or simply stunned.

Spotty Enforcement

About 25 sawmills operate near Tailandia, and inspectors in recent weeks have found that most -- in one way or another -- violate the law. Since Feb. 25, the inspectors have levied more than $2 million in fines here, confiscated more than 8,000 cubic meters of illegal timber and destroyed more than 800 unlicensed charcoal-producing ovens. Those destroyed ovens alone would have consumed about 23,000 young trees in one month, according to average production rates.

All of that represents a minuscule fraction of the deforestation in Brazil, where most of the Amazon forest is located. After three years of declining rates of deforestation, cutting has spiked sharply nationwide. The 2,700 square miles cut in the last five months of 2007 followed the clearing of 4,300 square miles during the previous 12 months, according to government figures.

Demand for the illegal wood and charcoal is only one factor contributing to the cutting. Brazil's Environment Ministry places more of the blame on farmers who clear forest plots to create soybean fields and cattle ranches. Officials say that ranching and farming are responsible for up to 80 percent of total deforestation nationwide. Brazil is the world's leading beef exporter, and a recent agricultural boom has it poised to surpass the United States as the world's top soy exporter.

The combination of factors has made illegal logging a consistent economic opportunity for the millions living below the poverty line. Enforcing the law is spotty at best for regulators, who can monitor only a small fraction of the Amazon region at a time. For years, their work has been further undermined by widespread allegations of bribery and corruption.

Since January, the government has banned all logging in 36 municipalities throughout the country. Fines for illegal cutting have been stiffened. Officials also have tried to expand the scope of potential violations. For example, slaughterhouses that process meat from illegally cleared ranches can be cited.

The Brazilian government is studying the economic potential of sustainable logging operations in the areas targeted by Operation Arc of Fire. But officials had no intention of waiting for those studies to be completed before going after violators.

"This is the most important challenge we have -- to transform an economy that's been based on a predatory process since, well, forever, and turn it into a sustainable one," said Joao Paulo Ribeiro Capobianco, the country's deputy minister of the environment. "To do that, we have to stop the illegal activities first. You can't stimulate sustainable logging if you have another business nearby operating in a different way and putting wood in the same market."

Many Brazilians will need some convincing if they're going to play along. Before the federal police and national guard arrived in Tailandia, thousands of residents had rioted.

Fabricio Fran¿a, one of the six environmental inspectors in the city at the time, said that the tension began when he and his colleagues began to confiscate wood from loggers. Residents started to gather in the streets, inviting confrontation.

"We got a call on the radio from a local police colonel who told us we should try to leave town," Fran¿a said. "The colonel told us, 'There are about 3,000 people in the street and we can't hold them anymore.' "

Expired Licenses

When environmental inspectors arrived at the gates of a large lumberyard outside Tailandia last week, they found a sign erected by their own agency claiming that the business adhered to sustainable logging practices.

It was an old sign. The sawmill was shrouded in smoke from charcoal ovens that burned near the line of the forest. Open fields were littered with scrap wood. Truck beds were piled high with cut logs.

The lumberyard's manager soon arrived to find dozens of police and inspectors eating lunch on the property. When they asked to review his permits, he appeared irked. The papers showed that the site had permission to operate 49 charcoal ovens -- not the 79 that were burning nearby.

"And these licenses have expired," explained one of the inspectors, pointing to a date written near the top.

In addition, the inspectors said they strongly suspected that the company had been exceeding its cutting limits. All around the grounds, vast stretches of forest had been recently cleared.

Police and inspectors have been assessing the area by helicopter, trying to spot such cutting. It's not difficult.

From the air, patches of light green can be seen among the darker patches of dense forest. As the aircraft descends closer to the tree cover, random stacks of hardwood come into view in the middle of the "virgin" forest. Narrow roads have been cut through the forest to reach those harder-to-spot areas. This type of specialized extraction is not included in Brazil's current deforestation statistics, which track only clear-cutting.

"The loggers are getting so good at this that they also fly over the areas, spot areas where a few expensive noble woods -- like mahogany and peroba -- grow, and then they mark the locations with GPS," said Bruno Versiani dos Anjos, the environmental protection agency's coordinator for Operation Arc of Fire. "They calculate whether or not it is financially sensible to cut a new road through the forest that exists solely for the purpose of getting to those few trees. And then they do it."

The inspectors drove the lumberyard manager to Tailandia to officially serve notice that the company would be investigated for possible criminal charges. The convoy of police trucks rolled through town, attracting suspicious stares from residents.

Later, they arrived at the police and environmental inspectors' temporary headquarters. A sign on the building used to label it as the town's Hall of Justice. Now that sign is unreadable. Residents had torn down most of the letters.

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