Brazil Pursues Crackdown on Loggers After Surge in Cutting

Brazil launched a crackdown on illegal logging after reports that deforestation in the country spiked last year. But policing the enormous Amazon basin -- home to millions of people living below the poverty line -- has turned out to be anything but simple.
SOURCE: | By Gene Thorp - The Washington Post - March 21, 2008
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 21, 2008; Page A01

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."

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