Amazon Loggers Caught in the Act

For Those Struggling to Survive, Chopping a Few Trees Out of a Forest That Seems to Stretch Forever Can be Irresistible

Illegal logging in the Amazon is usually a faceless phenomenon. Authorities find out about tree poaching after the fact through satellite imagery, or get tips that lead them hours into the forest only to find the perpetrators — and the logs — long gone. With under-funded enforcement agencies monitoring a forest larger than the continental United States, the odds are stacked in favor of the criminals.

Photo by Ray Brown/TreeViverBrazilian environmental crime agents question a truck driver transporting three huge logs out of the forest. Globally, the illegal timber trade is
worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year, but very little of that money makes it into the hands of the people risking their lives to cut down trees.

Ray Brown, director of Colorado-based TreeViver, was recently part of a raid in Mato Grosso state that led him to reflect on the human side of the battle for the Amazon. TreeViver is a social venture to reforest degraded land in Mato Grosso, and Brown interacts extensively both with people destroying the forest and those trying to save it.

Brazil has reduced its overall deforestation rate dramatically in the last decade with improved satellite surveillance, better cooperation between environmental and law enforcement agencies, more effective laws regulating loans to landowners, and stricter enforcement of the existing forest protection laws. In the last two years, however, deforestation in Mato Grosso has reached an all-time high, making it the epicenter of the fight to save the Amazon.

A few weeks ago, the Secretaria Estadual de Meio Ambiente — the Brazilian agency responsible for investigating environmental crimes — received a series of tips from a reliable informer about an illegal logging operation near the town of Juina, in northwestern Mato Grosso. The nearly hourly updates, including details about vehicles, locations and more, made it clear that the operation was underway and that this might be a rare opportunity to actually catch the perpetrators in the act.

Brown was invited by Ambiente agent João Vitor Ceran to document the raid, which was to be a joint operation between the state and federal enforcement agencies. The decision to join was not one to be taken lightly in a region where environmentalists often find themselves on the wrong end of a gun.

Brown, Ceran, and a group of the state agents loaded up in their pickup truck and headed to the meeting point at the edge of the forest where they met up with the federales. From there they proceeded into the forest on a muddy road that was more like a horse trail than the paved road indicated on the map.

The officials soon encountered a man on a motorcycle. The federales stopped and questioned the visibly nervous villager, but finding nothing on him, let him go. Five minutes later they came across a big, ancient truck grinding along the road. Usually, these trucks in the Amazon are open flatbeds, but this one had wooden sides that hid what was inside.

The agents questioned the truck driver. They asked him to move away from the truck as they inspected and catalogued the contents — three huge logs, chainsaws, and fuel. The clearly panicked driver he said he took the logs because he was very poor and needed to build a house for his mother. As they measured out the logs in the truck, one of the agents whispered to Brown: “We never catch the people!”

It doesn’t help that the environmental crime department isn’t authorized to make arrests. Only the Brazilian police can do that. The agents needed to move on and find the actual illegal logging site, so they took down the driver’s information, gave him a $150 ticket, and instructed him to report to the civil police in the nearest town.

Photo by Photo by Ray Brown/TreeViverAs they moved deeper into the forest, the officials began finding logs piled along the roadside.

As they moved deeper into the forest, the officials began finding logs piled along the roadside. Clearly this was a large illegal operation and multiple trucks would be coming in to collect the logs. Two more men rode by on a motorcycle, were stopped and questioned, and then let go. Again, no evidence. After that, all quiet. No trace of any loggers at work.

As the agents left the forest and prepared to turn onto the main, paved road, they found the logs from the one truck they had stopped earlier now lying beside the road. The logs couldn’t have been unloaded by the driver alone. The agents figured the men on the motorcycles they had chanced upon earlier must have helped him. But now all of them had disappeared and would probably not be traceable again.

Not that apprehending them later would lead to much, Brow was told. Those men were small fry in a major timber mafia operation. The man carrying the logs out of the forest in his ancient truck might not be building a house for his mother, but he was certainly telling the truth about being poor.

Local people involved in the illegal timber trade tend to be living on the edge of survival. Globally, the illegal timber trade is worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year, but very little of that money makes it into the hands of the people risking their lives to cut down trees. But when you are struggling to feed your family, making a few dollars by cutting a dozen trees out of a forest that seems to stretch on forever can be irresistible.

Even though he has dedicated his life to stopping illegal deforestation, Ambiente agent Ceran understands why many locals see it as their only option. He believes that protection of the Amazon is a global responsibility. “If the world does not want the forest destroyed, the world must pay for the Amazon to continue, because people who own farms require the use of these areas to survive,” says the 24-year-old who has been working for the Brazilian government since he was 19.

Selective felling of commercially-valuable hardwood species, as was happening on the day of the raid, is just one of the many threats to Amazon rainforest. Most of the forest destruction is a result of large-scale clearing for soy and beef production. In Mato Grosso alone, there are more than 25 million cattle, compared to about 40 million in the entire United States. It is also the hub of Brazil’s soy industry, with more than 15 million acres dedicated to the crop. A bigger threat is proposed changes to Brazil’s forest code, introduced by agricultural and ranching lobbies, which would open up an additional 20 million acres of forest to clearing.

Ultimately, though, the future of the Amazon will be determined not so much by the poor villagers of Mato Grosso or the more well-to-do farmers and ranchers, but by the rest of the world. As long as there is demand for beef and tropical hardwoods in wealthy markets like the United States, Europe and Asia, there will always be people willing to take the risk and destroy this precious natural resource to meet that demand.

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We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

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