The Amazon is the sort of wild place where you often go looking for one thing, but find another. So it was when Mongabay travelled in May on a mission to observe illegal logging operations within federal conservation units beside the BR-163, the Amazon highway linking the city of Santarém on the Amazon River with Cuiabá, the capital of Mato Grosso state.
"Impoverished workers at clandestine mines are almost always severely exploited by the mine 'owners,' who make fortunes at their expense."What we expected to find was a serious crime involving illegal timber extraction on federal lands, and possible infringement of labor laws, with workers held in conditions analogous to slavery.
What we encountered instead was a broader context of criminal activities that appears to explain legislation just rushed through Brazil’s National Congress and awaiting President Temer’s signature to turn over very large swaths of already protected Amazon rainforest to land thieves, mining interests and agribusiness.
On the trail of illegal loggers and miners
Using satellite images, experts had identified illegal logging activities to the east of BR-163, just south of the town of Vila de Três Bueiros, in the rural district of Trairão, in Pará state. To reach the illegal logging camp, we needed to drive a precarious dirt road that crossed the Branco River on a bridge built by the loggers themselves.
After a few miles, our truck got stuck and we got out to push. As we sank deeper into the mud, a man, about 40, appeared from the direction of the river. Visibly exhausted, and initially mistrustful, he said he’d come from a garimpo, a mine.
That was the first inkling we had that in addition to illegal loggers, there were miners operating inside the conservation unit illegally extracting cassiterite, the ore from which tin is extracted.
The miner, on the verge of collapse, begrudgingly told us he’d left the mine due to the terrible working conditions and because he hadn’t been paid. He’d been walking since the previous day, initially with a companion, who had given up, completely worn out. Turning one last look eastward to the way he’d come, he walked quickly west.
Then a logger arrived on a tractor and, thanks to his vast experience with Amazonian mud, we were soon hauled out. He warned us in a friendly, unembarrassed way: “The bridge [you need to cross] doesn’t exist anymore. We destroyed it so IBAMA and ICMBio [Brazil’s environmental agencies] won’t disturb us. Without a bridge, they only get there by helicopter.”
We weren’t sure whether to believe the logger, but just to be sure, we detoured south to where the BR-163 crosses the Branco River. There we rented a canoe with an outboard motor and travelled upriver for an hour to where the bridge should have been.
Sure enough, we came round a river bend and saw the wrecked bridge, plus a dilapidated ferryboat on the east bank at the border of the conservation unit. So the logger had been truthful: the illegal loggers decided who came across and who didn’t.
Another surprise at the ferry port: six men were stranded on the opposite bank, trying to get hold of the cables to haul the ferry over. Reluctant to say much, they indicated that they weren’t working for the loggers. They, too, were miners, who had fallen out with the mine owner, who, they said, had “done them over.” Trying to get away, they’d set up an impromptu camp two days earlier and now had little food and no drinking water.
The predicament in which these men found themselves was no surprise: impoverished workers at clandestine mines are almost always severely exploited by the mine “owners,” who make fortunes at their expense. Something similar goes on with illegal logging operations in the Amazon, where sawmill owners, hiding behind a façade of legality, exploit local rural laborers who often work in slavery-like conditions.
What we hadn’t expected in our search for illegal loggers on federal lands, was to instead find illegal miners there. But, as we learned first hand, for the wealthy men behind such operations, it makes no difference whether they are extracting timber or tin: what is important is to make money.
Illegal logging “forest degradation”
Brazilian authorities have known for some time that illegal logging was occurring on a considerable scale in the region. In February 2006, the federal government created a corridor of conservation units on both sides of the BR-163 to put an end to illegal deforestation, which had grown exponentially due to the access the road offered.
The conservation units had not been implemented, but their creation had stopped most deforestation, since it was mainly land thieves who were partially clearing the forest at that time with the intention of selling the cleared land at high prices to cattle ranchers. Once the conservation units were created, it meant the land could not be as easily bought or sold for big profits, so the cutting declined.
But other ways of exploiting the land and making money were found.
According to Juan Doblas, from the geoprocessing laboratory of the Brazilian NGO Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA), “while deforestation [for cattle ranching] ended, the plundering of the forest by loggers gained momentum.” This activity was more difficult to monitor and control because the loggers don’t clear the entire forest, but only extract the valuable trees. The severe damage they do to the understory, officially called “forest degradation,” mostly goes undetected by satellite monitoring, which only records what is known as “forest devastation” — the clear cutting of rainforest.
According to studies, almost all timber leaving this region is illegal, as it is mainly harvested on indigenous lands and conservation units. But once cut, the wood is transported, traded and even exported as if it had been logged legally.
Public Prosecutor Fabiana Schneider explained to Mongabay that there are various ways of “warming” wood, as the magic of legalizing illegal timber is called. “The techniques go from attaching licences granted for one area [where logging is permitted] to timber plundered from protected areas; to using sophisticated devices, such as license cloning; or even to the hacking of the computers of [federal] environmental bodies to print licenses.”
"In the Amazon, it is quite common for those committing environmental crimes, such as Tremonte and Climaco, to hold political positions."
The claims as to timber origins on these licenses are often patently false. Mongabay was shown a license, issued in 2007, for timber in a sawmill yard owned by Valmir Climaco, now mayor of the town of Itaituba. According to this document, the timber was bought in the city of Belém close to the Atlantic Ocean and had been transported 1,132 kilometers inland, up the Amazon River to Itaituba on the Tapajós River to be milled. That’s an absurd official story made more absurd by the timber-rich conservation units located near the mill. And clearly, law enforcement is either grossly negligent or corrupt in monitoring such licenses.
We tracked Climaco down at the Itaituba town garage, packed full of broken-down public vehicles. After we showed him the license, he replied, with no signs of embarrassment: “We get timber from many different places. It must be wood that we bought in Belém, unprocessed, to cut into planks in our mill.” Not a convincing explanation as, according to the license, the wood had already been processed when it was purchased.
As for the absurdity of transporting timber so far? The mayor, who has been fined millions of dollars for environmental crimes, had a ready answer: “My dear, do you know what is the cheapest means of transport in the world? It’s by river.”
Luiz Carlos Tremonte, president of the Union of Timber Industries of Southwest Pará (Simaspa) for many years, was blunt in explaining what goes on: “You get approval for a forestry management project in one area, which has little wood, and extract the timber from an area beside it or from anywhere else. The license you get from the project “warms” the timber. It’s illegal to do this? Yes, but it’s what happens and everyone knows about it.”
Tremonte is an avid supporter of the timber industry. He argues that logging is so healthy for the forest that the government ought to create a program to pay loggers for taking out timber because “the logger extends the life of the forest.” Even so, he openly admits: “The timber industry operates illegally.”
Socially sanctioned environmental crime
In the Amazon, it is quite common for those committing environmental crimes, such as Tremonte and Climaco, to hold political positions. Another example: the mayor of Trairão, Valdinei José Ferreira, nicknamed Django, also a logger, has been fined millions of dollars for illegal logging, though his profits likely far exceed that.
He and his fellow loggers regard environmental crime and the fines it may bring as a bureaucratic detail — simply a cost of doing business.
When we asked Climaco if the loggers face problems in their logging operations, he replied on camera: “It’s easy today to extract timber. What is difficult is to sell it without documentation.” Public Prosecutor Fabiana Schneider explained that illegal logging is “highly profitable and socially acceptable, or even seen as something good, so the criminals are falsely seen as a successful businessmen and creators of jobs.”
According to the prosecutor, this aura of public approval covers up the fact that “crimes are being committed — contemporary slavery, rural homicide, invasion of public lands, stealing and receiving public property, along with a huge chain of corruption.”
Far from being viewed as a minor offence, “this kind of crime needs to be seen for what it is: criminal organizations plundering one of our greatest environmental riches — the forest and its biodiversity,” Schneider said.
For Tremonte, a major problem that forces the timber sector to operate illegally arises from the country’s labor legislation, which, according to him, “is implemented very strictly in the region. You [the boss] are always wrong.”
The boss, he says, “is seen as the enemy [by the state}, and the boss is not the enemy, quite the contrary.”
His opinion isn’t shared by Friar Xavier Plassat, coordinator of the Campaign Against Slave Labor run by the Catholic Church’s Pastoral Land Commission (CPT). A Dominican friar internationally known for his struggle to combat contemporary slavery, Plassat says that it is not just a question of the loggers not complying with the country’s labor laws.
He told Mongabay: “The research on this issue shows that it is impossible not to have slave labor in Illegal logging. The reason for this is simple: logging in this region is born illegal, criminal, because it is based on the use of fraudulent licenses, which is the only way loggers can extract timber in areas where logging is banned. So this criminal activity can only be carried out if it is invisible. This means that it must use slave labor, zero infrastructure, zero trail, the ability to appear and then disappear back into the forest.”
We interviewed a worker who had been involved in illegal logging in the Uruará region, along the Pará section of the Transamazonian Highway. For understandable reasons, he didn’t give his name: “We live in an awful way. It’s perhaps best when they don’t send food, for then we have to hunt. If not, we’re given rotten meat and food that’s gone off,” he explained. “We only have water from the creeks to drink and, if there isn’t one nearby, tractors bring us 200 liter drums and the water stays there until it turns green. But it’s a choice between drinking that or going thirsty. So we drink.”
These life-threatening conditions aren’t only found in the forest camps. A teacher from a community near Trairão, who also didn’t want to be named, told us that among the 13- to 15-year-old children in the school, several had fingers and hands permanently injured in accidents while doing illegal logging, something on which the village’s livelihood depends.
Slave labor doesn’t only exist in illegal logging. It’s also found in the mines.
On our trip, we learned that the focus of environmental crime in the region we were exploring has changed, with mining now gaining prominence over logging. “You’re out of touch with reality here,” said one miner, who works illegally inside Jamanxim National Park. “The road arrived here because of logging, but now the big money is in mining.” And it’s no longer gold mining as in the past. The new fever is for cassiterite.
We decided to see what was happening in the forest. Unable to reach our destination by road or river, we decided to go by air. We took off from Itaituba in a single-engined plane. It was a tense flight, under heavy rain, with one door open, so we could film and take photos.
"Slave labor doesn’t only exist in illegal logging. It’s also found in the mines."
What we found after an hour’s flight took our breath away: creeks (igarapés) and the surrounding vegetation destroyed, mine machinery operating freely, and many holes in the ground — mining likely done by slave labor, as the laborer we met on the road had told us.
In the second week of June, IBAMA undertook an operation to dismantle the criminal groups mining for cassiterite and gold in the region’s conservation units. According to Renê Luiz de Oliveira, IBAMA’s coordinator for environmental monitoring, “illicit acts were happening everywhere we looked.” With respect to the specific area visited, he confirmed that “no activity was properly licensed.”
And that damage to the Amazon rainforest and its rivers is about to get very much worse, thanks to new pieces of legislation which have already moved through Congress and are currently awaiting the president’s signature.
On our trip, it struck us forcefully just how closely President Temer and the Congress align their legislative actions to the agenda of the bancada ruralista, the rural lobby that dominates Brazilian politics, and how the bancada itself caters to the immediate demands for profit made by their wealthy constituents in the countryside — with little regard for the impact on the nation’s environmental and social future.
New bills legitimize environmental crime
“Today, I don’t want the land to log, but to mine,” one land thief told us, claiming to own several thousand hectares within the National Park of Jamanxim. He had already plundered the area for valuable timber, “warming” his logs with false certificates. However, mining is far more visible from the air than logging, which is a problem for him and others like him, when the area they want to mine is also part of a conservation unit.
Which helps explain the new provisional measures (MP 756 and MP 758) legislation initiated by President Temer. Among other alterations, the MPs will drastically reduce the size of Jamanxim National Park, while also downgrading the protection of a large part of the National Forest of Jamanxim, converting this land to an Area of Environmental Protection (APA), where both logging and mining are allowed.
In essence, Temer and the Congress, with the stroke of a pen, are moving to legalize and legitimize illegal Amazon logging and mining, and to turn over vast swaths of federally protected rainforest to wealthy land thieves.
Efforts were made by the bancada to make the MPs even more extreme as they went through Congress, with talk at one time of eliminating protections from 1.2 million hectares (4,633 square miles). Thanks to vigorous lobbying by environmentalists and other activists, the worst was avoided: the MPs were converted into bills (PLC 4 and PLC 5), which will remove protection from just 600,000 hectares (2,317 square miles) of Amazon forest.
In a response that pulled no punches, Asema, an association of federal government employees linked to environmental agencies, issued an “open letter to society” in which it condemned the government measures, noting that they affect a federally protected area “where there is a fierce struggle for control over the land, with the advancement of the agricultural and cattle frontiers, mega-projects, illegal logging and mining activities, and land grabbing.”
Asema condemned the reduction in the Jamanxim conservation units as an “authoritarian act to suppress rights carried out by a government brought to power by a coup, with the support of the bancada ruralista in the National Congress.”
President Temer has until 22 June to approve or to veto, wholly or partially, the new legislation.
In a press release, the Ministry of the Environment has recommended that he use his veto, because the measures “represent a setback to the efforts of the Brazilian government to respect the commitments it made under the Paris Agreement to combat global warming.”
With Amazon deforestation again on the rise, and Brazil’s international climate change commitments under threat, we are now a week away from Temer’s decision.