Violence and corruption behind Amazon deforestation

. Sep 17, 2019
A Human Rights Watch report on Amazon deforestation paints a picture of destruction, collusion, struggle, death and impunity

A newly published Human Rights Watch report has detailed the desperate situation in the Brazilian Amazon, highlighting the existence of logging “mafias” which organize to illegally extract wood from virgin forests. The 165-page study, entitled “Rainforest Mafias: How Violence and Impunity Fuel Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon,” was the result of two years of work and hundreds of interviews.

With international pressure increasing on Brazil after August’s spike in Amazon fires, this is perhaps the most damning indictment of the current situation in the country’s forests, coming courtesy of the international NGO.

</p> <h2>How the mafia works</h2> <p>The &#8220;Ipê Mafia&#8221; mentioned by HRW refers to organized criminal groups which carry out illegal logging operations in the Amazon rainforest, going first in search of the prized <em>ipê</em> trees, the timber of which sells for a high price (around BRL 4,000 per trunk) and is used for furniture and decking due to its durability.</p> <p>The criminal scheme goes far beyond ipê trees however, with loggers extracting and selling other less-valuable woods, before torching all remaining plants to make way for cattle pastures.</p> <p>The HRW explained that these operations are financed and led by criminal networks, which provide equipment, security (which often involves bribing local officials) and infrastructure for felled trees to be discreetly transported to sawmills and sold.</p> <p>Logging operations are often well disguised, happening gradually and sparing enough large trees to form a canopy and conceal the criminal activity from satellites.</p> <p>One example of this practice, given by the report, occurred in the town of Boca do Acre, in the state of Amazonas. There, a group of loggers cut down 180 square kilometers of forest, bribing five employees of the Brazilian Environmental Protection Agency (Ibama) to protect their operations. They also employed police officers as a form of private militia, who would use their cop cars and uniforms to attack and intimidate residents.</p> <p>Once the forest is cleared and burned, these same criminal organizations will forge deeds to the lands, so they can either continue to exploit the space or sell it on for cattle ranching or farming.</p> <p>This illegal process is known as <em>grilagem</em>, as criminals traditionally left their forged deeds inside a drawer of crickets (&#8220;grilos&#8221; in Portuguese) to make the papers discolored and more genuine looking.</p> <h2>The collapse of oversight</h2> <p>On the ground, the state&#8217;s defense against illegal logging comes in the form of the aforementioned Ibama, the indigenous affairs agency (Funai), and the Chico Mendes Institute for the Conservation of Biodiversity (ICMBio). Since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January, these three agencies have never been weaker.</p> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro <a href="">admitted</a> he told his Environment Minister Ricardo Salles to perform a &#8220;cleanout&#8221; of Ibama and ICMBio. Three-quarters of Ibama&#8217;s regional directors were sacked, and have not all been replaced since.</p> <p>Meanwhile, the agents who are deployed on the ground are a regular target of violence from those of the &#8220;Ipê Mafia.&#8221;</p> <p>The goal of these logging groups is to dissuade government workers from interfering with criminal activity and enforcing the law. Underfunded and understaffed, ICMBio and Ibama are often unable to withstand the pressure.</p> <p>The HRW report mentions several recent examples of vandalism of state property as a way to inhibit anti-logging efforts—with the most common occurrence being the torching of Ibama vehicles—while there have also been cases of armed confrontations between loggers and state agents.</p> <h2>Human rights violations and impunity</h2> <p>Directly in the firing line of illegal logging groups, however, are indigenous people and local residents. No government authorities at any level collect any data on land conflict violence, but the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), linked to the Catholic Church, has added up some 300 deaths in the last ten years due to territorial disputes.</p> <p>In March of this year, three farm workers were executed on a ranch in Pará state, with state prosecutors claiming they were killed by order of their employer as a precaution, so that they would not report the illegal logging activities taking place on the ranch. The same day, the hitmen killed three more people residing in the surrounding area, breaking into a house, tying them up, and stabbing them to death.</p> <p>Speaking to <em>Globo Rural</em>, Pará state prosecutor Paulo de Tarso Moreira Oliveira warned that &#8220;very dangerous people are using Facebook and WhatsApp [Messenger] to threaten state agents and commit crimes,&#8221; also referring to one group from the south-east of Pará as &#8220;the biggest deforesters of the Amazon.&#8221;</p> <p>Incredibly, out of these 300 deaths, only nine have gone to trial. Prosecutors blame the police forces for their inaction and difficulties in carrying out sufficient investigations in remote Amazonian areas. Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed the police officers involved in a selection of these murder cases and found severely flawed investigation practices, such as instances of police not visiting crime scenes, or not performing autopsies on victims&#8217; corpses.</p> <p>One state prosecutor in Pará told Human Rights Watch that police forces in areas of land conflict &#8220;are an ally of local powers,&#8221; suggesting that the dearth of trials on territorial dispute killings could be part of a concerted effort of collusion with loggers.

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