Amazon Logging Town Struggles Amid Tough Crackdown on Deforestation

'Gold mining stopped, logging stopped, everything stopped. I don't have anybody to sell to.'

A team from the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), the government's environmental law enforcement agency, monitors property near Novo Progresso, Para, for illegal logging and other activity. Many residents there have yet to make their peace with the law to curtail deforestation, or the government seeking to enforce it. Credit: Jeff Tollefson, InsideClimate News

Jeff Tollefson is reporting from the Brazilian Amazon for eight weeks and exploring Brazil's efforts to protect the world's largest rainforestand the earth's climate. 

The situation was still a little tense when I arrived in Novo Progresso, Para, a frontier town that serves as the regional base for the federal government's environmental law enforcement agency, known as IBAMA. Two weeks earlier an IBAMA team had burned three large logging trucks and a tractor that were operating illegally outside a neighboring city; protesters rioted, briefly trapping agents in a hotel and later blocking one of the main highways into the Amazon. Everybody in Novo Progresso had an opinion on the matter, and many felt that a line had been crossed.

As an outsider, I could see many lines being crossed. I wondered why this one in particular triggered a revolt, or alternatively, why such tactics haven't triggered national controversy. After all, the nightly news was chock full of protests against government spending on soccer's World Cup rather than health, education, infrastructure and security for Brazilian citizens. A simplistic reading would suggest that the tradeoffs are the same when it comes to spending on trees, but I never saw anybody rioting in objection to government investments in forest conservation.

This tension drew me to Novo Progresso, a roadside town whose jurisdiction covers 25,000 people sprawled across an area larger than Maryland. My travels to the south in Mato Grosso had focused on regions where occupation of the land was more or less established, where the frontier had come and gone. Farther north, I had centered on areas that were turning a corner, where communities seemed to be buying into the government's battle against deforestation. By contrast, Novo Progresso is in a region where many residents have yet to make their peace with the law, or the government seeking to enforce it.

Located on one of the main highways into the Amazon, the town anchors a development corridor leading more than 300 miles north to the main stem of the Amazon. A pair of new agricultural export facilities are already operating there, and many expect others will soon follow along with a series of new hydroelectric dams. Some even think the government will eventually finish paving the main highways through the region. Having endured long stretches of rough dirt roads with little evidence of a massive road building effort, your correspondent has his doubts. But already, the highway through Novo Progresso is increasingly occupied by trucks headed north with soybeans.

The history is by now familiar. Residents here answered the government's call to settle the Amazon beginning in the 1970s, and they dutifully built an economy based on ranching, logging and mining. Despite government backing, however, very little of this activity adhered to the letter of the law, which remained a bit of an abstract concept in this region. And so when IBAMA showed up, everyone became a criminal of some sort. 

Deforestation has dropped and land registration has increased, but sawmills have closed and jobs have disappeared. Here's how Ruth Mota, the owner of an agricultural supply store and the very first person I talked to in Novo Progresso, described the situation:

"Gold mining stopped, logging stopped, everything stopped. I don't have anybody to sell to...They say they want these activities to be legal, but there's no one here to legalize them. Either they have to be illegal, or they have to stop."

Mota's critique really does get to the heart of the problem. The federal government has now changed its ways and said it wants order on the frontier. It wants to put a halt to the large-scale exploitation of public resources and collect taxes on regulated activities. As a result, while the region around Novo Progresso remains a hot spot for deforestation, deforestation has fallen sharply. 

What does not exist is an efficient regulatory system that would allow landowners who want to do get all of their paperwork in order, formally license their activities and transition to law-abiding upstanding citizens. Sustainable logging projects on public lands have been slow to take shape, and they will inevitably employ fewer people, over the short term. 

IBAMA officials acknowledge as much and point out that from a technical standpoint virtually everybody in the region really is a criminal. In addition to curbing illegal activity by individuals, the federal government's goal, in a sense, is to use enforcement not just to curb illegal deforestation but also to push municipalities and ultimately state governments, which are responsible for much of the environmental licensing activities, to develop the governmental institutions needed to properly oversee land use in Brazil.

What this means on the ground might come as a shock to American farmers and ranchers. 

When I arrived at the IBAMA office in Novo Progresso, Rafael Moraes was pinning down the coordinates on a new patch of deforestation, identified via satellite imagery, inside a rural settlement north of town. Moraes was one of several law enforcement officers from the coastal state of Ceará serving a rotation in Novo Progresso. He passed a map to Walber Feijó who departed with a team, and a pair of heavily armed escorts, to search for the culprits.

IBAMA's Walber Feijó and Rafael Moraes review satellite imagery for a recent plot of deforestation after a recent day in the field, where officers were unable to access the site or identify the culprits. Credit: Jeff Tollefson

After driving back and forth in search of an access road to the deforested area—and passing a pair of logs, likely abandoned once word spread that IBAMA was on its way—we stopped at a pasture recently cleared of trees and brush that were regrowing after the original deforestation. Officers were investigating the property and a ramshackle home when a tractor roared to life in the distance, and the team sprang into action.

After a brief sprint through a gulley, they apprehended two men on a neighboring hill. One would eventually confirm that this property belonged to his father, but he raised suspicions when he said he owned a second property, apparently inaccessible by vehicle, farther down the road. 

While the duo was being interrogated, officers rummaged through the wooden shack that served as a work camp. Hammocks hung inside, clothes hung outside, and two puppies played on the porch. The man watched in frustration as officers carried out two unregistered chainsaws as well as one rifle and three shotguns, all antiques and illegal. He provided a paper, registered with the state, declaring plans to reclear the pasture and then complained about the invasion.

"You can't work your land, you can't deforest, you can't do anything," he said.

In the end, the IBAMA officials had no proof that he had done anything wrong, and they drove around to the other side of the settlement to see if they could find another way into the deforested site. There they stopped another man who also claimed ignorance, and then confiscated yet two more unregistered chainsaws and a rifle. One option remained: hike into the cleared area. But Feijó said they would likely find an empty field and few clues as to who was responsible, so the team retreated.

Back at the office, Feijó confirmed that this happens all too often, illustrating the limits of satellite data. "You arrive, and nobody knows anything, nobody says anything, everyone hides," he said. "It's complicated." The only choice in this case is for IBAMA to go after the association representing the rural settlement, which likely means an embargo that will restrict access to financing for community agricultural development projects.

After watching the IBAMA team in action, I was amazed that there haven't been broader public protests. Regulations restricting how much private land can be developed aside, imagine what would happen if the Environmental Protection Agency started using government satellites to spy on landowners. And then imagine the reaction if EPA officials showed up unannounced with tactical police squads or U.S. Army troops and began interrogating landowners and rummaging through houses. 

IBAMA's Walber Feijó questions a rural agricultural worker during a recent investigation into a plot of deforested land identified by government scientists using satellite imagery. Credit: Jeff Tollefson

All of this seemed to come with the territory here in Novo Progresso, but the destruction of valuable property—such as trucks and tractors—struck a different nerve. Which of course is part of the point: Nobody pays fines, and rarely does anybody go to jail. But confiscating equipment and cattle and timber costs criminals money, which ultimately affects the economics of deforestation. As such, when confiscation is impossible due to logistics, as was the case with the trucks and the tractor, IBAMA destroys equipment.

Roberto Cabral Borges, the husky-voiced leader of the operation who was dubbed "Rambinho," or "Little Rambo," by protesters, acknowledges that IBAMA's work has caused economic pain within the community. But the alternative is to allow a few bad actors to plunder public resources while skimping on taxes and wages. "Eventually they will use the area up and then leave, and all of these people will be unemployed," Cabral says. 

This idea—the social value of forests—resonates on a deeper level here in Brazil, and it helps explain how IBAMA does what it does in a place like Novo Progresso. As often as not, I heard people complaining not about IBAMA's enforcement, but about the fact that enforcement captures pawns while power brokers continue to profit on a black market for illegally cleared land.

Manoel Malinski, Novo Progresso's environment secretary, says the challenge is to build a bureaucracy that can support—and regulate—legal land use, including truly sustainable logging and other extractive activities. 

When Malinski accepted his post in 2012, he had one secretary, one computer and one broken printer. Today he has 10 employees, and The Nature Conservancy is training his staff on the use of satellite and other data for enforcement, land registrations and licensing. Novo Progresso has a ways to go before it can get off the federal government's blacklist of communities with high deforestation rates, but he is selling a vision of autonomy that everybody can support.

"We are going to say ciao to IBAMA," Malinski says.

COMING: Brazilians' love of soccer has once again proved stronger than their cynicism about government, and your correspondent has succumbed to the World Cup fever that is now coursing through this country. Having watched the United States play Portugal in the middle of the Amazon, I'm now headed west to Acre, a poor state that is working to build a new economic model for human development in the rainforest.

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