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Brazil's Arrested Forest Kingpin Isn't the Only Problem Facing the Amazon

This week, Brazil arrested a man who may be responsible for up to 20 percent of illegal cuttings in the Amazon over the past few years. That's good, but until the country strictly enforces conservation laws this is just a Hydra problem.

Image via Flickr user Matt Zimmerman.

This week officials from Brazil's Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama) announced that on Saturday, February 21, a joint operation by federal police and national security forces in the state of Pará led to the arrest of Ezequiel Antonio Castanha, a supposed kingpin in the nation's massive black market deforestation industry. Ibama claims that Castanha, who faces up to 46 years in prison for organizing gangs to clear-cut protected forests and sell the lands to cattle herders for pasture (among other charges), may be responsible for up to 20 percent of all illegal cuttings in the Amazon rainforest over the past few years.


Ibama seems to have been tracking Castanha for some time—he and his family apparently owe the agency about $16 million in fines for illicit deforestation. So it's no surprise that agency head Luciano Evaristo declared his arrest a major win in the effort to control the nation's deforestation epidemic. Yet not everyone is as enthusiastic about the implications of the arrest as Evaristo and Ibama. Many believe that the lawless and permissive climate in Brazil's rural forests will make it fairly easy for someone to step in and continue or even escalate Castanha's operations unabated.

Brazil sits on 60 percent of the 3.8 million square mile Amazon rainforest, one of the world's biggest sources of biodiversity and carbon capture. Unfortunately, the forest has long been the target of massive and noxious clear-cutting campaigns, claiming land for infrastructure development, logging, mining, ranching, soya farming, and other industry and settlement.

For years, Brazil was making progress in combating excess and illicit development. As of 2012, Brazilian Amazon deforestation was at its lowest levels since measurements first began in 1988 (that year, 7,700 square miles disappeared annually, but in 2012 the figure was just 1,765 square miles), with about 80 percent of the original Amazon still standing.

Yet over the past couple of years deforestation has been on the rise again. As of August 2013, clear cutting in the Amazon was up by 30 percent over those promising 2012 numbers. Many believe that the consequences of recent and longstanding deforestation are now coming home to roost as well in the form of the massive droughts hitting Brazil as rainforest moisture vanishes.


In this environment, taking out the guy supposedly responsible for one-fifth of all Amazonian deforestation ought to be cause for unmitigated joy, as his gang's elimination could bring stats back down toward their 2012 low. But Castanha and his ilk aren't the sole cause of the recent uptick in deforestation. They're conjured into existence by an increasingly lax legal environment and market demands, unchecked by the supposedly hawkeyed and environmentally-minded state.

"We're concerned that deforestation will continue unabated despite the fact that [Castanha]'s been arrested," Christian Poirier, the Brazil-EU Advocacy Coordinator for the forest and indigenous rights protection group Amazon Watch, told VICE. (He also admitted that he'd never actually heard of Castanha before Ibama paraded him out as a kingpin.)

"There've been arrests made. There've been some serious attempts to break up these [deforestation] mafias. But I'm afraid that the structures that allow this to happen, which is to say the lack of governance and the signals that are coming from the central government in Brazil … are all sending signals that [deforestation] is going to be tolerated."

Brazil has made big noise about their efforts to protect the rainforest, vowing to reduce Amazonian deforestation to a managed and licit 1,500 square miles by 2020 and devoting 44 percent of the rainforest as reserves for indigenous people, national parks, or wildlife sanctuaries.


But while the state could police large organizations and industries, deforestation increasingly operates in a diffuse manner on the most inaccessible fringes of the rainforest that makes it hard for authorities to enforce laws. Even kingpins and their mafias aren't really big and settled organizations, but groups that work on a piecemeal basis with the Amazon's 6 million or more usually poor and marginal smallholder farmers, who have over the past decade taken over from major industries as the agents of the vast bulk of deforestation work in the nation's hinterland.

"By asking smallholders to clear the forest," explains Poirier, "[these small farmers] will be leveled with fines from Ibama. Most of these fines are never paid, of course, but they'll be the ones suffering the consequences and leave their land devastated."

"It's very strategic … [these mafias] will work with smallholders across the region and as they deforest they know that eventually this land will fall into their hands at very cheap costs and then they can resell it as pasture land."

Since Ibama rarely ever comes knocking to enforce rules on forest preservation or levy fines on smallholder lands, there's little reason for these farmers not to turn a buck by doing mafias' dirty work. This general environment of impunity allows the gangs and their leaders to operate under the radar, but they don't feel the need to be all that secretive about their operations. Even Castanha's surfaced in the press on occasion, openly flouting his activities in the Amazon.


"I don't regret deforesting land," the New York Times quoted Castanha as saying in 2014. "If it weren't for deforestation, Brazil would not exist."

Over the past couple of years, it's actually gotten even easier to carry out these deforestation operations. The government has slowly scaled back spending on conservation programs since the financial crisis and in 2012 amended their forestry code to make it easier for smallholders to clear forests on their land. This means that it's simpler now than ever before for someone(s) to replace a Castanha character, or even to surpass him in the scale and impenetrability of his work.

(Deforestation is even easier outside of the Amazon, too. The bulk of the nation's clear-cutting actually occurs in the Cerrado savannah area rimming but excluded from the Amazon, where a lack of international attention and advocacy has allowed far more lenient laws to prevail.)

Capturing Castanha is a great gesture. But if the Brazilian government really wants to stop Amazonian deforestation, they'd have to think seriously about how to disincentivize clear-cutting by smallholders, choking off mafias' collaborators. Barring that, this is just a Hydra problem, with each Castanha eliminated birthing a handful of other abusers to fill his place.

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