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Brazil Busts Gang Accused of Amazon Rainforest Deforestation

Six people were arrested in a case that raises basic questions about who is destroying the Amazon and what Brazil is doing about it.
Photo by Alexandre Meneghini/AP

Federal police in the Brazilian state of Pará arrested six people last week that they say are the "greatest destroyers of the Amazon," responsible for environmental damage in excess of $250 million. Another 14 arrest warrants are still out for associated members of the deforestation gang, who face charges of environmental crimes, invading public land, theft, forgery, conspiracy, tax evasion and money laundering.


According to federal prosecutors, the gang invaded public lands, burned and cleared them, subdivided the land, and resold it to farmers and ranchers.

The arrests raise several basic questions about who is deforesting the Amazonian rainforest and what Brazil is doing about it. All of the answers have to do with beef.

According to Brazil's National Institute for Space Research and its Agricultural Research Corporation, 62 percent of the roughly 224,000 square miles Brazil has officially chopped down since they started keeping records in the 1980s — an area roughly the size of Texas — is currently used for cattle pasture. By comparison, the entire Amazon is about eight times the size of Texas. Small-scale subsistence farming, large-scale agriculture (including soy crops), illegal logging and mining, and massive road and dam infrastructure projects account for the rest of the destruction but pale in comparison to what has been cleared for beef.

Brazil is the single largest beef exporter in the world, exporting about 2 million tons of beef per year. About 90 million cattle are currently being raised in the Amazon, nearly as many as in the entire US. The Brazilian government profits from beef exports to the tune of about $6 billion annually, but to really get a sense of scale, consider that 80 percent of Brazil's beef is consumed domestically.

The profitability of Amazon conversion to pastureland pits the interests of a very powerful "ruralist" lobby in Brazil's Congress against international pressure to curb deforestation before all the excess CO2 triggers an environmental Armageddon.


So how does Brazil tell the good guys from the bad guys? A closer look at deforestation, regulation, and surveillance in the Amazon puts nearly everything into a grey area.

The Amazon survived virtually untouched until the 1960s, when a number of government programs during Brazil's military dictatorship encouraged a wave of development and population growth in the rainforest by giving away land for free, giving subsidies to forest colonizers, and instilling urgency for the land-grab under an "occupy it or lose it" marketing campaign. The idea was to establish a population presence and provide economic opportunities for landless poor from crowded parts of the country. Even the World Bank helped finance the migration to the pristine rainforests.

Aerial view of the Amazon Rainforest, near Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas. (Photo by Neil Palmer via Flickr)

By the late '80s, cattle ranchers and subsistence farmers were clearing an area equivalent in size to the state of New Jersey every year, aided by infrastructure projects like the Trans-Amazonian highway that provided farmers and loggers inroads into an otherwise dense and unreachable forest. According to research published in the scientific journal Biological Conservation, 95 percent of deforestation in the Amazon occurs within four miles of roads and navigable rivers.

Then, in 2005, the numbers declined. Deforestation has fallen by about 80 percent since then, and hit a record low in 2012, when more than 4,500 square kilometers (an area roughly four times the size of Los Angeles) were cleared. Weeks before the UN Rio+20 Conference in 2012, President Dilma approved legislation that weakened the Forest Code, a shifting patchwork of dubiously enforced federal laws that governs who can deforest in the Amazon and to what degree. Deforestation rates increased 28 percent the following year, climbing for the first time in almost a decade.


What's taking Brazil so long to curb deforestation? The answer is in large part political. The Amazon is currently home to 10 percent of Brazil's population — roughly 20 million people — who were encouraged to settle the same area they are now being accused of destroying. As The Economist noted, "No government would think of condemning so many voters to persistent poverty in the name of saving trees."

Then there's the beef lobby. Ruralists in the Brazilian Congress have been trying to chip away at the Forest Code since the 1990s, and celebrated the 2012 amendments approved by President Dilma. The policies gave amnesty to those who chopped down more than their allocated limit prior to 2008, and made massive reductions in how much property needs to stay forested in various areas where the state zoning permits.

"You used to need to keep 30 meters of forest preserved on either side of a creek," explained Luis Meneses, Latin American Director for the Global Canopy Programme, a tropical forest think tank in Oxford. "Now you only need 15."

Monitoring technology is not the problem.

"Since 1988 we've had the best technology in the world to monitor the forest," Meneses told VICE News. Official data comes from INPE, Brazil's National Institute for Space Research, based on Landsat satellite technology made available by NASA, to monitor clear-cutting. But forest degradation, which includes damage like the selective chopping of trees that falls short of full-scale clearing, is more difficult to detect and not officially monitored by the Brazilian government.


"Landsat only passes by the same place every 16 days," Meneses explained, noting the satellite images are complicated by frequent cloud cover in the Amazons. Meneses also mentioned DETER, a government satellite monitoring system that provides updates every two days but at a lower resolution, and a non-profit called Imazon, which publishes independent estimates of clear-cutting, and also provides data on degradation. "[IMAZON] doesn't match the government data, which always creates controversy," Meneses said.

But even if we can see where the fires are happening, it's much harder to tell who is responsible because deforestation in and of itself is not illegal in Brazil. "What's illegal is when you do it where you shouldn't, or more than you should," Meneses said. According to Meneses, if a person has more forest on their land than is required by law for the size of the property, they can legally deforest. "Illegal is when one is clear cutting in areas that should be kept as forest, like permanent preservation areas or legal reserves, or when the land does not belong to the person who is clear cutting," he explained.

And it's impossible to figure out whether the land clearing is illegal unless it is known who owns the land and how much they have.

"We can see how much it's being destroyed and where," Meneses explained. "But who did it? We don't know how to attribute the responsibility. We don't know the limits of the property ownership. So we don't really know whose land it is."


The green forests of the Amazon interrupted by a broad swath of deforestation. (Photo by NASA/GSFC/Jeff Schmaltz/MODIS Land Rapid Response Team via Flickr)

The Amazon is so vast that uncontacted indigenous groups are still being discovered, and there are both political interest and financial barriers to exploring all of it.

Brazil officially owns about 70 percent of the remaining Amazon forest, and has officially earmarked about 30 percent for conservation. The rest is theoretically owned or occupied by a patchwork of small households (Brazil granted titles to roughly 150,000 families from 1995-1998 alone) and big companies. Squatters sometimes work together in land-grabbing schemes to occupy, claim, and sell off new land. That was the alleged tactic of the gang apprehended last week — although they were doing it with publicly owned land, some of which was in areas designated for conservation.

Of the privately owned land in the Amazon, only 14 percent is actually backed by secure land deeds, according to a study by Imazon, with the rest covered by fake documents or right of settlement. IBAMA, the federal environmental enforcement agency responsible for land regularization, is severely understaffed and only collects 1 percent of the fines it imposes in the Amazon.

"It's a big problem with speculation and corruption," Meneses said. "If you gathered all the titles for the Amazon, you'd arrive at an Amazon three stories tall. There is three times more titled land in the Amazon than there is actual land. It's a super-complex situation."

All of which brings us back to the people who bought land from the recently apprehended deforestation gang. Will they suffer any consequences? The Federal Police responsible for the operation have not responded to repeated requests for comment from VICE News. Meneses indicates there are other issues to deal with first.

"This mafia has deforested lands belonging to the Brazilian government — they have no right over that land," Meneses said. "The process to transfer title to the people who bought land from the squatters is not simple. The government may request the land back, but first they have to face the charges of robbing state property."

One of the new tools under development to fight deforestation is called the Cadastro Ambiental Rural, which will attempt to register property limits into a national database, making the process of discerning who owns what parts of the Amazon more precise. But, at least for now, there are roads to build and beef to sell.

Follow Julie Ruvolo on Twitter: @jruv