Brazil police break up key Amazon deforestation gang

Anadolu Agency – Image: Deforested area of Mato Grosso, photo by Ben Tavener

SÃO PAULO — Seven people suspected of orchestrating mass logging operations in the Amazon have been arrested as part of a long-running investigation, police in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso confirmed to the Anadolu Agency on Thursday.

Police chief Maria Alice Barros Amorim, who is coordinating the operation, told AA that in all 13 arrest orders had been issued in the state, meaning six individuals are still wanted in connection with logging and other environmental crimes.

Officers from the special environment police department have also carried out searches at 18 locations as part of Operation Fluxo Verde (Green Flow) and say “huge quantities” of illegally-logged wood have been found.

“For years we worked at catching people in the act, targeting loggers and truck drivers, but it did not solve the underlying problem. Now we have switched our focus to those who finance this illegal activity,” Amorim said by phone from União do Sul, one of the municipalities at the heart of the operation.

In that municipality alone, police say 27,000 hectares, or about 104 square miles, of forest has been illegally logged.

Police say those responsible for logging and trading the illegal wood are among the suspects.

“It is extremely satisfying to see our 50 specialist police officers working together to tackle this crime. If you see the region from the air you can see how far the devastation stretches for. It’s shocking,” Amorim said.

Typically, once the land is deforested by criminals, it is divided up and plots are sold. Depending on whether it is intended for beef cattle or soya plantations, the land is then torched and cleared of tree roots. It is also chemically treated in some cases.

‘Little effect’

News of the arrests came as police in other areas – including Pará state, at the heart of the rainforest – coordinated additional arrests against gang members wanted for environmental crimes that federal police say amount to US$220 million.

Environmental campaigners welcomed the news but they cautioned that there is much to be done.

“This apprehension of sophisticated environmental criminals in the Amazon is a rare case of justice in a region rife with lawlessness and impunity,” Christian Poirier, activist and Brazil-EU Advocacy Coordinator at the environmental organisation Amazon Watch, told the AA.

“While we applaud these actions for accountability, they will have little effect on stemming rising deforestation rates unless accompanied by fundamental policy shifts in favor of forest protection,” Poirier concluded.

In 2009, the Brazilian government committed to reducing Amazon deforestation by 80 percent by 2020.

Although logging has slowed overall in recent years, the government announced in 2013 that the rate of deforestation in the Amazon had gone up by 28 percent between August 2012 and July 2013, leading to calls to redouble efforts to tackle the issue at all levels.

Brazil’s dilemma

The government faces the challenge of preserving the most biodiverse area on the planet, while demand increases at home and abroad for Brazilian beef and soybean exports.

Brazil is set to overtake the United State as the world’s top soya producer in 2014, which has also coincided with the end of the so-called “Soy Moratorium”, which bans the trading of soya produced on recently-deforested Amazon land. That restriction ends on 31 December.

The government has given assurances that new legislation is in place to protect the Amazon but environmentalists have voiced their disquiet over the decision to end the moratorium, which has proven to be effective and have the backing of major companies, including U.S. fast-food giant McDonald’s.

Brazil is home to the biggest area of Amazon rainforest, which spans nine countries. The vast region, which represents half the planet’s remaining tropical forests holds one in every 10 species known to science, according to the World Wildlife Fund conservation organisation.

Mato Grosso state is home to three major biomes that are internationally recognised for their ecological importance: Amazon rainforest, Cerrado plains, and the Pantanal wetlands.

Together, they form a major attraction for nature-lovers visiting Brazil and local landowners are being encouraged to consider ecotourism as a more sustainable source of income.

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