Amazon Crime

| 1st May 2004
Deep in the Amazon rainforest, renegade logging firms are stealing the land of impoverished communities and stripping it of the trees on which the whole world depends. Greg Nasmyth boards a 700-tonne icebreaker to join a group of Greenpeace activists in their bid to stop them.

We were about eight kilometres into the rainforest when Marcelo called our motorcycle cavalcade to a halt. Other than a solid-looking stack of Jatoba logs lying to one side of the logging track, there appeared to be little reason why he should choose to stop at that point. The Jatoba, a huge canopy tree that can grow up to 30 metres in height, looked to have been recently cut. Its exposed, ruddy-brown heartwood was still raw, but no different to the hundreds of others we’d already seen since our arrival at the Fazenda Esperanca – an area set aside for controlled logging (a Forest Management Plan [FMP]) deep in the northern Brazilian state of Pará. It wasn’t until Marcelo bounded up the stacked logs and signalled for us to follow him that things became clearer. Beyond the logs lay another track, the entrance to which someone had gone to great lengths to conceal.

‘It’s illegal,’ announced Marcelo, pointing incriminatingly towards the deep, red, bulldozed scar disappearing into the forest beyond. ‘Is it outside of the permitted logging area?’ I asked; for once you enter the deep, all-enveloping canopy of the forest, there is no way in hell of knowing where you are. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘This is public land. They have built the road so they can get to the trees.’

I’d first met Marcelo Marquesini two days earlier, when his helicopter landed on Greenpeace’s 700-tonne icebreaker, the MV Arctic Sunrise. Newly appointed as chief inspector at the Brazilian Federal Environment Agency (Ibama), he is leading a clampdown on illegal logging in the Fazenda Esperanca, whose 2 million hectares of verdant flood plain forest have since 2002 been ravaged by a rapid increase in deforestation. Working in unison with Ibama, Greenpeace was in Pará to support a campaign by local communities for the creation of two ‘extractive reserves’ – the Verde Pará (Portuguese for ‘Forever Green’) and Renascer (‘Reborn’). Originally proposed by Chico Mendes, the rubber-tapper and environmental leader assassinated by a Brazilian rancher in 1988, extractive reserves place forests under federal protection, conserving them for sustainable use by traditional communities. Before heading up Ibama, Marcelo was himself a Greenpeace campaigner in the Amazon, and on the Arctic Sunrise’s battleship-grey heli-deck he received a warm greeting from his old boss Paulo Adario – a charismatic ex-journalist from Rio. These two men have stepped into the firing line in a war being fought out for the ownership of the Amazon. On one side are settlers eking out a living in the forests and rivers of the rainforest; on the other, logging companies are eager to exploit the munificence of the region’s timber. The Arctic Sunrise had dropped her anchor somewhat provocatively opposite the frontier logging town of Porto de Moz. According to State of Conflict, Greenpeace’s recent report on the Pará State logging industry, the town is run as a personal fiefdom by its mayor: Gérson Salviano Campos. Besides being mayor of Porto de Moz, Campos also owns the Grupo de Campos logging company, is part-owner of one of the town’s two sawmills, and is the largest cattle rancher in the region. Naturally, he is none too pleased at the prospect of the proposed reserves, which will severely limit his burgeoning businesses.

Daily broadcasts from Radio Porto de Moz regularly denounce Greenpeace, advancing in the process a rather novel conspiracy theory that involves the British and Dutch royal families annexing the Amazon for their empires. Needless to say, the radio station is also owned by Campos. The Arctic Sunrise’s draught restricts her from entering the Amazon’s shallower tributaries, so in order to get to the remoter communities on whose support the proposed extractive reserves rely Greenpeace chartered a river boat, the Captain Dario. I accompanied Adario up the Rio Guajara to the isolated community of Iprianga, where a meeting had been arranged to discuss the reserves. As we made our way up the winding river there appeared to be little evidence of deforestation: the forest lining the banks was intact for much of the two-hour boat ride.

Iprianga consists of a schoolhouse, a half-built Catholic church, and five or six houses, all of which are on stilts: it is situated in the várzea, the Amazonian flood plain, which between January and June remains pretty much permanently under water. We went ashore and spoke with Jacinto Costa da Silva, Iprianga’s Catholic minister. Da Silva is also a fisherman, and was very keen to show us his nets. Several months before, trawlers had arrived from Pará’s capital Belém and had quickly decimated the local fish stocks. Previously, the people of Iprianga, whose livelihoods depend largely on their ability to fish the Guajara, had taken the collective decision to use only nets whose mesh was large enough to allow juvenile fish to escape, thus ensuring a sustainable supply for the future. Da Silva was in no doubt of the need for the proposed reserves. ‘First the grillanos (ice boats) came from Belém and took all our fish. Now the loggers come and take our forests,’ he said, adding that his brother Massimo had recently been threatened when he tried to enter a nearby forest to hunt. ‘They have cut a pique (a small boundary path), and posted signs warning people to keep out.’ I asked him the name of the logging company. ‘Madenorte,’ he replied.

Based in Porto de Moz, Madenorte features prominently in State of Conflict. The company stands accused of falsifying land titles and imposing a regime of fear and violence against local community leaders. In its spare time, Madenorte produces sawn timber and plywood, 90 per cent of which is exported (55 per cent to the US and 30 per cent to the EU), principally through a company called DLH Nordisk. Madenorte also has contractual obligations to supply Campos. In recent years it has been fined US $300,000 for systematic illegal logging. The meeting to discuss the extractive reserves took place at Iprianga’s schoolhouse. Da Silva was the first to arrive. The river outside was soon a mass of canoes and boats, with people travelling from outlying communities to attend. I sat and surveyed the scene from the Captain Dario’s roof. A representative of the Rural Workers Union told me that without the presence of the gringos (namely Greenpeace), the meeting would never have taken place. When similar events were arranged in the past, they were broken up by gunmen in the pay of the timber firms. If the loggers’ weapon of choice is the gun, Greenpeace’s is the global positioning system (GPS): they carry GPSs wherever they go, mapping and marking new or illegal logging sites. They have incorporated this data into a map, and when Adario stood up to address the crowd in Iprianga’s schoolhouse he used that map to outline the loggers’ rapid encroachment onto community lands.

Afterwards, he asked me how I thought he had done. I muttered something about him being a good speaker. Later I felt rather embarrassed when I recalled that Adario has a price on his head. Chico Mendes’s assassination may have sparked an international outcry, but it certainly didn’t stop the murders of anyone who objects to the destruction of the Amazon. Pará State has the highest rate of assassinations linked to land conflict in Brazil. There were numerous complaints made against the loggers during the meeting. One woman was in tears as she recounted how gunmen attempted to evict her elderly mother from her home. The dispute over who actually owns the Amazon appears to be the central issue in the current conflict. Neither da Silva, nor any of Iprianga’s other residents we spoke to, own title deeds to their land, and the loggers have proved themselves more than adroit at exploiting this legal loophole. To fake authentic-looking land titles, papers are locked into boxes full of crickets or grilos. The crickets chew and foul the documents, making them appear older than they really are. (The process, known as grilagem, is so rife that the Brazilian government has launched a special parliamentary investigation into it.) Once they have established claims to land through these nefarious means, the loggers then go about evicting any settlers who may be living on it, or, as in da Silva’s case, denying them access to the forests they hunt and forage in.

The day after the meeting in Iprianga, I finally got to see the wood from the trees; or, more precisely, the lack of it. The reassuring sight of mile upon mile of tree-lined bank on my trips up and down the Guajara had been grossly misleading. It’s only when you get up in the air that the extent of the clearance becomes apparent. Five hundred feet up, what pans out below is not mile upon mile of wall-to-wall tropical rainforest, but open pasture completely denuded of any tree cover. It took a good 10 minutes flying at 100 knots plus before we actually came across any forest of note, and even then you could clearly see the logging tracks worming their way like parasites through the fleshy green canopy below. Worse, on the eastern horizon there was a dark pall of smoke sullying the rising sun: a rectangle of rainforest, two or three square miles in size had been burnt to the ground. Clear-cuts on this scale are only made possible by the loggers. They have the financial incentives and machinery to open up tracks into the forest’s interior, and their logging rents open the canopy – exposing the undergrowth to the sun, which dries it to the point where it can be put to the torch. Back at the Fazenda Esperanca, the Ibama technical team was still slowly working its way through rows of neatly stacked Jatoba, Ipe, Massaranduba, Marupa, Cedro, Pau Amarelo and Cambara – to name but a few species of the trees that grow in the plantation. The Ibama team was trying to work out which logs were taken from the illegal logging track. Only those would be impounded; the rest would be allowed to be barged down to the sawmill in Porto de Moz. Ibama may be the legal guardian of the forest, but it is ill-equipped and under funded. Marcelo told me that inspections of authorised FMPs can take months or even years, and that there are currently only four Ibama officers for the whole of Pará State – an area twice the size of France. The current clampdown was only made possible by an extra raft of funding worth $7 million. Even with the extra money Ibama still appears powerless to prosecute its prescribed role. This was made abundantly clear by an incident that took place during my stay at the plantation. One night on the Captain Dario we were surprised to witness the tugboat Madenorte XXI steam past us at full speed, pushing before it a barge laden with timber and plant machinery. It was highly suspicious, considering it was the dead of night and navigation of the river’s channels is not something undertaken lightly in the darkness. The loggers were no doubt mindful that the most effective power Ibama has against them is the seizure of their bulldozers and trucks. Greenpeace immediately notified Marcelo, who, located further downstream, was in an ideal position to intercept the boat. However, Ibama lacks powers of arrest and had no state police with them at the time. So, the Madenorte XXI was allowed to continue unimpeded.

The Brazilians have an expression ‘para Ingles ver’, which, translated literally, means ‘for the English to see’. It dates back to the 19th century, when, under pressure from British abolitionists, Brazil passed laws outlawing slavery while continuing the practice regardless. Today, it means doing something merely for show, and is a particularly appropriate description of the behaviour of DLH Nordisk, the largest exporter of Amazonian hardwood in the world. Nordisk is part of the Danish DLH Group, and its website ( goes to great lengths to advertise its social, ethical and environmental values. I spoke to DLH’s forests and environmental officer Eric Albrechtsen, and asked him how his company could reconcile these values with the situation in Brazil. ‘We are not going to solve all the problems in Brazil, and we don’t have any ambitions about that,’ Albrechtsen told me. ‘Does DLH have any dealings with Madenorte?’ I asked. ‘I know that we have been buying from them now and then, yes.’ Recounting the allegations I had heard at Iprianga schoolhouse, I asked whether Madenorte would be blacklisted by DLH. ‘No,’ Albrechtsen replied. ‘What we are doing now is contacting all our companies, all our suppliers, and that will include Madenorte. I know them quite well, and I know their case quite well. I have also seen these negative stories about Madenorte.’ Corporate governance would seem to be an oxymoron. With their large-mesh nets, the humble da Silva and his fellow citizens of Iprianga have taken more steps towards the survival of the Amazon as a distinct biological entity than DLH ever has – or, you suspect, ever will. Brazil’s environmental laws are, in the main, regarded as being far-sighted. But without proper enforcement they’re meaningless. The Brazilian timber industry, which is repeatedly accused of intimidation, beatings, assassination, illegal land grabs and human slavery, appears beyond redemption. By default, Western timber companies that choose to deal with it are complicit in these crimes. While the proposed extractive reserves would certainly buy the rainforest some time if they were established, the cold-blooded ruthlessness of the loggers means that it would not be long before they shifted their operations to another part of the Amazon. In 2002 the Brazilian space agency reported that its satellite monitoring showed deforestation in the Amazon had increased by 40 per cent from 18,000 to 25,400 square kilometres annually: an area roughly the size of Wales being laid bare every year. Even given the vast size of the Amazon, this is clearly unsustainable. A total moratorium on all logging activities in the Amazon is needed now. This can only be achieved if a mechanism is devised whereby Brazil’s crippling external debt is alleviated. Currently, Brazil needs hard currency to fend off the World Bank, and Brazilian president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva has already pledged to triple beef exports and increase national crop production to bring in this cash. This approach will only increase the pressure on the Amazon rainforest, which is one of the last remaining wonders of the world. Timber is another hard cash earner for the Brazilian economy. The West needs to recognise the global significance of the Amazon rainforest in maintaining global climate and biodiversity. It needs to pay for the protection of the rainforest, which is, quite simply, priceless.

While heading back to Britain I happened across Marcelo in the canteen at Pará’s Santarem International Airport. I asked him how the inspections were going. He replied that of the five FMPs inspected, three had been found not to be managing the forest. The other two were guilty of logging outside their designated area. Before he could go into greater detail, he was interrupted by his mobile. His ring-tone was the theme from Mission Impossible.

Greg Nasmyth is a freelance investigative journalist

This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2004

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