Deforestation in Brazil’s huge Amazon region has slowed in recent years, and this week the government said it was at its lowest level since monitoring began 24 years ago. But despite tougher regulations, unscrupulous loggers are still finding ways to get timber out of the jungle and selling it as legally felled wood, locals say.
Fabio Lourenco de Souza, a young Brazilian farmer, lives in a settlement known as PDS Esperanca (Hope), in the Xingu river valley in eastern Amazonia.
Although the land is rich in tropical timber, along with most of the 300 families in the settlement, he wants nothing to do with loggers.
“It makes no sense at all for us to start logging the timber on our settlement,” says Fabio, who stops work on the construction of a new wooden house for himself and his family to talk. “The logging companies would not pay us enough for the wood, and would destroy the forest, and we need it for the future of our children.”
It is better to grow crops, he says, particularly cacao, which brings in a good income.
For years, the inhabitants of PDS Esperanca have been worried about loggers stealing timber from their land.
They say it happens routinely, and that loggers use falsified papers to make the wood look as if it had been legally felled.
This illegal-to-legal transformation is known in Brazil as “heating” wood.
To legally harvest wood on the land, a landowner must make an inventory of the species of timber on his or her land and apply to the government for authorisation. Provided the plan respects the legal limits for timber extraction, and contains a commitment to reforest the cleared area, it will be authorised.
In cases of “heating”, loggers bribe and bully landowners, big and small, to draw up the documentation, which they then buy, often under duress and for a negligible sum. The loggers then use the plans to give a legal cover story for timber they have logged illegally from a different area.
The BBC approached the government about this practice, but it refused to grant an interview.
A few years ago, the residents of PDS Esperanca grew so concerned that they blockaded the entrance to their settlement to stop illegal loggers from entering.
After seven tense months, they persuaded the National Institute of Colonisation and Agrarian Reform (Incra) – which distributes land and manages settlements – to build a sentry-box to guard the settlement and to pay a private security firm to man it.
It is still there, and helps to explain why life is relatively tranquil in PDS Esperanca, although some residents still get death threats from the loggers.
There is more tension in another settlement, PDS Virola-Jatoba, where most of the 180 families are also trying to stop the loggers stealing their timber.
They have a rota for guarding the settlement round the clock.
At the end of September, one family discovered that loggers had secretly built a track into the back of their land so they could take out timber by barge along a tributary of the Amazon River. The following day, a small group of settlers, accompanied by three Incra officials, drove as close as they could to where the loggers were working. Then, guided by the sound of the machines, they walked about 10km (six miles) through the forest to find them.
One of the settlers, who did not want to give his name, admitted that he was scared. “We didn’t know what was waiting for us,” he said. “We were afraid that there would be armed guards protecting the workers.”
As it turned out, the workers were unarmed and readily handed over the keys to the machinery.
The two sides ended up sharing their dinner.
Many settlers in the region want to exploit their timber, but on their own terms.
A few are being trained by the Brazilian Forest Service to run their own logging operation, but they face fierce opposition from logging companies. Several locals confirmed that they had received death threats.
And few communities can manage to keep the loggers out.
Urara, a town of about 50,000 inhabitants on the Transamazon highway, is a typical frontier town with no running water, no sewerage and no airport – apart from small, clandestine landing strips, which some people say are used for drug trafficking.
What it does have in abundance are logging companies, which drive the town’s economy.
As the light fades, lorries without number plates arrive at the timber yards loaded with what locals say is illegally felled tropical timber.
The next morning in the bright sunshine, lorries with number plates drive out of the yards, loaded with sawn planks, each with an identification label, as required by law.
This timber can now be sold on the domestic market or exported.
PDS Esperanca and PDS Virola-Jatoba were created by an American nun, Sister Dorothy Stang, as a means of countering the plundering of the forest by the loggers.
They have a strong emphasis on forest conservation – while settlers can cultivate their own individual plots, they cannot sell them.
The two settlements are proving successful, but – largely because they have not been endorsed wholeheartedly by the authorities – they have not spread throughout the region, as Sister Dorothy had hoped.
And Sister Dorothy herself was murdered in PDS Esperanca in 2005, by gunmen sent in by landowners.
The conflict over land that gave rise to her killing still simmers.
In 2009, a memorial plaque was nailed to a tree close to where Sister Dorothy was murdered. It was soon riddled with bullets. The message was clear: farmers who resist logging do so at their own risk.