Still in the Rio Trairão settlement, the colonos, knowing that we’re interested in witnessing first-hand the damage that illegal logging is doing to the forest, take us, again by motorbike, to the Sister Dorothy Sustainable Development Project (PDS), named after the American religious sister murdered in 2005 for her opposition to abuses by landowners and loggers. It’s near the colonos’ settlement, but isn’t part of the land they want to annex to turn into a forest reserve where they can collect forest products.

Once we reach the PDS, I’m amazed by the scale of the logging that is under way. The colonos tell me that the loggers were there some years ago, when they scoured the settlement, taking out some of the best timber, and they’re now back for another round. The forest has grown over the tracks they opened earlier, so their first step this time has been to use a huge tractor, which they must have brought up from the south of the country, to reopen the roads. As we ride along the main road, there are scores of minor tracks branching off into the forest. Following some of them, we realise that each has scores of other tracks branching out from them. All these were opened up so that groups of labourers, now generally working for men that the loggers have subcontracted to do the felling, can get at the best trees, which will have already been located by an explorador, a kind of scout who finds the most valuable timber.

What we discover amounts to an undercover town, created clandestinely in the forest. High in the canopy, trees and creepers are growing closer together, filling the space left by the trees felled to open the roads, so the tracks are beginning to feel like tunnels through the forest. Everywhere there are indications that a huge amount of timber has been extracted. Along the roads are large cleared areas, called esplanadas, where the logs are stacked, waiting for lorries to pick them up. None of this devastation will be captured by the satellites used by the government to measure forest clearance.

How much timber has been taken out? It’s impossible for us to make even a rough calculation. Maurício has his GPS with him and takes several readings. But we can’t tell how deep into the forest the feeder roads extend, so we can’t get any idea of the scale of the logging, only a general impression that it is huge.

Area of settlement that has been loggedWe follow what we think is the main track, with the colonos themselves getting lost, and stumble across a camp built as a temporary lodging for the labourers. The camp has been abandoned and, as they have left behind dirty T-shirts, shorts and worn-out boots, we can see that it was used until a few months ago. They have planted manioc, tomatoes (I eat a few), bananas and other crops, so they clearly lived there for some time. Living conditions must have been awful. The PDS is located in a region with almost no rivers. The only water provided for the workers comes from a large plastic tank which collects rainwater. At the end of the ‘summer’ (the dry season) the water must have been absolutely filthy, as it is today.

Crude drinking-water tank for loggersThe area in the camp where the labourers sawed the trunks to fit them on to lorries is covered by a thick layer of compacted sawdust. Hundreds – if not thousands – of logs must have been sawn there for so much sawdust to have accumulated. A few logs have been left. Someone has written on a couple of them: each has the length and the circumference of the log and a name, apparently the name of the logger who is to receive it. One log was destined, it seems, for Bruno (whom people later identify as a logger working in the region) and another for Banha, who owns one of the larger logging companies in the nearby town of Uruará, and has just won the local election for mayor in that town.

Log marked with name 'Banha'The logging is still going on. By chance, we are visiting the area on 12 October, one of the main religious holidays in Brazil, and the teams have left the forest for a break. This means that we can’t actually witness any logging activity, which is perhaps just as well, because we would not have been welcome visitors. However, we come across two lorries, without number plates, carrying timber out of the PDS. We speak to the drivers, but they claim not to know who they are working for. Local people, however, tell us that the lorry-drivers are taking the wood to Emerson, though they don’t know which logging company he is linked to. Back in Uruará, we discover that Banha has a brother called Emerson, who has his own logging company.

Lorry leaving laden with timberBack in Uruará, we spoke to Emerson, who emphatically denied that the timber was going to his company, saying that there were other loggers called Emerson. We also tried to talk to Banha, but at the time of writing we hadn’t managed to speak to him.

How is it possible that illegal logging on this scale is still occurring in democratic Brazil, which has some of the best environmental legislation in the world? It seems particularly tragic that it is happening in one of the new settlements – Projects of Sustainable Development—that Sister Dorothy Stang campaigned tirelessly for. Although it is located far from where she worked and died, this particular PDS was named as a homage to her.

It’s a complex story. The PDS was a great idea, an alternative to the conventional settlement where colonos were given individual family plots and were expected to clear an area and plant crops. Indeed, they needed to slash-and-burn an area to demonstrate to INCRA (the National Institute of Colonisation and Agrarian Reform) that they had occupied their plot.

In contrast, the PDS was to be run by the community, and the emphasis was to be on sustainable logging and the collection of forest products, with the idea of preserving the forest, not destroying it. The PDS should be an alternative to large-scale destructive logging and slash-and-burn agriculture. In 2004 two PDSs were created—PDS Esperança and PDS Virola Jatoba—and families were settled on them. Today loggers are trying to take them over, and the families are resisting.

These two turned out to be the first and last real PDSs. In 2005 the timber companies realised that the PDS was an opportunity for them to legitimise their illegal logging. They created what amounted to phantom communities, going to towns and villages with loudspeakers, promising land for people who signed up to become the beneficiaries of a PDS. Armed with this list of randomly selected people, a logger and one of his stooges, introduced as the ‘leader of the community’, went to INCRA and got it to set up a PDS.

But these PDSs existed only on paper. Very few of the people who signed up were ever settled on them. Nearly all were set up in remote areas that had not yet been logged. They were no more than scams by which loggers could draw up a ‘plano de manejo florestal’ (a plan for forest management), duly signed by the ‘community representative’. Once approved by INCRA, this plan would enable the loggers to extract large quantities of timber legally, as if the PDS community was extracting it. The loggers might even be able to export the timber as being from a sustainable timber project.

In a flurry of activity after Sister Dorothy’s death, INCRA created in 2005 and 2006 almost 200 settlements, many of them PDSs. Ironically enough, they were part of a big initiative by the government to demonstrate to the world that it was taking effective action to protect the world’s largest tropical forest.

But, remarkably, the loggers didn’t manage to get away with their scam. Much of the credit for this goes to Procuradores from the Ministério Público—Brazil’s system of independent lawyers, whose role was expanded by the progressive 1988 constitution to ensure that legislation with respect to Indians and other traditional groups, the environment and land is respected. The Procuradores are not judges, and they can’t impose fines or send people to prison. Their role is to present evidence to judges. There are few of them and they cover huge areas, but they often pull off remarkable feats.

Such was the case here. In an interview with the newspaper O Liberal, Felipe Fritz Braga, who was at the time Procurador da República for the municipality of Santarém, commented: “The picture has become clear. The settlements have been created without any concern by INCRA that people should be able to occupy the land effectively and live decently in the area. The objective has always been to enable loggers to exploit the forest. We can see, then, that they were not just settlements that exist only on paper, but settlements to produce timber.”

In August 2007, after receiving a report from the Ministério Público, a federal judge ordered all activity on 99 settlements (including the Sister Dorothy PDS) to cease. Finally, in April 2011, another federal judge cancelled all settlements created in 2005 and 2006—Projetos de Assentamento (PAs), Projetos de Assentamento Coletivo (PACs) and PDSs. For once, a loggers’ scam was nipped in the bud.

But although they failed in their attempt to create a façade of legality, the loggers have not stopped working in the settlements, which are still largely empty. They have gone back to business as usual—illegal logging. It is this that we saw in the Sister Dorothy PDS.