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The Amazon: loggers attack environment officials

Bolsonaro silent as IBAMA officials are violently assaulted

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  • This article was first published by Mongabay on 27 May. You can read the original here.
  • In April an official from IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency was violently assaulted by loggers and needed hospital treatment in Pará state. The incident was caught on video.
  • The IBAMA operation was targeting illegal deforestation carried out by land grabbers, wishing to convert large areas of forest into ranches within the Cachoeira Seca Indigenous Reserve. Out of all Brazil’s indigenous territories it ranked third for worst deforestation from August 2018 to July 2019.
  • As permitted by Brazilian law, the IBAMA officials had burnt tractors and trucks used by the criminals, angering the loggers. The loggers are selling the illegally extracted timber to fund the further deforestation of large areas.
  • The Association of IBAMA employees believe that President Jair Bolsonaro’s anti-indigenous and anti-environmental rhetoric is fuelling the attacks on environmental agency workers.
Heavy equipment used in illegal operation, destroyed by IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency. Such expensive equipment is clearly being paid for not by “wildcat loggers” but by well financed operators. Image courtesy of IBAMA.

A large group of angry loggers set fire to a bridge in Pará state in the Brazilian Amazon in April, forcing vehicles belonging to IBAMA, the country’s environmental agency, to halt, preventing its mission to protect an indigenous reserve from ongoing illegal deforestation.

The unruly mob surrounded the IBAMA staff, threatening them. Givanildo Lima, the official in charge of the operation, tried to reason with the gang but, in the midst of mayhem, someone hit him on the head with a bottle of cachaça, Brazilian white rum, knocking him to the ground. He required hospital treatment. Mongabay contacted Lima, but he said he could not talk to the press due to a ban imposed by the Ministry of the Environment.

Various videos of the incident, probably shot by the loggers, were posted on the internet. Mongabay has taken episodes from these videos, some of them long and rambling, and produced a more concise version.

The clash illustrates the degree to which illegal loggers and land grabbers, who openly admit they feel empowered by President Jair Bolsonaro’s inflammatory rhetoric, believe they are free to violently advance their interests. Mongabay contacted IBAMA’s Communication Department, the only body authorized to speak to reporters, for comment. It replied saying that it had forwarded Mongabay’s request to the Ministry of Environment, the body charged by the Bolsonaro government for dealing with all press queries relating to the environment.  When this article went to press, the ministry had not replied. No one has been taken into custody but the federal police have said they will investigate the incident.

The loggers were resisting IBAMA’S attempt to curb illegal timber harvesting inside the Cachoeira Seca Indigenous Reserve, which covers 734,000 hectares (2,834 square miles) of Amazon rainforest in Pará, and is occupied by the Arara indigenous group. The loggers have admitted that they were incensed by IBAMA’s recent actions — setting fire to and destroying three trucks and two tractors used by the invaders to carry out valuable timber from inside the reserve by the invaders. Such actions by IBAMA are legal, but have come under strong criticism from Bolsonaro.

The IBAMA deforestation operation is part of a wider program conducted in conjunction with two other government bodies, FUNAI, the Brazilian indigenous agency, and the National Public Security Force, both of which are part of the Justice Ministry. Their combined mission: curb environmental crimes along the Transamazon Highway, a hotspot for deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.

Map showing the extensive illegal road building and deforestation inside the Cachoeira Seca Indigenous Reserve. Image courtesy of Branford / Borges.

A participant in the operation, who spoke off the record, explained that when the team flew over Cachoeira Seca, they detected the first stage of illegal deforestation. “The loggers were extracting commercially valuable timber to sell to sawmills in the town of Uruará, so they could cover the costs of clear-cutting the area and [then] start using it for ranching,” he said.

He also told Mongabay that IBAMA’s helicopters had landed at the location and that machine operators fled into the forest, leaving one truck along with its ignition key. That truck was commandeered and driven to the operation’s headquarters. Other vehicles found onsite were burned, as permitted under Brazil’s environmental regulations when it is not possible to remove a vehicle or permanently guard it.

This destruction is allowed under the law for two main reasons: the difficulty in removing the apprehended equipment from the forest and the risk that invaders may undertake an armed action on the IBAMA depot to recover their trucks, as has already occurred in Amazonia. The financial harm this inflicts on loggers makes it an effective way of curbing illegal logging.

However, it is a tactic that greatly angers Bolsonaro. He has repeatedly condemned the destruction of property, assuring illegal goldminers, loggers and other criminals that the practice will not happen under his administration. Still the president lacks the authority to rewrite legislation without congressional approval. But he can appoint allies to key management posts within IBAMA, a practice that has apparently resulted in the torching of far fewer vehicles this year, just half of past levels.

Many IBAMA staff oppose Bolsonaro’s interference and, since they cannot be easily sacked due to government hiring rules, say it is their duty to obey the law, and not politicians. In a press release, the Association of IBAMA Employees (ASIBAMA) repudiated the “aggression” IBAMA employees suffered in Uruará and said the daily risks they run are already serious enough “without the words from the government encouraging acts of violence against federal environmental agents.” Where possible, IBAMA staff have continued with their environmental mission.

Logging truck destroyed by IBAMA, a legal tactic that is highly effective in reducing illegal logging. Image courtesy of IBAMA.

Uruará, the town where the IBAMA ambush took place, is located on the Transamazon Highway. Established in 1989, the town’s economy is heavily dependent on sawmills. In a visit there at the end of last year, politicians, shopkeepers, inhabitants and even some loggers admitted to a Mongabay source that all the sawmills, to a greater or lesser degree, operate clandestinely.

On 27 April the Uruará town council filed a public civil action, asking for an end to IBAMA’s operations curbing deforestation. The council argued that during the COVID-19 pandemic such operations would endanger public health, driving more than “300 farmers and their families out of their homes… [forcing them to] work [closely] together to protect their land,” creating conditions preventing social distancing and helping spread the virus.

The anonymous source who spoke to Mongabay was emphatic in saying that IBAMA was not targeting small-scale farmers who had settled in the indigenous reserve before it was formally established. ”Our focus is the big farmers who have bought large areas within the indigenous reserve over the last two years [long after the reserve was created] and are felling forest to set up ranches.”

The Federal Public Ministry (MPF), independent federal public litigators, argued against the town council position, stating: “The Uruará municipality does not take the side of the indigenous and riverine populations and the settlers who live in the indigenous territory… but [sides with] the land grabbers and loggers who illegally exploit the area.… These are the only people targeted by the environmental operation, as should be the case.”

A logging truck inside the indigenous reserve and a muddy logging road. These so-called “informal roads” are the first step in providing access to public lands and indigenous reserves, which can lead eventually to the conversion of rainforest to cattle ranches and soy farms. Image by special operation to combat logging along the Transamazon Highway.

The process of officially recognizing the Cachoeira Seca Indigenous Territory was protracted, so it was only in 2008 that peasant families were banned from settling in the area. By then, many peasant families were already living there, unaware it was indigenous land. But even in those early years, before the reserve was established, large-scale farmers were responsible for most deforestation.

When Juan Doblas looked at data collected by FUNAI, the geo-processing analyst discovered that land grabbers, and not peasant families, were responsible for most of the clear cutting before 2005. Doblas told Mongabay that fewer than 100 land grabbers had been responsible for 55% of the tree cutting, while the 1,000 or so peasant families had carried out the remaining 45% (see graph).

In 2008, after the indigenous reserve had its borders defined as part of the demarcation process, all of these invaders were required to give up their land claims and leave the area according to Brazilian law. The peasant families — but none of the large-scale farmers — are entitled to compensation for their loss and resettlement on equivalent land. Until now, the government has not fulfilled its legal obligation and none of the families have been moved out of the reserve.

Mixed messages coming from the various federal bodies and their failure to work together has confused the local inhabitants and exacerbated the conflict. Before the reserve was fully established in 2016, the government’s land reform institute, INCRA, unaware of the boundaries of the indigenous reserve, even gave the go-ahead to peasant families to move in.

More recently, tensions have mounted, as the government has supported actions in opposition to the rule of law. “Over the last two year,  the federal government’s rhetoric has encouraged the arrival of more people, who are confident that they will be allowed to stay, even though today the indigenous reserve has been fully recognised,” said Mongabay’s anonymous source.

Deforestation in Cachoeira Seca is accelerating out of control. Out of all Brazil’s indigenous territories it ranked third for the worst deforestation between August 2018 and the end of July 2019, according to According to Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research (INPE).

Employees from IBAMA and other government bodies are doing what they can to protect the forests and people of Cachoeira Seca, but it is becoming clear, say analysts, that, unless the Bolsonaro administration acts to curb mob rule, government enforcers will be increasingly putting their lives at risk.


BANNER IMAGE: Truck removing illegally cut timber from the Cachoeira Seca Indigenous Reserve. Image by special operation to combat logging along the Transamazon Highway.

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