Amazon Loggers Caught in the Act


Written by Mark D. Jordhal

Illegal logging in the Amazon is usually a faceless phenomenon. Authorities find out about tree poaching after the fact through satellite imagery, or get tips that lead them hours into the forest only to find the perpetrators — and the logs — long gone. With under-funded enforcement agencies monitoring a forest larger than the continental United States, the odds are stacked in favor of the criminals.

Ray Brown, director of Colorado-based TreeViver, was recently part of a raid in Mato Grosso state that led him to reflect on the human side of the battle for the Amazon. TreeViver is a social venture to reforest degraded land in Mato Grosso, and Brown interacts extensively both with people destroying the forest and those trying to save it.

Brazil has reduced its overall deforestation rate dramatically in the last decade with improved satellite surveillance, better cooperation between environmental and law enforcement agencies, more effective laws regulating loans to landowners, and stricter enforcement of the existing forest protection laws. In the last two years, however, deforestation in Mato Grosso has reached an all-time high, making it the epicenter of the fight to save the Amazon.

A few weeks ago, the Secretaria Estadual de Meio Ambiente  — the Brazilian agency responsible for investigating environmental crimes — received a series of tips from a reliable informer about an illegal logging operation near the town of Juina, in northwestern Mato Grosso. The nearly hourly updates, including details about vehicles, locations and more, made it clear that the operation was underway and that this might be a rare opportunity to actually catch the perpetrators in the act.

Brown was invited by Ambiente agent João Vitor Ceran to document the raid, which was to be a joint operation between the state and federal enforcement agencies. The decision to join was not one to be taken lightly in a region where environmentalists often find themselves on the wrong end of a gun.

Brown, Ceran, and a group of the state agents loaded up in their pickup truck and headed to the meeting point at the edge of the forest where they met up with the federales. From there they proceeded into the forest on a muddy road that was more like a horse trail than the paved road indicated on the map.

The officials soon encountered a man on a motorcycle. The federales stopped and questioned the visibly nervous villager, but finding nothing on him, let him go. Five minutes later they came across a big, ancient truck grinding along the road. Usually, these trucks in the Amazon are open flatbeds, but this one had wooden sides that hid what was inside.

The agents questioned the truck driver. They asked him to move away from the truck as they inspected and catalogued the contents — three huge logs, chainsaws, and fuel. The clearly panicked driver he said he took the logs because he was very poor and needed to build a house for his mother. As they measured out the logs in the truck, one of the agents whispered to Brown: “We never catch the people!”

It doesn’t help that the environmental crime department isn’t authorized to make arrests. Only the Brazilian police can do that. The agents needed to move on and find the actual illegal logging site, so they took down the driver’s information, gave him a $150 ticket, and instructed him to report to the civil police in the nearest town.

As they moved deeper into the forest, the officials began finding logs piled along the roadside. Clearly this was a large illegal operation and multiple trucks would be coming in to collect the logs. Two more men rode by on a motorcycle, were stopped and questioned, and then let go. Again, no evidence. After that, all quiet. No trace of any loggers at work.

As the agents left the forest and prepared to turn onto the main, paved road, they  found the logs from the one truck they had stopped earlier now lying beside the road. The logs couldn’t have been unloaded by the driver alone. The agents figured the men on the motorcycles they had chanced upon earlier must have helped him. But now all of them had disappeared and would probably not be traceable again.

Not that apprehending them later would lead to much, Brow was told.  Those men were small fry in a major timber mafia operation. The man carrying the logs out of the forest in his ancient truck might not be building a house for his mother, but he was certainly telling the truth about being poor.

Local people involved in the illegal timber trade tend to be living on the edge of survival. Globally, the illegal timber trade is worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year, but very little of that money makes it into the hands of the people risking their lives to cut down trees. But when you are struggling to feed your family, making a few dollars by cutting a dozen trees out of a forest that seems to stretch on forever can be irresistible.

Even though he has dedicated his life to stopping illegal deforestation, Ambiente agent Ceran understands why many locals see it as their only option. He believes that protection of the Amazon is a global responsibility. “If the world does not want the forest destroyed, the world must pay for the Amazon to continue, because people who own farms require the use of these areas to survive,” says the 24-year-old who has been working for the Brazilian government since he was 19.

Selective felling of commercially-valuable hardwood species, as was happening on the day of the raid, is just one of the many threats to Amazon rainforest. Most of the forest destruction is a result of large-scale clearing for soy and beef production. In Mato Grosso alone, there are more than 25 million cattle, compared to about 40 million in the entire United States. It is also the hub of Brazil’s soy industry, with more than 15 million acres dedicated to the crop. A bigger threat is proposed changes to Brazil’s forest code, introduced by agricultural and ranching lobbies, which would open up an additional 20 million acres of forest to clearing.

Ultimately, though, the future of the Amazon will be determined not so much by the poor villagers of Mato Grosso or the more well-to-do farmers and ranchers, but by the rest of the world. As long as there is demand for beef and tropical hardwoods in wealthy markets like the United States, Europe and Asia, there will always be people willing to take the risk and destroy this precious natural resource to meet that demand.

This post was originally published by the Earth Island Journal.


Related Stories:

Dangerous Forestry Law Partially Vetoed by Brazil

Controversial Catholic Priest Pushing Amazon Road

Deforestation: Fast-Tracking Our Own Extinction


Photo from Carlos Sottovia via flickr


Marianne Good
Past Member 4 years ago


Fred Hoekstra
Fred Hoekstra5 years ago

Thank you Earth Island Journal, for Sharing this!

Karen Nelson
m nielsen5 years ago

Something to think about! Just read a book, "1493" by Charles C. Mann. It is the story of what happened to the world after Columbus and subsequent visitors came to the Americas. Seems the American Indians had a practice of annual burning, which had been going on for thousands of years over millions and millions of acres in the USA, to clear out underbrush in forests. It also seems that Europe and possibly other places as well were undergoing "The Little Ice Age." When Columbus and others arrived, they introduced smallpox, malaria, etc., decimating Indian populations, so the burning stopped. Forests began to regenerate, taking carbon out of the air. At about the same time, "The Little Ice Age" began to warm up. Thinking about this raises questions of which is most important in global climate change--carbon or particulate matter? Burning frees carbon and increases particulates. Regrowth takes in carbon and reduces particulates. Increased particulates cool and increased carbon warms. (If anyone is interested in reading about this, the discussion begins on page 38 of the book.)Could something like this (equivalent to burning) be happening in the Amazon? Lots of questions for climate scientists.

Alicia N.
Alicia N5 years ago

sad sad sad

federico bortoletto

Che tristezza!!

EarthFirst J.
EarthFirst J.5 years ago

The conservation of the Amazon is ultimately a subject of sustainability. People need to able to have jobs that don't require the destruction of ancient eco-systems.People need to have income to continue to stay alive and to fight corporate entities bent on both humans and nature as merely resources. for more check out

Patricia Garcia Ces
Patricia Ces5 years ago

Really sad!!

Christine Stewart

The people who actually cut down the trees are poor and desperate- the people PAYING for the lumber are the culprits- they are the ones to be prosecuted. And the people who say we shouldn't pay Ecuador or other governments to protect the rain forest are missing a big point- other countries around the world destroy their forests, mountains, oceans for lumber, coal, and fish- you better pay to protect the amazon because it's not fair to destroy your own environment for profit but tell Ecuador/ Brazil etc to stay poor and let the amazon alone.

Mitchell D.
Mitchell D5 years ago

This is clearly a horrid situation, and i may be preaching to the choir, here, but i urge you to read "Ishmael," by D. Quinn, for a fascinating treatment of the global issue involved here, in a novel presentation.

Jane R.
Jane R5 years ago

"Amazon Loggers Caught In The Act" ? They didn't actually catch anyone! I hope they will soon!