In the Amazon, a forestry cop matches wits with illegal loggers
As deforestation rises, the Lula government launches a major new effort to stop it.
Roberto Scarpari hadn't seen his family in nearly a year. So, he expected the Christmas vacation would offer a welcome break from his job of busting illegal loggers deep in the Amazon.Skip to next paragraph
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But the job followed him home.
One warm December evening, Mr. Scarpari, an inspector with Brazil's environmental agency, was visiting his kids in São Paulo when he got a phone call. Illegal loggers were going to stage a robbery and assassinate him, a federal agent told him. Scarpari rushed to meet with police, who gave him an armed guard, a license to carry a gun, and a major fright.
No attack came. And Scarpari is back at work heading the Altamira office of IBAMA (the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources). But with a new rise in Amazon deforestation and the Brazilian government at the start of an unprecedented campaign to halt it, reliance on people like Scarpari is increasingly important to the effort to save what remains of the world's biggest rain forest. But not all forestry cops can be counted on to endure the threats, or the bribes, from illegal loggers.
Recently released statistics show that deforestation for the last five months of 2007 was 3,235 square kilometers (2,010 square miles), an increase over the previous year's figure. The trend is a red flag, say IBAMA officials, because forestry destruction usually falls towards the end of the year, during the rainy season.
"It is a completely new and very worrying development," Joao Paulo Capobianco, executive secretary at the Environment Ministry, admitted at a press conference to announce the figures in January.
The figures were so alarming that President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced an unprecedented set of measures to combat the rise. Lula decreed a total ban on deforestation in the 36 worst-hit municipalities – including Altamira, the port city in northern Brazil where Scarpari works. The president also told landowners they must prove they are complying with the law, which requires that 80 percent of their land be preserved as natural vegetation.
Those not in compliance will be ineligible for government credit and prohibited from selling their property. Measures will also be introduced to stop noncompliant businesses from marketing their produce. Hundreds of federal agents are being deployed to the area to help enforce the measures.
A new crackdown
During the first week of the new crackdown in late February, code named Arch of Fire, authorities closed down three timber merchants and seized more than 9,800 cubic feet of illegal timber, enough to fill 200 trucks, IBAMA reported.
The problem is not just that such operations are rare or, in the words of an exasperated federal police officer, "just for show." It's that they are seldom part of a collaborative, long-term effort, experts say.
IBAMA, for example, applied almost $1 billion in fines last year but only received about 10 percent of the value levied, according to its own estimates. Authorities have passed laws to make it easier to confiscate timber, machinery, and vehicles but officials don't have the resources to seize more than a fraction of the potential haul. And Greenpeace last week said that more than 60 percent of a landmark 2004 plan to cut deforestation has never been enacted.