On the River With the Eco-Police

Inspectors try to nab smugglers of turtles, parrots, and timber

It is 12:30 a.m. on a starry Amazon night, and the only sound is the Rio Negro's tea-colored waters lapping at the small skiff where we sit waiting, moored to a fallen tree.

Suddenly one of the men spots the faint cluster of lights of a passing boat and yells, "Barco! Barco!" Our outboard motor is yanked awake, and we are off in pursuit.

Official caps on their heads and pistols at their sides, the Amazon region environmental inspectors announce their identity when we reach the sleek pleasure craft and hop on board. A few sleepy heads peer through portholes and doors. But a rapid search reveals none of the birds, fish, turtles, plants, or wood the inspectors are looking for, so we bid the startled river cruisers good night and return to the skiff.

"We'll inspect 4,500 boats a month like this," says Jos Leland Barroso, coordinator of inspections for the Manaus office of IBAMA, Brazil's environmental and renewable-resources institute. "Sometimes we come up with nothing, but then we'll hit upon the cargo of turtle eggs or endangered parrots that makes it worthwhile."

The Monitor recently accompanied IBAMA inspectors on a 20-hour tour. Mr. Barroso is one of 62 inspectors it employs in Amazonas, the huge state that makes up the bulk of the Amazon rain forest. Of the 61 municipalities, only five are connected to a road, making use of the river imperative.

The inspectors' job can seem almost futile, they say, because in such a biologically rich area as the Amazon, there is a lot of work to do, with few people to do it. Fish populations are falling, and the average fish caught is smaller, so the inspectors check fishermen's ice-boxes and buckets for fish sizes. Nine species of freshwater turtles are protected, and the long-tailed parrots we occasionally see fly overhead during our river tour are endangered, so the inspectors' have an eye out for them.

"In Manaus, 6 of every 10 houses has a wild animal in captivity, and last year we took 30,000 animals from homes," Barroso says. "But an animal's readjustment to the wild is difficult, if not impossible, and the majority of captured animals die before they ever get to someone's house," he adds. "So our aim is to discourage people from taking them from their habitat in the first place."

Some observers say the inspectors' needle-in-a-haystack searches do little good in an area so vast. Satellite data, increasingly being used, can better track deforestation and illegal mining, they say.

IBAMA's inspectors support the satellite work and are especially enthusiastic about SIVAN, a new $2 billion electronic-tracking system the Raytheon Corp. has been contracted to install in the Amazon. But they say inspectors will always be needed to stop illegal trade in flora and fauna and to help educate the public.

During the day, we climb aboard a run-down transport boat carrying a load of wood - a good part of it an endangered variety prohibited from commercial cutting. The illegal wood has been crudely cut into fence-post lengths. "I've been inspected by these guys before, when they said they were looking for illegal birds, and I agree with that," says the boat's skipper, a weathered Greek man who has been on the Amazon for 38 years. "But this wood stuff is nonsense: I guarantee that you can find the same thing selling openly on the Manaus port."

The IBAMA inspectors issue the Greek a 100 reales ($100) fine, but head off with few illusions about the short-term effect of their work. It will take time to educate the largely poor population about its dependence on the environment it abuses, just as it will to end the impunity in which wealthier citizens exploit resources. "Last week we shut down an illegal dredging operation that was pulling out sand and rocks from one of Anavilhanas's most sensitive areas," Barroso says.

"Normally that could cost somebody 30,000 reales, but it turns out those dredges had been sent there by two wealthy Manaus citizens in the construction business," he adds. "The reality is it's unlikely anything too punitive or exemplary will happen."

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