What's the next battle to stop illegal logging in Brazil's Amazon?

Brazilian militias calling themselves 'Guardians of the Trees' patrol the Amazon to protect the forest and their livelihood from illegal loggers that the government isn't reaching. 

Samsul Said/Reuters
Roslai Hasan makes incisions on a rubber tree's bark to tap rubber at a plantation at Hulu Rening outside Kuala Lumpur. Rubber tappers in Brazil say they are engaged in a war to protect the world's original rubber trees from illegal logging.

The Brazilian government has successfully reduced rates of Amazon deforestation through national policies. But on the local level, self-formed militias who call themselves "Guardians of the Trees" are taking up arms to curb loggers in hard-to-reach places.

In the rainforest of western Brazil, locals make their living collecting rubber from the trees. Frustrated by illegal logging, rubber tappers fight for their livelihoods, and occasionally their lives, National Public Radio (NPR) reports. As overwhelmed law enforcement looks the other way, they put themselves at personal risk. Their vigilantism is illegal, but authorities have so far turned a blind eye.

"We rubber tappers are being hunted because we are trying to protect what you see around you," rubber tapper Elizeu Berçacola told NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro while out on a patrol. 

His backpack shows bullet holes where the loggers just missed him. His wife and children have left the area for their own safety, he told NPR. 

Logging in the Amazon is legal, but it must be registered with the Brazilian government. Brazil produces 5 percent of the world's lumber, and the biggest importers are the United States and Europe, according to a study by American University.  

The government of Brazil has decreased deforestation remarkably since 2004 by cutting off farmers and ranchers who clear land illegally from legal markets, Daniel Nepstad, executive director at Earth Innovation Institute, told The Christian Science Monitor in October.

The government accomplished this by increasing the presence of the Ministry of the Environment, police, and even the army into at-risk areas, Dr. Javier Godar, a research fellow with the Stockholm Environment Institute, tells The Christian Science Monitor in an interview. The remaining illegal deforestation has moved into more remote areas where enforcement is more difficult. This is where the "Guardians of the Trees" come in. 

The rubber tappers are armed to fight loggers with pistols and rifles, but they do not harm the trees ability to grow. Their technique for obtaining rubber – they cut into the tree and collect the sap in metal buckets – is what originally put Brazil on the map. In the 1800s, the Amazon was the world's only source of rubber, and the native people held the secret to harvesting it.

The indigenous people in eastern Brazil have also taken the law into their own hands to defend their preserves – which make up one-fifth of the Amazon – from illegal logging. They have set up checkpoints on roads into the forest, torched trucks used in the illegal trade, and even ambushed and tied up loggers they found on their land, The Washington Post reports. 

Many do so with the support of the government's indigenous agency, which can provide boots, ammunition, and fuel for their patrol vehicles. Silvio da Silva, an employee of the agency and village chief, told the Post that their efforts have cut the number of logging trucks from 130 to as little as 10 per day. 

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.