Brazil on Verge of Legitimizing Amazon Land Theft on a Grand Scale

Source: Common Dreams

The Amazon is the sort of wild place where you often go looking for one thing, but find another. So it was when Mongabay travelled in May on a mission to observe illegal logging operations within federal conservation units beside the BR-163, the Amazon highway linking the city of Santarém on the Amazon River with Cuiabá, the capital of Mato Grosso state.

What we expected to find was a serious crime involving illegal timber extraction on federal lands, and possible infringement of labor laws, with workers held in conditions analogous to slavery.

What we encountered instead was a broader context of criminal activities that appears to explain legislation just rushed through Brazil’s National Congress and awaiting President Temer’s signature to turn over very large swaths of already protected Amazon rainforest to land thieves, mining interests and agribusiness.

On the trail of illegal loggers and miners

Using satellite images, experts had identified illegal logging activities to the east of BR-163, just south of the town of Vila de Três Bueiros, in the rural district of Trairão, in Pará state. To reach the illegal logging camp, we needed to drive a precarious dirt road that crossed the Branco River on a bridge built by the loggers themselves.

After a few miles, our truck got stuck and we got out to push. As we sank deeper into the mud, a man, about 40, appeared from the direction of the river. Visibly exhausted, and initially mistrustful, he said he’d come from a garimpo, a mine.

That was the first inkling we had that in addition to illegal loggers, there were miners operating inside the conservation unit illegally extracting cassiterite, the ore from which tin is extracted.

The miner, on the verge of collapse, begrudgingly told us he’d left the mine due to the terrible working conditions and because he hadn’t been paid. He’d been walking since the previous day, initially with a companion, who had given up, completely worn out. Turning one last look eastward to the way he’d come, he walked quickly west.

Then a logger arrived on a tractor and, thanks to his vast experience with Amazonian mud, we were soon hauled out. He warned us in a friendly, unembarrassed way: “The bridge [you need to cross] doesn’t exist anymore. We destroyed it so IBAMA and ICMBio [Brazil’s environmental agencies] won’t disturb us. Without a bridge, they only get there by helicopter.”

We weren’t sure whether to believe the logger, but just to be sure, we detoured south to where the BR-163 crosses the Branco River. There we rented a canoe with an outboard motor and travelled upriver for an hour to where the bridge should have been.

Sure enough, we came round a river bend and saw the wrecked bridge, plus a dilapidated ferryboat on the east bank at the border of the conservation unit. So the logger had been truthful: the illegal loggers decided who came across and who didn’t.

Another surprise at the ferry port: six men were stranded on the opposite bank, trying to get hold of the cables to haul the ferry over. Reluctant to say much, they indicated that they weren’t working for the loggers. They, too, were miners, who had fallen out with the mine owner, who, they said, had “done them over.” Trying to get away, they’d set up an impromptu camp two days earlier and now had little food and no drinking water.

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