On July 4th, along a dusty backroad in the southwest Brazilian state of Rondônia, near the logging hub of Espigão d’Oeste, unknown assailants stopped a tanker truck, yanked the driver from the cab, and set it ablaze. The truck was carrying aviation fuel to resupply government helicopters supporting an operation against illegal loggers. Fearing further attacks, government agents suspended the operation and withdrew from the area.
The fire didn’t spread beyond the charred wreckage left behind on that road winding through the rainforest. Compared to the wildfires that have since flared up around Rondônia and across the Amazon, stirring outcry from around the world, a single burning truck might seem insignificant.
And yet it epitomized the battle now underway in the the world’s largest tropical rain forest—a battle in which the agency chiefly responsible for protecting the forest finds itself increasingly beleaguered.
For the past 30 years, the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Natural Renewable Resources, known by its acronym IBAMA, has stood at the forefront of the uphill fight against Amazon destruction. Its agents have chased criminal loggers and gold prospectors out of indigenous territories. Its inspectors have uncovered elaborate fraud schemes aimed at the theft and clearing of public land for cattle grazing and agriculture. They have broken up rings that traffic in endangered wildlife, and they have issued heavy fines to powerful players seeking to profit from the Amazon’s riches.
But as the pace of rain forest destruction quickens this year—through July it was up by 60 percent over 2018, according to Brazilian satellite data—IBAMA is facing more than the wrath of its traditional foes. It’s also struggling under a new president, Jair Bolsonaro, who has called the satellite data “a lie”—and who makes no secret of his plans to roll back environment protections and open the Amazon to logging, mining, ranching, and industrial-scale agriculture.
Bolsonaro has lambasted IBAMA’s time-honored practice of issuing stiff penalties for environmental infractions, dubbing it an “industry of fines.” He has called on field agents to stop destroying the tractors and bulldozers of illegal loggers in the backwoods—which officials describe as a rarely used measure that keeps workers from resuming their illegal activities. In February, Bolsonaro's environment minister, Ricardo Salles, dismissed 21 of IBAMA’s 27 state superintendents. Many of those positions remain unfilled.
It was against this backdrop that photographer Felippe Fittipaldi and I joined IBAMA in mid-July as it launched a full-blown response to the attack on the fuel truck. The ambush had occurred outside a small frontier settlement called Boa Vista de Pacarana, on the northern fringe of the sprawling municipality of Espigão d’Oeste. Rondônia is an Amazonian state renowned for land conflict and rampant deforestation, and IBAMA officials say that Espigão’s timber business is largely sustained by an illegal trade in hardwoods harvested from indigenous territories. The plan was for some 35 agency inspectors—backed by a heliborne strike team, more than 50 heavily armed police officers, and nearly 100 army soldiers—to descend on the sawmills and illegal logging operations and maybe catch them in the act.
But as our convoy of SUVs, police cars, and military trucks raced across the state from Porto Velho, the state capital, one of the agents tuned in via social media to an interview with the head of Espigão’s loggers’ association—and heard the man discuss the impending IBAMA raid. Environment minister Salles would be arriving in Espigão from Brasilia the next day, the timber man said. He urged town folk to turn out to greet the minister, who he expected would lend a sympathetic ear to industry concerns.
In effect, the industry had been tipped off.
“Now that they know we’re coming, they’ll pull everyone out of the forest,” muttered one police sergeant in our convoy. “We will find the crime, but we won’t find the criminals.”
The bust goes on
The next morning, Salles did not disappoint the several hundred supporters who gathered outside the city hall in Espigão.
“Sadly, what is happening in Brazil today is the result of years and years and years of a public policy of laws, rules, and regulations that don’t always align with the real world,” he said. He was referring to the regime of oversight that has guided Brazilian environmental policy for the past three decades—and that helped produce a sharp decline in deforestation, at least until a few years ago.
IBAMA field commanders in charge of the bust that was about to begin were unphased by Salles’s remarks.
“We received no direct order from him to refrain from doing anything,” said Givanildo dos Santos Lima, the overall coordinator of the operation. “We are going to do everything that has to be done to do our job.”
Lima, 46, is a lanky man who bears a striking resemblance to former U.S. president Barack Obama. A veteran field agent with nearly 15 years of experience in the backwoods, he is admired by colleagues as a savvy and gutsy inspector. He’s reviled in equal measure by business interests that run afoul of his enforcement efforts. He has been the target of numerous threats, often spread through social media, and there are places he does not travel without a police escort.
After Salles’s speech, our convoy moved out across the scrubby ranchlands of Espigão to Boa Vista de Pacarana, a frontier settlement of 1,000 souls living in low, concrete-block homes along a grid of rutted dirt roads. Pacarana has a single gas station, a handful of shops, an open-air saloon, a Catholic church, and several evangelical chapels. It’s flanked on three sides by indigenous territories, where sweltering pasturelands abut high green walls of jungle.
Commercial extraction of timber is expressly forbidden inside Brazil’s indigenous lands. But logging is the lifeblood of Pacarana’s economy. Officials say the district’s labyrinthine dirt roads have become arteries for an illicit trade in timber that feeds the sawmills of Pacarana.
An elementary school empty for vacation served as the command center and billet for the operation. Officers and troops pitched cots and tents in its classrooms and courtyard. From the school, convoys sallied forth every morning toward the half-dozen sawmills that lay beyond town, hidden behind high plank walls.
One morning a string of seven green and white IBAMA 4x4s and an escort of police pickups snaked past piles of enormous tree trunks lining the edge of an expansive lumberyard. They pulled up outside a long, weather-beaten shed. Thick clouds of dust filtered the blinding sunlight as the agents stepped out of their vehicles.
The shed was deserted and eerily silent. Underneath its corrugated tin roof, the team found an assembly of brand-new milling machines, just out of the box, sitting in a haphazard jumble of exposed wires, discarded oil cans, and sawdust mounds. Inspectors in bullet-proof vests picked their way along creaking floorboards, taking inventory of conveyor belts, compressors, and bandsaw blades.
Out in the yard, Lima paused to examine a stack of unmilled tree trunks. Many measured as much as four feet in diameter. Some of the timber was deep red, some a rich yellow. Trickles of sap bled from the ends, exuding a sweet, pungent smell.
“There’s angelim here. Ipê, maçaranduba,” Lima said, reeling off the names of precious hardwoods, including some of the most valuable in the Amazon.
“The only place in the region where they still have timber of this size and quality,” he said, “is inside indigenous land.” In his view, nearly all this wood was illegal.
Cat and mouse
Over the next several days, as I followed inspectors by helicopter into indigenous lands and by ground to Pacarana’s sawmills, it became clear that IBAMA is locked in a game of cat and mouse with a well-organized, resourceful foe. “They monitor our movements,” Lima said. “They know where our teams are.”
Spies relay the whereabouts of field agents to logging crews via two-way radio. “When a team heads to Pacarana, for example,” Lima said, “the loggers operating inside indigenous land will move their trucks and tractors and hide them.”
Loggers use camouflage paint and foliage to conceal equipment; they cut narrow trails under the forest canopy to reach valuable trees, confounding aerial surveillance. Often they truck the logs to sawmills at night. Unscrupulous brokers bribe bureaucrats to produce documents that purport to show that the wood has come from licensed, sustainably managed forests. That enables logging firms to bring illegal lumber to market with all the appearance of legitimacy.
“The complexity of this structure and the sheer volume of the resources required to carry out the criminal activity leads us to say that this is organized crime,” said Daniel Lobo, a federal prosecutor based in Porto Velho. “This scheme is very well assembled. It’s a true mafia.”
Only recently, Lobo said, have public prosecutors and police investigators come to understand the conspiratorial nature of these crimes and to prosecute them accordingly. “These are not isolated crimes with a single culprit. It’s an organization with command and control.”
The loggers of Espigão bristle at any suggestion of illegality in their operations. “Like anywhere else, there might be some businesses that operate in a clandestine manner,” said Cleodimar Balbinot, a timber industry attorney who showed up to confront Lima at one sawmill, as agents were compiling a list of violations. But his clients were legitimate operators, he insisted, unfairly singled out to satisfy IBAMA’s need to avenge the attack on the tanker truck.
During the course of the operation I witnessed, nearly 6,000 cubic meters of illegal timber were seized, according to IBAMA. Inspectors uncovered “irregularities” at 20 sawmills and issued fines totaling close to $1.5 million. Three mills were definitively shut down.
Gateway to deforestation
Illegal, selective logging is not the principal cause of deforestation—that is, clear-cutting—or of the devastating fires that have alarmed the entire world. But selective logging does permit more sunlight to filter down to the forest floor, drying it out and making it more fire-prone. And investigators say it’s often the gateway to a larger criminal enterprise that does involve wholesale clear-cutting: the theft of public lands for the purpose of selling off lots, planting crops, or grazing cattle.
“Razing the forest is the paradigm of grilagem,” prosecutor Lobo said, using the popular Brazilian term for land-grabbing. “It’s an attempt to invade and occupy public land. It’s very common across Amazonia.” Like illegal logging, the crime involves a large network that conceals the principal architects of the enterprise. “The grileiros seize the land with the expectation that the theft will be legalized,” said Lobo, partly by buying and selling of phony property titles intended to cover their tracks.
Across the Amazon, logging roads have served as the spearhead of penetration into primeval forest. “The extraction of timber is generally what finances desmatamento—forest clearing,” Lima told me. “A guy will sell the most valuable trees and with that money he pays to clear the forest. It isn’t cheap to deforest.”
As the process unfolds and valuable resources are depleted elsewhere, Brazil’s extensive native territories, which cover about a quarter of its part of the Amazon basin, are coming under mounting pressure. All 22 of Rondônia’s indigenous reserves are suffering some form of invasion, Lobo said, whether from illegal loggers, land-grabbers, ranchers, or mineral prospectors.
The story is more complicated than one of simple victimization. Indigenous leaders who favor sustainable development and preservation of communal traditions find themselves at odds with tribal members lured by cash payouts from outsiders eager to cut their trees or dig up their minerals. Some tribes are united in opposing the predation. But others find themselves increasingly divided on whether to preserve their forestlands or exploit them for short-term profit.
Inside the 960-square-mile Sete de Setembro Indigenous Territory just west of Pacarana, seven Suruí communities have banded together to fight logging and mineral prospecting in their territory. They have planted coffee and cocoa and are selling their products to national and even international distributors. But they are a minority within their own tribe; 20 other Suruí villages are collaborating in one way or another with loggers and miners.
In the village of Lapetanha, elder Aguamenon Suruí said he and his family have received death threats for evicting loggers from the nearby forests. “They put the word out,” he told me. “They mention me by name. They say, ‘whenever we see him, we will kill him.’” Other villagers have gotten similar threats. No one travels beyond the community alone.
The situation is even worse for the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau and Karipuna, whose lands in western Rondônia have been targeted by land prospectors and ranchers. Leaders from both tribes have been repeatedly threatened. Dozens of settlers were evicted in June from Karipuna land in a joint operation involving IBAMA, indigenous affairs officials, and state and federal police. Investigators have charged nine people with illegal deforestation, fraud, and money laundering in the case.
IBAMA officials say they themselves were the targets of multiple threats during the operation to clear invaders from the Karipuna reserve. All in the line of duty, Givinaldo Lima says.
An agency under fire
But some IBAMA agents are concerned that morale is flagging under the Bolsonaro government, leaving them to wonder if higher-ups have their backs when they confront criminals in the field.
“We always have the impression that we’re doing things wrong,” said one agent who asked not to be identified, for fear of reprisal.
Despite the Bolsonaro administration’s heated rhetoric, top IBAMA officials say there have been no substantive changes to the way agents conduct operations in the field. After the operation in Rondônia I went to Brasilia to interview IBAMA president Eduardo Bim at the agency’s headquarters.
“We are conducting our inspections in the manner called for by law,” he said. “What I see are interpretations and rumors taken out of context that give the impression that we are not combating environmental crime. We are combating it, and we will continue to do so.”
But many of his field agents are more skeptical.
“Bolsonaro won’t dismantle IBAMA,” said one. “He needs IBAMA to show the world that Brazil is taking care of the Amazon. But he’ll throw it on the scrapheap. They’ll put up obstacles to weaken the institution, to keep us from doing our work.”