Stages of deforestation. An aerial view shows four stages in land management on a farm in the Amazon: A wedge of natural forest. To its right, a swath of forest being burned. Left foreground, land cleared by burning. Right, a pasture for cattle. Photo: Brazil Photos / LightRocket

By Vincent Bevins
10 July 2015

(Los Angeles Times) – Carrying guns and wearing jungle fatigues, the three men don't look like scientists as they push their way through the thick foliage of the Amazon.

They're trying to reach a clearing they've seen on satellite images. When they finally get there, they discover that the largest trees have been uprooted by a tractor. The ground has been seeded with grass to create a pasture for cattle.

Rodrigo Numeriano, 31, finds a piece of a fruit peel, puts it up to his nose and sniffs.

"Someone was just here," he says.

They've found the clues. Now comes the hard part: determining who is causing the damage and who plans to profit.

Each day, Numeriano and other agents from the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, or IBAMA, fan out across this vast country in 4x4 trucks and helicopters. Part detectives, part environmental special forces, they're on the hunt for the ranchers and farmers who illegally destroy almost 2,000 square miles of Brazilian rain forest a year.

Not only can it take weeks and prove fruitless to try to find out who has paid an intermediary to deforest, but the fines the agents impose also can go unpaid or become mired in legal proceedings.

Sometimes, the workers disappear into the forest as they hear the agents approach. Sometimes the workers open fire, as they did nearby on an IBAMA helicopter in April. And in this particularly lawless part of Brazil, those who speak with the agents can be silenced violently, forever.

Despite their commitment, the enforcers of Brazil's environmental law are not winning the war. Government data show that after years of improvement, deforestation rates stopped decreasing in 2012. The country entered recession last year, and farming is one of the few sectors that keep the economy going.

"These people are causing incalculable environmental damage," Olavo Perin Galvao, 33, says as he navigates labyrinthine pathways toward an illegal clearing and gold extraction site. "But we're leaving our families, and coming out here, exposing ourselves to the elements and to risk, and the destruction continues."

His team stops when it spots the footprint of a jaguar, or some other large jungle cat. The imprints of its claws are sunk into a mud road created recently by the forest clearers.

"We don't need new laws," he says. "We just need the laws we have to be properly enforced." [more]

Brazil's special forces wage uphill fight against Amazon destroyers

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