Photo: Raid on land grabbers

Agents from IBAMA, Brazil's understaffed environmental protection agency, join a local police officer (with shotgun, at center) for a raid on grilleros, land grabbers, illegally clearing forest.

Photograph by Alex Webb

Written by Scott Wallace

Republished from the pages of National Geographic magazine

Last of the Amazon

In the time it takes to read this article, an area of Brazil's rain forest larger than 200 football fields will have been destroyed. The market forces of globalization are invading the Amazon, hastening the demise of the forest and thwarting its most committed stewards. In the past three decades, hundreds of people have died in land wars; countless others endure fear and uncertainty, their lives threatened by those who profit from the theft of timber and land.

In this Wild West frontier of guns, chain saws, and bulldozers, government agents are often corrupt and ineffective—or ill-equipped and outmatched. Now, industrial-scale soybean producers are joining loggers and cattle ranchers in the land grab, speeding up destruction and further fragmenting the great Brazilian wilderness.

During the past 40 years, close to 20 percent of the Amazon rain forest has been cut down—more than in all the previous 450 years since European colonization began. The percentage could well be far higher; the figure fails to account for selective logging, which causes significant damage but is less easily observable than clear-cuts. Scientists fear that an additional 20 percent of the trees will be lost over the next two decades. If that happens, the forest's ecology will begin to unravel. Intact, the Amazon produces half its own rainfall through the moisture it releases into the atmosphere. Eliminate enough of that rain through clearing, and the remaining trees dry out and die. When desiccation is worsened by global warming, severe droughts raise the specter of wildfires that could ravage the forest. Such a drought afflicted the Amazon in 2005, reducing river levels as much as 40 feet (12 meters) and stranding hundreds of communities. Meanwhile, because trees are wantonly burned to create open land in the frontier states of Pará, Mato Grosso, Acre, and Rondônia, Brazil has become one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases. The danger signs are undeniable.

All of it starts with a road. Except for a handful of federal and state highways—including the east-west Trans-Amazon Highway and the controversial BR-163, the "soy highway," which splits the heart of the Amazon along 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) from southern Mato Grosso north to Santarém in Pará—nearly every road in the Amazon is unauthorized. There are more than 105,000 miles (170,000 kilometers) of these roads, most made illegally by loggers to reach mahogany and other hardwoods for the lucrative export market.

In Brazil, the events set in motion by logging are almost always more destructive than the logging itself. Once the trees are extracted and the loggers have moved on, the roads serve as conduits for an explosive mix of squatters, speculators, ranchers, farmers, and invariably, hired gunmen. The land sharks follow the roads deep into previously impenetrable forest, then destroy tracts to make it look as if they own them. Land thievery is committed through corruption, strong-arm tactics, and fraudulent titles and is so widespread that Brazilians have a name for it: grigalem, from the Portuguese word grilo, or cricket. Grileiros, the practitioners, have been known to age phony land titles in a drawer full of hungry crickets. When Brazil's agrarian reform agency, Instituto Nacional de Colonização e Reforma Agrária, reviewed Amazonian land ownership records over the past three years, it voided more than 62,000 claims that appeared to be fraudulent.

Guarantã do Norte, a city of 32,000 at the northern extremity of the paved section of BR-163, is the regional headquarters of Brazil's environmental protection agency, Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis (IBAMA). With only a handful of inspectors to monitor thousands of square miles of territory, Márcio da Costa, the IBAMA chief, is overwhelmed. He works from a makeshift office behind the charred wreckage of the former headquarters, which was torched by an angry mob in 2004 after IBAMA agents and police broke a ring of timber traffickers, shutting down illegal sawmills and issuing millions of dollars in fines to loggers in the nearby town of Alta Floresta. The inquest into the arson failed to produce a single suspect.

A sputtering air-conditioner barely churned the soupy air as da Costa showed me a 2004 logging certificate, along with a carbon copy. The copy, signed by an export inspector 1,500 miles  (2,400 kilometers) away in southern Brazil, listed thousands of cubic feet of wood nowhere to be found on the original document—all contraband. "Yesterday we seized five trucks loaded with timber coming out of the same area," da Costa said.

In 2005, after gunmen hired by grileiros murdered Sister Dorothy Stang, an American-born nun and environmental activist, the Brazilian government accelerated a crackdown, suspending logging permits throughout the Amazon—most of which had been falsified to launder illegal timber. Federal police and IBAMA intensified their investigation into irregularities in the timber business. Waves of troops were dispatched to Mato Grosso and Pará. They seized truckload of contraband timber. Of the more than 300 people arrested, about 100 turned out to be IBAMA officials involved in a far-reaching conspiracy to sell millions of cubic feet of endangered hardwoods to the U.S., Europe, and Asia.

To reduce fraud, Brazil will soon introduce electronic logging certificates. Meanwhile, to aid in policing the sprawling Amazon hinterland, government agents are turning to satellite technology and remote sensing to alert them to the work of the grileiros. Yet even when officials spot adesmatamento, or illegal clearing, they are usually hamstrung by a lack of manpower or equipment. And when the police do react, the resources they manage to scrape together can be modest. Such was the experience of José Rosa, a rancher in the frontier town of Matupá, 20 miles (32 kilometers) south of Guarantã do Norte, who had discovered that grileiros were cutting trees on his property. It's not that Rosa objected to the idea of clearing land—he himself plans to plant 2,500 acres (1,000 hectares) in the coming year—it's just that someone else was blatantly trying to steal his. Despite federal pledges for more resources to combat timber mafias and land sharks, the only help Rosa could round up was a tiny posse of two IBAMA agents and a local cop. Among them, they carried a single pistol and a pump-action shotgun—not much of an arsenal against heavily armed grileiros. To buy gasoline for their pickup truck, the IBAMA agents had to dig into their own pockets.

Evanoir Tibaldi, 42, the commander of this ad hoc detail, has spent 15 years working for IBAMA on the front lines in northern Mato Grosso. When I asked about the satellite imaging system that is supposed to give field agents the data they need to catch grileiros red-handed, Tibaldi replied, "We don't even have Internet in our office—it's a joke."

Rosa, in his grimy red sport shirt and battered hat, didn't look the part of wealthy fazendeiro, or plantation owner, with an 18,000-acre (7,300 hectare) spread and 3,500 steers. Getting to his land required a two-hour drive east from town, down a dirt road and across flat plains and rolling hills, where blocks of forest still stood amid brilliant green fields of rice and soybeans. "The land here is perfect for soy," Rosa said.

On his property, we headed uphill through fenced-off pasture and entered the darkness of the forest along a two-rut road made by grileiros. We crossed a stream, so clear and inviting that we stopped for a drink. As I beheld the green cathedral that towered above us, I had the sense that we were day-tripping in a sacred place that should have taken weeks of arduous trekking to reach. An iridescent blue morpho butterfly lilted past, one of a million wonders still harbored by this primal forest.

Brazilians are not the only people profiting from soybeans. Along the 500-mile (800-kilometer) paved stretch of BR-163 between Cuiabá and Guarantã do Norte, there are no fewer than five John Deere dealerships. And at harvest time, fleets of the trademark green-and-yellow combines rumble across the fields flanking the highway, pouring rivers of golden soy into open-bed trucks bound for shiny new silos belonging to ADM, Bunge, and Cargill—all American multinationals.

Because BR-163 is not yet paved to the Amazon River, most of Mato Grosso's soy still leaves the state in diesel-belching convoys that must ply 1,200 miles (1,900 kilometers) to Brazil's congested southern ports. In 2003, when the government announced plans to lay asphalt on the last 650 miles (1,000 kilometers) of BR-163 from Guarantã do Norte to Santarém, a frenzied land grab ensued. The scale of devastation forced officials to suspend the paving until they could formulate a forest-management strategy for the region.

That plan was unveiled in February 2006, one year after the death of Sister Dorothy Stang, when President Luis Ignácio Lula da Silva announced the protection of 16 million acres (6.5 million hectares) of rain forest on the western flank of BR-163 between Guarantã and Santarém. (This is nowhere near Lot 55, the patch of forest Stang died defending, where grileiros are still felling trees.) Within the protected area, companies deemed environmentally responsible will be given limited logging concessions, but no clear-cuts or settlements will be allowed.

The new district adds to an expanded mosaic of parks, reserves, and conservation units that, together with indigenous territories, forms the bulwark of defense against the expansion of the frontier in the central Amazon. These measures may be paying off. Deforestation rates fell more than 30 percent in 2005, and preliminary numbers for 2006 are also down. Indian lands in the Xingu watershed are proving an especially effective barrier. There, militant Kayapó and Panará warriors armed with clubs and shotguns patrol their borders using satellite images furnished by international NGOs to pinpoint illegal clearing. As Stephan Schwartzman puts it: "Where Indian lands begin is where deforestation ends."

But Brazil's measures to protect the Amazon must be weighed against its other ambitions. These include plans to build seven dams on the environmentally sensitive Xingu and Madeira Rivers, as well as roads, power lines, oil and gas pipelines, and large-scale mining and industrial projects. The dams will power aluminum smelters, and shipping channels will facilitate river transport of exports to Chinese markets. The dams will also flood millions of acres of forest, releasing methane and other greenhouse gases, destroying biodiversity, and forcing indigenous communities to flee ancestral lands.

As indigenous people intuitively grasp, the benefits the Amazon provides are of incalculable worth: water cycling (the forest produces not only half its own rainfall but much of the rain south of the Amazon and east of the Andes), carbon sequestering (by holding and absorbing carbon dioxide, the forest mitigates global warming and cleanses the atmosphere), and maintenance of an unmatched panoply of life. But the marketplace has yet to assign a value to the forest: It's far more profitable to cut it down for grazing and farming than to leave it standing. "Tropical deforestation is a classic example of market failure," Schwartzman says. Oddly enough, Maggi would probably agree with Schwartzman's solution: "It's urgent to find mechanisms to compensate forest peoples, and their governments, for the ecosystem services their forests provide."

For Cargill, a Minnesota-based food conglomerate, the greatest urgency lies in getting soybeans to market as cheaply as possible. Anticipating the eventual completion of BR-163, Cargill opened a warehouse and deepwater port in Santarém in 2003. Until it can transport soy beans there by road, Cargill, like Maggi, has been moving much of it by barge via the Madeira River. "We've exported close to two million tons [1.8 million metric tons]," Douglas Odoni, the plant's operation manager, told me with pride. We stood on a catwalk above the Cypriot-flagged freighter Evdoxos as a giant nozzle disgorged soybeans into the vessels belly at the rate of 1,350 tons (1,220 metric tons) an hour. Within two weeks,the Evdoxos would dock in Amsterdam and unload 52,000 tons (47,000 metric tons) of Brazilian soybeans at a crush plant that makes oil and animal feed. "They buy only from us," Odoni yelled above the din of the machinery.

Cargill's operations in the Amazon have been controversial from the start. Federal prosecutors are suing the company over its alleged failure to provide an adequate environmental impact study of the port. Cargill's installation of a soybean washer and dryer has infuriated forest defenders, whose protests have repeatedly closed down the plant. To avoid spoilage, soybeans must be cleaned before they are transported, and for farmers around Santarém, it was only after the arrival of the washer and dryer that they had an incentive to grow it. Deforestation in the area has soared. "Maybe it's true that if Cargill weren't here, they wouldn't plant soy," Odoni conceded. But "if they couldn't sell soybeans to us, there would be no taxes and revenues for the local community."

Last summer, Cargill and Brazil's other big soy traders agreed to a two-year moratorium on buying soy grown on newly deforested land in the Amazon. The agreement is sending a signal to soy producers that the environmental impact of their operations is increasingly important in the world marketplace.

For many in the community of Belterra, an hour's drive south of Santarém, the moratorium comes too late. As the head of the Rural Workers Union local, Auricelia Núnes, 33, represents some 5,000 farming families. These people, she said, had been coaxing a decent living from their small plots, when, in the late 1990s, outsiders from southern Brazil began buying up property at a pittance. "There are many small farmers who don't know the value of money," Núnes said. "They thought the money would last, but it doesn't." Now they languish in Santarém's growing slums.

Those who refused to sell found themselves encircled by an encroaching wasteland, as whining chain saws and raging fires consumed the trees right up to the edge of their land. Their yards were overrun with vipers, bees, and rodents escaping the apocalypse, and when tractors began spraying the cleared fields, toxic clouds of pesticides drifted into their homes. "Their health was in jeopardy," Núnes said. "Many started getting sick. Their animals started dying."

Núnes and her husband, Everaldo Pimentel, still live as traditional family farmers, growing corn, squash, and beans and raising livestock on their 70-acre (28-hectare) plot. But Pimentel wanted to show me another place, 15 minutes away by car. We followed yet another dirt road past miles of soy before turning onto a narrower track that traced the edge of a freshly plowed field—the driveway to the farmhouse his grandfather had built in the shade of a large mango tree. This, Pimentel said, was where he had grown up.

Four years ago, his father sold the farm to a stranger, who immediately cut down every tree. "In 30 seconds," he said, "they caused more devastation than a small farmer who's been on the land for 30 years."

Pimentel couldn't have cared less that we were trespassing—there were no hired guns to be seen. He pointed to a cracked slab of concrete in the ground, overgrown with weeds and vines. "The house was here." A dozen giant mango trees lay on the ground, toppled by chain saws and left to decay under the blistering sun. "We never would have sold it if we knew what this guy was going to do," Pimentel said. He hoisted himself onto the stump of an old mango. "My grandfather planted this one a hundred years ago," he said, looking out across a desolate, empty field. Pimento buries his face in his hands and began to weep. "It was beautiful here," he said. "You should have seen it."

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