Page last updated at 11:06 GMT, Tuesday, 13 May 2008 12:06 UK

Front line battle to save Amazon forest

By Gary Duffy
BBC News, Paragominas

Soldiers watch logging operation
Soldiers are backing up environmental officials and police officers

In the small town of Paragominas, in the Brazilian state of Para, watching operation Arc of Fire can be an impressive sight.

This is the front line in the battle to contain deforestation - police and environmental officials setting off in a convoy of vehicles, with armed soldiers from the national security force for added protection.

The precautions are not unjustified - on a recent operation in the nearby town of Tailandia, residents angered by Arc of Fire and its impact on local firms clashed violently with police.

In Paragominas, bemused local people watch as the police cars, with flashing lights and sirens blaring, make their way out of town en route to a local logging firm three to four hours away.

These officials want to know if the wood there has been legally cut down, and if the owner has the paperwork to prove it.

Illegal ovens

When the convoy reaches the logging firm, the owner is not there, as is often the case, but officials begin checking the wood to see if the law has been broken.

Amazon Paradox graphic

This report is part of a BBC World Service special on the Amazon rainforest.

Starting at 0500GMT on Thursday 15 May, ther are live and recorded broadcasts.

Highlights include a double edition of Newshour, presented live from three locations in Brazil - Manaus, Paragomina and Alta Floresta - at 1200 and a one hour special at 1600.

If the owner cannot explain the presence of all the logs in his yard, it could be seized and he may face a significant fine.

A short distance away, police cars stop at a site where row after row of open air ovens are being used to burn wood for charcoal.

Checks reveal that more than the permitted number of dome-shaped ovens has been built, so two are destroyed on the same day.

This operation on the ground in the Amazon has been continuing for two months, and police chief, Sergio Rovani, who is responsible for tackling environmental crimes in Para, insists it is getting results.

According to the official statistics, Arc of Fire has recovered enough illegal wood to fill 1500 trucks, and 1600 hundred charcoal furnaces have been destroyed. Many fines have also been imposed.

'Destruction is chaotic'

However Sergio Rovani also accepts the scale of the challenges is daunting.

clay ovens are destroyed
Illegal charcoal ovens are being destroyed as part of Arc of Fire

"Para is a giant state which covers 1.3m sq km," he says.

"It is really of continental dimensions, and we have only four local police stations so we don't have many resources to confront destruction of the forest that nowadays is so chaotic.

"The police are every day investing more in equipment and recently got new recruits - who are being brought as a priority to states in the north to combat deforestation."

Paulo Maues, who is the coordinator in Paragominas for Ibama, the Brazilian government's environmental agency, also acknowledges the difficulties faced by his team.

"In regard to the wood, we have all sorts of problems -illegal logging, illegal transportation, illegal processing of the wood, fraud," he says.

"People who deforest justify themselves, saying the state is very slow to release licences. However we're here to do our job, and to execute the law."

But public prosecutor Felicio Pontes says the Brazilian government is failing to live up to its responsibilities, and his hopes for the future are heavily qualified.

"It depends if we can get the government to recognise the importance of the question of Amazonia," he says.

"With operations like Arc of Fire it won't have effective results and we are going to be in a worse situation in four years time because the federal government is much more concerned nowadays about the money Brazil is getting through exports such as soya and beef."

Deforestation rate rising

In Belem, the capital of Para, satellite images reveal in intimate detail what is happening on the ground in Paragominas, and in other parts of the Amazon basin.

The Amazon rainforest
Largest continuous tropical forest
Shared by nine countries
65% Brazilian territory
Covers 6.6m sq km in total
Pop: 30m - 23.5m are in Brazil

These are being monitored carefully by Imazon, a non-governmental organisation which was the first to alert the world late last year that deforestation in the Amazon was on the rise again.

Senior researcher Paulo Barreto says deforestation dropped between 2004 and 2006, but in the latter part of 2007 and early 2008 the figures have again been showing a rise.

"Brazil has advanced in terms of improving field inspection, now they go there and issue fines against environmental violators," he says. "But the application of fines is very weak.

"The second point is the free occupation of public lands in the frontier - allowing people to settle in public lands illegally. Land amounting to about three times the size of the UK is occupied by people who didn't buy it, or pay a lease, and it is very hard to make these people responsible for environmental violations."

However there are some signs of changing attitudes, with the local mayor supporting a pact to promote "zero deforestation" and encouraging schoolchildren to learn more about the environment.

Environmental pariahs

The history of Paragominas is the history of deforestation in Amazon - those who came here first were viewed as pioneers opening up the rainforest in order to benefit the rest of the country.

Officials study satellite images
Officials at Imazon sounded the alarm about the recent rise in deforestation

Now they feel like they are environmental pariahs accused of destroying one of Brazil's and the world's greatest riches.

This is a community trying to reconcile its economic imperative to survive with the wider issue of protecting the environment.

Paragominas is one of the municipal areas with the worst record of deforestation in the region, and has already destroyed more than 45% of nearby forest cover. The scale of devastation is such that a municipality that used to have 240 sawmills now has fewer than 60, as other towns have taken over a leading role in deforestation.

Amid these changing times there is much talk among the local authorities of a new approach, but a lot of harm has already been done, and it will take even more work if that damage is to be repaired.


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