The Illegal Brazilian Wood Trade is Hurting the Amazon and its Indigenous Inhabitants—Here’s Why

By Rachael Ali, HM Summer Political Journalism Intern
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“The timber [supply] chain in Brazil today is full of fraud,” (qtd. de Abreu et al. 2022) according to Laura Waisbich, a senior researcher at the Igarapé Institute in Rio de Janeiro. This illegal industry is more lucrative than ever, and the environmental stakes have never been higher. Who is upholding this illegal trade network which is hurting the environment and undermining Indigeneous communities?

Jair Bolsonaro, known globally as the “Trump of the Tropics” (“Jair Bolsonaro” 2018), was elected president of Brazil in October 2018. He is a “right-wing nationalist” (Wallenfeldt 2022) who has infamously expressed disdain for the disabled population and women, as well as the LBGTQ+ community and the Indigeneous peoples of Brazil (Wallenfeldt 2022; Roth 2022). 

A large part of Bolsonaro’s 2018 campaign advocated for the deforestation of the Amazon. This was unpopular among the public, but made him extremely favorable to business sectors that profit from the exploitation of the rainforest (Wallenfeldt 2022). Despite being a law-and-order advocate, Bolsonaro pledged to weaken environmental law enforcement, effectively making way for criminal networks to increase deforestation and violence (Wallenfeldt 2022). Furthermore, Bolsonaro took measures to reduce the enforcement abilities of Brazilian environmental agencies such as the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA). 

IBAMA is losing to the network of organized crime that runs the logging industry, nicknamed the “Amazon mafia” by Brazilian media. Their federal funding has been cut severely and over half the staff laid off (Van Zeller 2022). This is detrimental, as illegal loggers have confessed that they feared being caught by IBAMA, but not regional law enforcement. Local officers get paid off by powerful government officials who profit from black market trade (Van Zeller 2022). Additionally, Bolsonaro’s government has promoted bills that provide amnesty for land invasions, facilitate environmental licensing, and open Indigenous territories to invasive projects such as mining (Roth 2022).

So far during Bolsonaro’s presidency, the average number of fines for deforestation in the Amazon was 93% lower than those paid in the previous five years (Roth 2022). The impact of Bolsonaro’s policies is an increase in deforestation, which hit a fifteen-year high last year (Van Zeller 2022). Researchers have estimated that 10-15 trees are cut down every single day under Bolsonaro’s administration; as of this year, 20% of the Amazon has been deforested (Van Zeller 2022). This percentage may seem small and many Brazilian lawmakers argue that the Amazon is large enough to withstand such devastation. However, in 2020, an area almost the size of New Jersey (8,700 sq. miles) was wiped out, and up to 94% of this deforestation was illegal (Van Zeller 2022). This deforestation has resulted in forced relocation of Indigeneous families, mercury pollution in rivers, and an indeterminable number of deaths. 

All too often, activists who openly protest and investigate this illegal deforestation are murdered by organized crime. This past June, British journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous advocate Bruno Pereira were found dead in the Amazon (Downie 2022). Phillips was writing a book about sustainable development in the area, and Pereira had spent years studying the roughly 235 Indigenous tribes that live in the rainforest. They were murdered after catching some men fishing protected species of turtles and pirarucu—one of the world’s largest freshwater fish. Phillips’ and Pereira’s story is not unique; the murder of American nun and environmental activist Dorothy Stang sparked international controversy as early as 2005 (“About Sister” 2021). As many as 1,700 people have died in land conflicts in Brazil since 2000, yet corruption in the government has resulted in a meager 10% conviction rate (Van Zeller 2022). 

Contrary to popular belief, Brazilians working at these illegal sites are not committing these murders. In fact, the powerful people who benefit from this system hire assassins to kill these activists. Illegal wood operations hire local workers in areas where work is scarce. One anonymous worker stated, “If you shut down the timber, we starve. We don’t know how to do anything else and there is no other way to make a living.” (qtd. Van Zeller 2022). These on-site workers face extremely dangerous conditions with little to no protective gear, and it is not uncommon for laborers to die on the job. These makeshift worksites are also fertile breeding grounds for fatal diseases like malaria. To make matters worse, these impoverished laborers are exposed to mercury on a near daily basis which can cause a myriad of life-changing symptoms, such as nerve loss, memory problems, and difficulties in hearing/speech. 

The Climate Action Tracker, which provides independent scientific analysis, found that Brazil’s 2020 climate plan was “highly insufficient” and unlikely to meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels (Roth 2022). 

If deforestation of the Amazon rainforest continues at this rate, it may cause large sections of the rainforest to turn into dry savannah, and this would release billions of tons of stored carbon (Roth 2022). Deforestation in the Amazon could have grave environmental consequences for the entire planet, given that about 30% of the world’s biodiversity is located in Brazil (Van Zeller 2022).

In order to educate their worldwide audience, the United Nations has continued to release reports regarding destruction in the Amazon, its adverse effects on Indigenous populations, and future impacts on climate change (Bhérer-Magnan 2022). The UN also has several legal declarations regarding Indigneous rights, but the Brazilian government has ignored these articles time and time again without repercussions (Bhérer-Magnan 2022). 

As previously mentioned, there are around 235 Indigenous tribes living in the Amazon today. These communities, such as the Munduruku tribe, currently have the lowest deforestation rates in the Amazon due to their traditional, non-industrial way of life (Van Zeller 2022). Tribes like the Munduruku operate small, sustainable farms and try to protect/replant trees. Indigenous Amazonians have reported environmental crimes to the corrupt authorities for decades to no avail (Van Zeller 2022). To make matters worse, the act of reporting illegal activity can put a target on an individual’s back, resulting in even more violence. Despite this risk, groups of the Munduruku tribe go on frequent patrol of different regions of the Amazon to try to catch logging operations in the act. The Amazon rainforest is their sacred, ancestral homeland, and they are fighting to protect it for future generations. 

Brazilian President Bolsonaro is doing nothing to stop this injustice, and his policies are actively encouraging this violence and environmental destruction. This practice of systematically destroying the Amazon benefits only those at the top, while Indigenous Brazilians, poor laborers, and the ecosystem continue to suffer.

Rachael Ali is a third-year undergraduate student at Binghamton University. She is originally from the Bronx and is majoring in political science with a double-minor in Spanish and French. Rachael is considering a career in immigration law or refugee social services. Depending on which career path she takes, she is considering completing a 4+1 program at Binghamton or attending graduate school in New York City. Topics that Rachael is passionate about include immigration, reproductive rights, indigenous communities, gun laws, and environmental justice.

References

“About Sister Dorothy Stang.” 2021. Sisters of Notre Dame De Namur. https://www.sndohio.org/sister-dorothy.

Bhérer-Magnan, Félix. 2022. “The Amazon Rainforest Is Disappearing Quickly—and Threatening Indigenous People Who Live There.” The Conversation, June 19. https://theconversation.com/the-amazon-rainforest-is-disappearing-quickly-and-threatening-indigenous-people-who-live-there-185085

de Abreu, Allan, et al. 2022. “How Endangered Brazilian Timber Ends up in the US.” OCCRP, OCCRP and Piauí, February 4. https://www.occrp.org/en/investigations/how-endangered-brazilian-timber-ends-up-in-the-us

Downie, Andrew. 2022. “Hope amid Tragedy: Will Slain Journalist’s Death Spark Change in Amazon?” The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor, June 21, https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Americas/2022/0621/Hope-amid-tragedy-Will-slain-journalist-s-death-spark-change-in-Amazon

“Jair Bolsonaro: Brazil’s Firebrand Leader Dubbed the Trump of the Tropics.” 2018. BBC News, December 31. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-45746013

Roth, Kenneth. 2022. “World Report 2022: Rights Trends in Brazil.” Human Rights Watch, January 13. https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2022/country-chapters/brazil#2c9b66

Van Zeller, Mariana. 2022. “Trafficked: Amazon Mafia S2: Ep9.” National Geographic, ABC, January 26. https://abc.com/tv/shows/trafficked-with-mariana-van-zeller/episode-guide/season-02/episode-09-amazon-mafia/vdka25932941.

Wallenfeldt, Jeff. 2022. “Jair Bolsonaro.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, March 17. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jair-Bolsonaro