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First Peoples

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Rainforest Mafias: how violence and impunity fuel deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon

Conservation Forests Land use First Peoples First Peoples Protected Areas Organised crime Brazil

Every day, people in Brazil put themselves at risk to defend the Amazon rainforest from illegal logging. They are public officials who work for the country’s environmental agencies and police officers who fight environmental crime; they are small farmers who dare to tell authorities the names of those sending in chainsaws and wood-hauling trucks; they are Indigenous people who patrol their territories on foot, in boats, and on motorcycles, armed with bows and arrows and GPS, to protect the forests that they depend on to sustain their families and preserve their way of life.

The defenders take this risk with little expectation that the state will protect them as they confront loggers who brazenly violate Brazil’s environmental laws — and who threaten, attack, and even kill those who stand in their way. 

Illegal deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is driven largely by criminal networks that have the logistical capacity to coordinate large-scale extraction, processing, and sale of timber, while deploying armed men to protect their interests. Some environmental enforcement officials call these groups “ipê mafias,” referring to the ipê tree whose wood is among the most valuable and sought-after by loggers. Yet these loggers’ quarry includes many other tree species — and their ultimate goal is often to clear the forest entirely to make room for cattle or crops. 

The stakes of the showdown between the forest defenders and these criminal networks extend far beyond the Amazon, and even the borders of Brazil. As the world’s largest tropical rainforest, the Amazon plays a vital role in mitigating climate change by absorbing and storing carbon dioxide. When cut or burned down, the forest not only ceases to fulfill this function, but also releases back into the atmosphere the carbon dioxide it had previously stored. Sixty percent of the Amazon is located within Brazil, and deforestation accounts for nearly half of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to government data.

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