Last month, the Brazilian government announced it would step up measures to combat illegal logging in the Amazon rainforest, including deploying Brazilian soldiers and police officers to regions that have recently suffered heavy deforestation. Last week, it made good on that promise, as Brazilian police confiscated 353,000 cubic feet
of lumber from eight illegal sawmills in the state of Para—one of the biggest loads ever seized.
The heightened enforcement follows a recent surge in illegal logging in the Amazon. Despite assurances from President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva that his administration had implemented successful policies to curb deforestation, 1,250 square miles of rainforest were cleared during the last five months of 2007. (It’s worth noting that this figure, provided by the government, is disputed, and as higher-resolution images become available, some expect it will as much as double.)
This isn’t the first time the Brazilian government has tried to utilize security forces to protect the Amazon. The System for Vigilance of the Amazon (SIVAM) was created more than a decade ago “(a) to monitor human movements and activities and their impact on the Amazon; (b) to increase knowledge about the region’s environment, biodiversity, climate, and geophysicalfeatures; and (c) to protect the Amazon’s environment while promoting local economic development there,” according to Thomaz Guedes da Costa. Several years into the program, he observed that SIVAM’s lack of transparency and failure to involve non-official organizations were seriously hampering its ability to achieve its objectives.
Some environmental experts doubt the new measures will do much to slow the pace of illegal logging in the Amazon. Roberto Smeraldi, head of Friends of the Earth Brazil, told Reuters, “The government raises a red flag with the left hand and chops trees with the right,” referring to the negative impacts of government infrastructure, mining, and landless peasant resettlement projects on the Amazon.
Rainforest destruction has been at the forefront of global discussion lately, with high-profile figures leading the way. In a speech to the European Parliament last week, Prince Charles argued for the creation of a global fund to preserve tropical rainforests, explaining that “in the simplest of terms, we have to find a way to make the forests worth more alive than dead.” International attention has likely put pressure on the da Silva government to undertake heightened measures against illegal forest clearing.
Roberto Mangabeira Unger, a Harvard law professor and Brazil’s new minister for strategic affairs, hopes to use his office to create a plan for Amazonian development that addresses both ecological and economic issues. “The Amazon is not just a set of trees,” he told The New York Times. “It is a set of 25 million people. If we don’t create real economic opportunities for them, the practical result is to encourage disorganized economic activities that results in the further destruction of the rain forest.” A recent Wilson Center event explored the challenges associated with balancing infrastructure development and environmental conservation in the Amazon.