Operation Amazon Guardian is expected to last at least 20 days [Gabriel Elizondo]

More than 100 heavily armed Brazilian police special forces officers have arrived in the Amazonian town of Tailandia in one of the largest ever federal operations to curb illegal logging.

Operation Amazon Guardian is meant to "send a message" to the whole country, officials say.

Every logging operation in Tailandia, which many experts say is the centre of the Brazilian logging industry, is set to be inspected.

The move comes after environment ministry inspectors were last week forced to retreat from the town after being overpowered and surrounded by an angry crowd of 2,000 Tailandia residents - many of them workers in illegal logging mills.

The officials had been attempting to shut down illegal logging operations based in this city when the confrontation took place, forcing a retreat to the city of Belem, the capital of the state of Para, to re-group.

The incident was a major embarrassment to the government, which promised to launch a nationwide crackdown on illegal logging after a report released in January showed a sharp spike in deforestation in Brazil.

Logging town

Tailandia is a dusty, economically depressed place of about 65,000 people about four hours by car south of Belem.

It is home to about 70 different logging operations but it is believed only 22 have proper permits.

The rest are believed to be illegal but this cannot be verified until the inspectors are allowed back in with protection – a process which is scheduled to resume on Tuesday.

Tailandia is home to about 70 logging
operations, mostly illegal
More than 70 per cent of the town's residents make their living from Amazon logging and about 20,000 people could be left jobless if the government closes down the illegal logging operations.

The owner of one of the few hotels in town, who asked not to be identified, told Al Jazeera that once logging was shut down she would close her hotel, because there would be no more customers.

Tailandia is also a "reception point", where illegally felled trees are sent to be trucked or shipped to ports for resale so shutting down operations in here would affect illegal loggers throughout the region.

The federal police have expressed concerns about providing security in Tailandia, which is ranked the seventh most dangerous city in Brazil in government statistics. 

There had previously been little police presence in Tailandia, so illegal loggers could act with impunity and one of the leading federal inspectors involved in the government operation to shut down illegal loggers received death threats as recently as this weekend.

Billion dollar industry

Logging in the Amazonian state of Para alone, where Tailandia is located, is a $2bn a year industry – much of it illegal according to officials.

Deforestation is rising is across the
Brazilian Amazon [Reuters]
Bosses of illegal logging operations pay their workers between $10 and $20 for every tree they cut down.

However, officials told Al Jazeera that some workers are paid instead with bottles of alcohol - one bottle per tree.

The trees themselves, which are between 50 and 100-years-old, are sold for $275 per cubic metre.

It is big business, with each 100-year-old tree cut for $10-20 selling for $1,375 or more. 

Middle men 

After the trunks are cut into pieces, they are put on trucks or boats and sent downriver to the nearest port.

Along the way, workers often bribe local inspection officials to sign papers to indicate the trees are legal.

Once at a port, the trees are bought by middle men, many of whom have no way to track whether the trees were cut legally or illegally.

About half of the trees exported from the Amazon are exported to the US, officials say.

In the past, inspection officials have imposed fines but have not had the manpower to seize and remove illegally cut trees, so after the fines are paid, the trees continue to be sold illegally.

Operation Amazon Guardian is scheduled to last more than 20 days but officials say it will go on for "as long as it takes".

Source: Al Jazeera