Amazon littered with logging scars

Al Jazeera’s Gabriel Elizondo is embedded with the military in Roraima, northern Brazil, bordering Guyana and Venezuea.

The Brazilian military has launched their largest border security operation ever – spanning the entire 16,000 kilometres of Brazil’s border with 10 different countries. The operation is called Agata 7, and is intended to crack down on illegal activity on the porous border regions ahead of mega events such as the Confederations Cup this next month, Pope Francis visit to Rio in July, and the World Cup next year. Al Jazeera’s Gabriel Elizondo is spending several days embedded with a military unit in the northern Brazilian state of Roraima, bordering Guyana and Venezuela. This is his second blog post about what he’s seen. The first one can be read here

Caracarai, Brazil  “The weather is bad,” the young Brazilian Air Force pilot told us, motioning off to nasty, low-lying grey clouds looking like they were about to burst with sheets of rain.

He then added, just for good measure: “Just in case there is an emergency, we’ll look to find a landing strip somewhere, and if that is not available, we’ll try a highway, or a river.”

Welcome to the world of flying from point A to point B in the Brazilian Amazon. When in doubt, no sweat, land in a river. It’s the Amazon, there are plenty of them.

Our destination on this morning was Boa Vista, Brazil to this logging town of 19,000 in the middle part of the state.

When we landed here (no river landing warranted) we hooked up with a brigade of specially-trained jungle troops from the Brazilian Army.

They’re needed here because federal environmental enforcement agents, known as Ibama, had received some satellite imagery that appeared to show unusually high clear cutting in this area.

Cutting Amazon legal

Before we go any further, let’s dispel a myth right here and now: With the proper legal paperwork and following legal quotas, cutting the Amazon forest is legal.

In this part of the state, roughly 80 percent of the logging operations have legal paperwork to operate, Ibama agent Francisco Wilson de Oliveira estimated.

“Most of the legal wood goes to the US and Holland,” he tells me. “Most of the illegal wood is for the Brazilian internal market.”

But the problem, he continued, is many of the ‘legal’ loggers cross over into illegality by cutting vast more forest than their limit allows.

That’s what we are here to check out. The troops – led today by Col. Roger Herzer, a square-jawed jungle ops veteran – are security to make sure the Ibama agents and their Mitsubishi get in and out of the forest without being gobbled up by angry loggers or giant mud pits on the road.

Col. Herzer has ordered his men to set up road blocks on the dirt road to check who is coming in and out.

Tipped off

Bouncing down the mud-spattered road, deep in the jungle and far away the nearest village, we run into an abandoned loggers’ camp.

It’s obvious men left in a hurry. An aluminum ‘to-go’ plate full of rice still sits on a bench.

They were probably tipped off. When the army rolls into the nearest town, it’s hard to keep it a secret very long.

A couple kilometres more down the road and we run into what is a cemetery of dozens of giant hacked-down tree trunks. If the trunks were humans, it would be considered a mass murder scene.

Leading away from the trees, there are several deep scars carved into the forest where tractors smashed their way through jungle to clear cut. It’s an ugly environmental scar I’ve seen many times before in other areas of the Amazon, but I still cringe each time.

Obvious illegal logging? Maybe. Maybe not.

They say Brazil isn’t for beginners, and neither is the Amazon where things often aren’t what they appear, and appear in ways they really aren’t.

Soldiers secure scene

As a dozen or so machine-gun toting soldiers secure the scene, the Ibama officials indicate that the logging operation has legal paperwork. But are the trees cut down by the side of the road part of the legal quota? Or are they illegal?

The agents suspect it’s illegal. When people flee in a hurry that usually is a good sign something is amiss.

But to prove it they’re going to have to do painstaking work: Compare satellite images with photos and GPS co-ordinates, take measurement of tree trunks, and cross check legal documents they have on this logging operation with actual cutting coordinates they verify.

But the workers and owners are nowhere to be found, and there is no main office to ask anybody for help. Remember, we’re in the middle of a muddy jungle in a faraway corner of no-man’s land where your cell phone says ‘No Service’.

The Ibama agents are realists. Oliveira, the agent we are with, has been doing this 28 years.

He knows the Amazon is a very big place and this one operation – legal or not – is not going to change the outcome of saving the forest. But it’s a start, and what is the alternative, to give up?

This corner of Brazil, right here in Roraima state, is a complicated place with lots of pressures on all sides.

The regional military commander now has word of an illegal landing strip for clandestine planes carrying gold miners to a federally protected indigenous land. It’s on the far-flung border with Venezuela, and they have the GPS coords.

They say there is only one way to deal with it: To blow it up. They patch together a plan to do it on Sunday, and we’ll be going along.

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel