Brazil’s illegal loggers kill and threaten with impunity (guest post)

Another guest post from Quasecarioca, our resident Brazil expert. This is one of those very big stories that gets underreported amidst the flurry of hype about how Brazil is the new Sweden, or whatever. It’s a real honor to have this here on this site. I realize that some readers come only for the latest Venezuela gossip. But please, stick around. This is important.

Nilcilene de Lima knew they were casing her a year ago when they set fire to her crops in the peasant settlement of Gedeão, in southern Amazonas state. Authorities had impounded chainsaws and a truck from illegal timber cutters nearby, and word was going around that she was the one who snitched (she insists she didn’t). Last week, just days after reports of conservationists being assassinated in the Amazon, they showed up at her door and told her she had three months to live. She went to the police to report the incident, but once she got there she found out her house had gone up in flames. Now she’s in hiding.

“The law only exists on paper for people living in southern Amazonas,” she says.

Death threats against people like de Lima have been front page news around Brazil since the murder of Amazon land rights activist Joao Claudio Ribeiro da Silva, his wife Maria do Espirito Santo, and two others that were marked for death by illegal timber mafiosos. It has put in stark relief something the world has always known: Brazil, increasingly known as a rising economic power and a future world leader, struggles to maintain law and order in vast swathes of the Amazon and has few clear plans to bring land-grabbers and tree fellers to justice.

President Dilma Rousseff has sent troops to protect rural cooperative leaders and promised to investigate death threats. Police also busted an illegal sawmill in the state of Rondonia, near where yet another activist — Adelino Ramos — was gunned down in late May.

But this has failed to impress the Comissão Pastoral da Terra, which tracks Brazil’s rural violence and protects its would-be victims. The group points out the response is almost identical to the flurry of activity after the murder of American nun and rural activist Dorothy Stang in 2005. The rancher who ordered her killing was only convicted last year after two trials that acquitted him. The organization has a list of 165 people that have faced death threats for their environmental activism in the Amazon and are seeking special state protection for them.

The impunity is hard to conceal. Of the 621 assassinations linked to land issues since 1985 in the state of Para, the bloodiest of states in terms of land conflict, only one person has been convicted and jailed– the rancher who ordered Stang’s murder.

Despite a world-wide campaign to cut down on deforestation by requiring certification of high-value lumber, illegal logging is still good business. It’s often linked to to grilhagem, or land-grabbing, that helps open up profitable new frontiers for agriculture – something Brazil’s Congress is also trying to help do as well.

Brazilian buyers of wood are unlikely to ask for certification papers, and any buyer in a place like China couldn’t care less (the papers are easy to fake anyway). The sawmills are often financed by Brazil’s behemoth state development bank BNDES, as they are a core part of the country’s Amazon development plan that focuses on mining, hydroelectric dams and commodities farming.

Amazon farmers are low on the priority list for the government. They don’t bring the country any foreign exchange or relevant tax revenue, and they don’t constitute much of an electoral base for anyone. They’re generally forgotten until some scandal such as the current one brings them – briefly – into the news. A real solution to this problem would require a sustained crackdown on the corruption that allows this business to continue, a serious presence of police and intelligence services to figure out who the mafia bosses are, and actual progress in providing land titles to peasants who without them are at the mercy of the local gunslingers. We can hope this time will be different, but the response right now doesn’t suggest it will be.