This Is How The Million-Dollar Business Of Criminal Deforestation In The Amazon Works

BuzzFeed News visited one of the regions worst affected by fires in the Amazon to see how illegal deforestation is paving the way for a global environmental crisis.

APUÍ, Brazil — A vigorous and incredibly lucrative trade in land for livestock is fueling the fires that have devastated the Amazon and caused an international outcry.

BuzzFeed News toured one of the areas most affected by fires in the Amazon and found that, according to farmers, one hectare of land cleared for cattle is changing hands for 20 times the price of the same area with standing forest.

In the municipality of Apuí, in Amazonas state, a bushel of pasture land, around 2.5 hectares, can be worth up to 10,000 Brazilian reals (about $2,430) if it’s close to a highway with access to water, while forested land goes for only around 500 Brazilian reals (about $120). Many of these deals are conducted illegally.

Apuí has witnessed more than 2,000 blazes in 2019. It also has one of the largest cattle populations in the state of Amazonas, with eight oxen per every person who lives there. That has attracted ranchers from out of state.

“The bushel of forest is cheap, the pasture is not. And now the deforestation has increased, the burning has increased, because many people are coming from abroad who are selling their farm in [the neighboring state of] Rondônia and coming here,” said rancher Demésio Souza da Luz.

Incomes and employment rates are low in Apuí, with daily labor rates of around $18. But workers can be offered much more, around $120, to spend two days clearing a bushel of forest. Once the trees are felled, they are burned, Luz said. Luz added he was proud to have accepted the money to put his two children through college.

What’s happening in Apuí reflects wider trends of destruction in the Amazon. Deforestation rates increased 67% in the first seven months of 2019 compared with the same period last year, according to Brazil’s space and satellite agency, INPE.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has criticized environmentalists, vowed to stop new areas of rainforest and indigenous lands from being protected, and attacked other countries for their “colonial” interest in the Amazon. When this devastating round of fires broke out, he initially — and wrongly — blamed NGOs for starting them.

Bolsonaro’s policies have seen Germany and Norway end support of the Amazon Fund, which since 2008 has contributed 3.4 billion Brazilian reals (around $827 million) for forest preservation funds. The final straw was the Brazilian Ministry of Environment unilaterally replacing the board responsible for the fund’s guidelines and for monitoring its results.

Fires occur in the Amazon annually with depressing regularity, but this year’s have been particularly devastating and, according to farmers in Apuí and the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), coordinated as never before.

Danilo Nascimento, an investigator for IBAMA in the Apuí region, has counted 20 incidents of deforestation and burning in the past week.

"Fire is a common practice for grassland weed control, but allied to this, there has been an advance in deforestation,” he said.

One case under investigation involves a fuel tanker's arrival in the municipality, followed by two buses filled with people and chainsaws. First the chainsaws were used to bring down the trees; then, after a wait of a few days as the logs dried, fuel was scattered in the area, and the fires started.

Despite the widespread incidents of deforestation and burning, however, it’s unlikely that the people ordering the land to be cleared will be identified and held to account.

“We did the math, and there are people who spend up to 3 million Brazilian reals [about $730,000] to clear the forest,” said rancher Paulo Sancler Lopes, who has a herd of 500 cattle and for 21 years has been managing the pasture without having to use fire. Sancler said that the people clearing the forest, who live out of state, then use a loophole to designate the land as producing oranges to avoid fines.

Sancler said he has lost thousands of hectares of land to other farmers in territorial disputes because of a lack of legal certainty about who owns the land.

“I won't be fighting in court for 20 years and creating conflict with people I don't know. I preferred to lose,” he said.

Adelário Ronnau owns 83 hectares of land and has a 130-strong herd. He said he had been in Apuí since 1983, like other settlers encouraged by the military government of the time to deforest and populate the region.

“These deforesters are wanting to appropriate the land. Their business is as follows: They deforest now, wait a while, and sell after forming a farm,” Ronnau said.

The old farmers like Ronnau blame the new land grabbers and make a point of distinguishing themselves because they say they came to Apuí encouraged by the government of the day, and not pushed by the expanding agribusiness in neighboring states.

IBAMA has the power to seize cattle in land that’s been deforested and burned, and even issue huge fines. But in reality, it’s next to impossible to tell the difference between cattle reared by the farmers who've been there for decades and cattle sold by out-of-state ranchers driving the new round of deforestation and fires.

“We don't know what is cattle reared on deforested land and what isn't,” said Sancler.●

This post was translated from Portuguese.

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