Meet the boss

Others, with a little money and power, take risks as entrepreneurs in this economy that operates largely outside the law, but which is silently sanctioned by many in municipal, state and federal government.

The supposed owner of the land we visited, a small angry  man, who smoked all the time, gave orders to two robust fellows who used chainsaws to cut huge logs into planks in a vacant backyard.

The logs being sawed came from forest deeper inside the settlement; the trees were cut down without a written and state certified forest management plan, were milled and shipped without transportation documents required by Brazilian law.

After viewing the backyard plank making, we drove with the loggers and the boss to the forest where two new trees were felled, a garapa (Brazilian ash, Apuleia leiocarpa), and a roxinho (purple heart; Peltogyne paniculata), both valuable woods that would ultimately be transported by barge downriver to Brazilian cities for distribution nationally, or for export to the European Union, U.S. or elsewhere — ending up eventually as expensive decking or flooring.

This long, convoluted journey from Amazon forest to lumber yard or home improvement store would likely (though not necessarily) be conducted using falsified documents — with few questions asked by middlemen or retailers at the far end of the supply chain.

We couldn’t help thinking about how much these great trees were worth growing in the Amazon, rather than being turned into planks, porches and trod upon. The trees easily stood at over 25 meters (~82 feet) tall, and rose up like magnificent, strong patriarchs and matriarchs of the forest. We couldn’t help feeling that the sharp, loud somber crack they made as they fell sounded like a scream of death agony echoing through the forest.

Front loaders like this one, nicknamed the alligator, are the workhorses of Amazon deforestation. They’re utilized to punch access roads into the deep forest, and with weighty chains attached in the rear, are used to drag logs out to impromptu informal saw mills. Image by Fábio Nascimento.

One logger, perhaps detecting our apprehension at the death of these gigantic, beautiful living beings, commented aloud before pull-starting his saw and unleashing its thunderous roar: “I’ll really cut it down. No problem!”

Afterward, the entrepreneurial chain-smoker attached the downed and de-limbed trees with a heavy chain to a rustic tractor he called “the alligator,” and dragged them along an improvised forest road to his makeshift outdoor sawmill.

The selective cutting and clearing of valuable trees and the making of informal, often illegal access roads in order to reach those trees, is typically the first step to converting a patch of rainforest into hard cash. With the access roads in place, a land speculator will then turn over the property quickly, selling it for a big profit, most likely to a cattle rancher, who will in turn sell it someday to a soy producer or other plantation grower. And thus, the rainforest disappears incrementally, step-by-step, tree-by-tree.

A timber supply chain contaminated by illegal deforestation

An urban Uber driver and the rural chainsaw operators we met in the Amazon have something in common: both are informal workers — poorly paid, at the bottom of the economic ladder, but essential hired-help and vital to the global gig economy.

Like the Uber driver, these men are autonomous professionals who jump from job-to-job, and are accustomed to sailing the rising and falling tides of economic instability and financial insecurity.

The men working in the Amazon are not only accustomed to that instability, but also to the illegality — they neither question the legitimacy of their employers, nor worry much about potentially looming law enforcement — especially under the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro who has defunded, gutted and de-fanged IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency along with other enforcement institutions.

The loggers with whom we spent the day somewhere in Rondônia, each received 100 reais (US$ 15 to 20) for their labor cutting the trees and sawing logs. That’s roughly equivalent in value to about two cubic meters of the valuable wood we saw cut down that day. Trees like the ones we witnessed being felled yield between 16 and 18 cubic meters.

The owner of the property profits a little more by reselling the wood to middlemen. But certainly, those who profit the most, and the biggest beneficiaries of often illegally laundered timber, are the final resellers in Brazil, located in Amazon state capitals, places like Manaus, Porto Velho or Belém, or in a great metropolis  in southern Brazil, like São Paulo or Rio.

While a cubic meter of tree felled in the Amazon is worth around 50 to 60 reais (about US$10 dollars at today’s exchange rate) as it is being sawed into planks, it will have gained at least twice as much value at a lumber yard counter in São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro, and far more than that if the destination is a home improvement store chain somewhere overseas.

Playing fast and loose with the coronavirus risk

There’s another similarity between that urban Uber driver and the Amazon logger cutting valuable wood in Rondônia. Neither have ceased working during the coronavirus pandemic.

After the U.S., Brazil currently has the second highest number of cases nationally due to COVID-19 (more than 530,000) and the sixth highest mortality (more than 30,000 dead); numbers expected to soar in coming days, weeks and months as Bolsonaro continues to deny the pandemic and fails to take steps to protect his people.

The Amazon region — with its inadequate hospitals and deeply entrenched poverty — is on its way to becoming a pandemic hotspot (Pará state already has more than 38,000 cases, while Amazonas has more than 41,700). The city of Manaus in Amazonas has already seen its healthcare system collapse. But the worst impacts of COVID-19 are expected to hit the region later, and at the worst time — during the dry season getting well underway by August, when loggers go into the forest to harvest timber (then potentially infecting indigenous and traditional people), and when  land thieves and farmers set fire to the forest to clear land for cattle, soy and other crops. Scientists have determined that forest fires, with their sooty smoke, will greatly exacerbate the symptoms of respiratory disease, including COVID-19.

Some experts have been hopeful that the arrival of the pandemic in the Amazon will reduce deforestation, and also reduce the number of fires this year.

However, first indicators are not at all positive. According to preliminary data gathered by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) and its real-time satellite detection system (Deter-B), there has already been a 55% increase in deforestation alerts between January and April 2020 compared to the previous year.

Paulo Moutinho, a researcher at the Amazon Research Institute (IPAM), expects an even higher rate of deforestation and burning than what a horrified world witnessed in August and September 2019. The reason: The hyper-deforestation seen between January and April of this year will necessarily need to be followed by burning in order to convert what was rainforest to lucrative pasture or cropland. A similar link between forest clearing and wildfires was clearly identified last year by researchers.

The movement of loggers and fire setters into remote areas — along with a regulatory response by the Army which Bolsonaro has already sent into the Amazon to control this year’s fires — all enhance the possibility of rapid COVID-19 spread to local people.

Rondônia’s neighboring state of Amazonas has adopted fairly strict social isolation measures against coronavirus. But Rondônia has been lax, and the illegal deforestation economy there shows signs of going forward full steam. Among the nine states that make up Legal Amazonia — a federal designation — Rondônia has seen the highest percentage growth in deforestation alerts between January 1 and April 30, 2020 (the latest data available).

The attitude of Joelinton Silva, a businessman from Rondônia with investments in southern Amazonas state, partly explains why. He has observed a sharp reduction in legitimate business activities due to the precautions taken against the pandemic. However, like much of the nation’s wealthy rural elite, known as ruralistas, he parrots the rhetoric of President Bolsonaro, whom he supports unconditionally. Silva asserts that “media hysteria,” and not the pandemic, has caused the recent rapid decline in Brazil’s economy.

Like many landowners, he complains bitterly about past land inspections by IBAMA and other environmental regulators and enforcers, and the vigilance of socio-environmental NGOs and civil society. “On the question of [forest timber] management plans, what really gets in the way are the environmentalists. IBAMA has no technical knowledge, and it was very often confiscating our timber without reason,” he complains.

Since last October, the loggers we lived among have remained on the job, working through the global pandemic, and probably believing that government environmental inspections would be far fewer in 2020, keeping them safe from arrest.

However, we were recently informed that they were arrested while driving a truck loaded with undocumented wood planks during a federal law enforcement operation conducted at a checkpoint on a highway leading into Porto Velho, Rondônia’s state capital.

But like that economically buffeted urban Uber driver, our logger acquaintances will likely bounce back. Inconvenienced by their brush with the law, and maybe fined, they’ll soon get back to work, because their services to the Amazon deforestation gig economy are “essential” to both Brazil and the global economy.

The buttresses of this great ancient rainforest tree, which have kept it standing for uncounted years, are no match for the industrial strength of a chainsaw powered by fossil fuels. Image by Fábio Nascimento.

Banner image: The photos in this story reflect the daily activities of workers in the front line of the Amazon deforestation gig economy. Native trees are cut without protective gear or safety equipment, and should there be an accident, medical assistance is likely a day or more away. In the forest we visited, within an agrarian reform settlement, the most valuable woods had already been culled, so the men and their boss had to be satisfied with garapa (Brazilian ash, Apuleia leiocarpa), and a roxinho (purple heart; Peltogyne paniculata) commonly used in the manufacture of decks. Image by Fábio Nascimento.

The photos presented in this story are not available for republication without express permission from the photographer.

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Article published by Glenn Scherer
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