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Slashed forest protections ignites land grabbing frenzy in Brazilian Amazon

  • Earlier this year, Rondônia’s legislative assembly voted to pass a law that reduced the extent of Guajará-Mirim State Park by roughly 50,000 hectares and reduced another nearby reserve to a sliver.
  • The move effectively removed protections from nearly a quarter of the park, and critics say it “gave a free pass” to outsiders to move in, deforest and lay claim to land.
  • Rondônia’s top court annulled the law in November, ruling the reduction of the park’s limits to be unconstitutional.
  • But sources say the invasions into the park are continuing, and are inching closer to vulnerable Indigenous and traditional communities in neighboring reserves.

Near the western fringe of the Brazilian Amazon, the emerald canopy blankets hundreds of thousands of hectares. Tucked into the vast Guajará-Mirim State Park, savanna forest stretches for miles before melting into rainforest, in a rare encounter of two starkly different ecosystems. But, abruptly, lush jungle gives way to neat rectangles of charred land and toppled trees.

The Guajará-Mirim park spans 216,568 hectares (535,151 acres) across the Brazilian state of Rondônia, deep in the Brazilian Amazon. Most of the reserve lies within Nova Mamoré, a municipality of just over 30,000 people, where the local economy is fueled by timber and beef. The area is home to 769,000 head of cattle – the state’s second-largest herd.

The park was created over three decades ago with the aim of shielding the rich biodiversity found in this area, which is home to hundreds of plant and animal species – some of which, like the black spider monkey (Ateles chamek), are threatened with extinction. It also helped create a mosaic of protected lands in the region, forming an important conservation corridor of pristine forest.

But even though all activity within it is prohibited, the Guajará-Mirim park has come under attack this year as invaders rush to illegally clear and claim slices of it. Since May, 74,598 deforestation alerts have been confirmed in primary forest within the park, according to satellite data from the University of Maryland visualized on Global Forest Watch. This represents a jump of 465% over the same period last year.

Satellite data show Guajará-Mirim State Park lost large areas of primary forest in 2021.
Satellite data show Guajará-Mirim State Park lost large areas of primary forest in 2021.

“This is an area that is under full state protection,” said Larissa Amorim, a researcher at Imazon, an NGO monitoring the clearing. “There shouldn’t be any deforestation within it. But we see that it’s under immense pressure – deforestation has sky-rocketed there.” 

Environmentalists blame land speculators and cattle ranchers for the destruction, claiming they are illegally clearing swaths of forest to make way for pastures. They say the surge in invasions was largely triggered by a law passed earlier this year, which slashed the extent of the Guajará-Mirim Park by roughly 50,000 hectares and reduced another nearby reserve to a sliver.

The legislation encouraged invaders by signaling that they would soon be able to gain land titles for plots they were illegally deforesting and occupying, said Ivaneide Bandeira Cardozo, who leads the Kanindé Ethno-environmental Defense Association, an organization that defends the rights of Indigenous people.

“It was a gift to those committing environmental crimes,” said Cardozo, whose organization fought against the reduction of the reserve. “It’s as if state [lawmakers] gave a free pass to land grabbers, loggers and deforesters. They invaded the conservation area, invaded the park, and destroyed it.”

Rondônia’s top court annulled the law last month, ruling the reduction of the park’s limits to be unconstitutional. Yet the invasions have shown no signs of slowing, advocates say. As the intruders encroach deeper into the forest, they are consolidating their land holdings and opening up the broader ecological corridor to invasion, while also chipping away at Guajará-Mirim’s protected status, Cardozo said in voice messages to Mongabay. “Without the forest, you can’t justify having a protected park.”

The invaders are also inching closer to vulnerable Indigenous and traditional communities in neighboring reserves, which have so far been shielded from the destruction, according to Naiara Ames De Castro Lazzari, a prosecutor with the state attorney general’s office in Rondônia.

“These populations are often driven out by the invasions – they cannot maintain their livelihood or they fear for their safety,” she said in a phone interview. “And they are the guardians of the forest, so that also weakens protections.”

Sanctioned destruction

In a hasty emergency vote this spring, Rondônia’s legislative assembly voted unanimously to slash the Guajará-Mirim State Park by nearly a quarter. The lawmakers – nearly half of whom are cattle ranchers or were elected with ranching money –  argued this stretch of forest was degraded beyond restoration. However, satellite data and imagery visualized on Global Forest Watch indicate much of the subsequent deforestation in the park occurred in primary forest.

Even though most of the intruders into the park were recent arrivals, they were presented as traditional settlers who should be given legal titles to the land, according to Ramires Andrade, a lawyer for Kanindé, who helped challenge the legislation in court. “It was a complete misrepresentation of what was happening within the park.”

Guajará-Mirim State Park is home to many animals, including black spider monkeys (Ateles chamek). Image by Geoff Gallice via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Governor Marcos Rocha, who drafted the bill himself, hurriedly signed it into law in May. With the stroke of a pen, he sealed the fate of the Guajará-Mirim reserve and freed land grabbers to legally exploit the thousands of hectares that now lay outside its boundaries.

State officials in Rondônia did not respond to a request for comment.

It didn’t take long for deforestation to explode: in the months that followed, ranchers and loggers scrambled to lay claim to slices of the park. The destruction continued even as Rondônia’s attorney general – together with Kanindé and other advocate groups – disputed the freshly-approved law in court.

“It represented the greatest environmental setback in the history of Rondônia,” Andrade said. “And it was passed in an absurd way, without any prior study of the environmental or social impacts.”

In late November, the state’s top court agreed. A judge annulled the law, sharply criticizing its proponents and ruling that the state cannot simply renounce its duty to protect the environment in the face of invasions.

“If conflicts are growing…it is because the government has shown itself to be inefficient in protecting these conservation units, violating its constitutional duty,” wrote Justice Jorge Ribeiro da Luz, the rapporteur on the case.

The court’s decision represents a major victory, Lazzari said, sending a clear signal that assaults on environmental protections will not be tolerated. But halting the destruction and expelling the intruders has remained a challenge.

“It sends an important message – it shows any attempt to reduce protected lands has to fall within the realm of legality,” Lazzari said. “Still, today, unfortunately, the park is still a target of invaders and deforestation.”

In response to a request by state prosecutors, police removed some 60 families from the buffer zone around the park in June. Yet sources say most have returned to the park since. And, this month, tensions boiled over when invaders ambushed state environmental officials tasked with evicting them from Guajará-Mirim park, firing shots and injuring one official.

“This attempt to remove the invaders has already been met with a lot of violence,” said Rômulo Batista, a campaigner with Greenpeace Brazil. “What this shows us is that those who are invading the park are prepared for anything.”

Satellite imagery from Planet Labs shows clearings proliferated in Guajará-Mirim State Park in 2021.
Satellite imagery from Planet Labs shows clearings proliferated in Guajará-Mirim State Park in 2021.

Advocates now plan to ask the courts to order the removal of all invaders from the park, while also forcing state authorities to restore the areas that were cleared and burned, Andrade said.

“It was an important victory – but that ruling alone is not enough to solve the problem,” he told Mongabay over the phone. “We want the invaders to be removed from the park. That is the only way to stop the destruction of the park.”

History of invasions

In Guajará-Mirim park, the tussle over land can be traced back more than half a century. The area around it was first settled in the 1970s, amid a gold rush that drew hordes of landless workers from other corners of Brazil. Eventually, the gold dwindled and timber began driving the local economy, with illegal loggers encroaching deeper into virgin forest in search of profits.

With deforestation inching closer, the Guajará-Mirim park became a target for land grabbers. Its limits were redrawn again and again over the years, as invaders chipped away at the periphery. In the mid-1990s, lawmakers slashed more than 50,000 hectares from the reserve, giving out land titles to the settlers who had illegally moved into this part of the park.

Illegal loggers even carved out a 11.5-km (7-mile) stretch of clandestine road into the park, opening up access to the conservation corridor and alarming environmental groups. Yet, after a legal struggle, lawmakers authorized and inaugurated the road in 2014, arguing that it served as an important emergency route to communities around the park, which would otherwise be stranded when the region floods.

“This park has a long history of being a target for invaders,” said Amorim. “And all of these factors have contributed to the intense pressure that we’re seeing today.”

A white-fronted capuchin (Cebus albifrons) family lounges on a branch. The species is found in Guajará-Mirim State Park. Image by Nortondefeis via WIkimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).
A white-fronted capuchin (Cebus albifrons) family lounges on a branch. The species is found in Guajará-Mirim State Park. Image by Nortondefeis via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Like in much of the Brazilian Amazon, the incursions into Guajará-Mirim have only intensified over the last three years, advocates say, fueled by a steady stream of friendly signals from authorities – from local politicians all the way up to the president himself.

In Rondônia, lawmakers have been vocal about their plans to expand agricultural production, developing the Amazon rather than protecting it. Rochas, the governor, has even defended mining and agriculture on Indigenous lands, claiming it is the path to development.

Rondônia has also joined forces with neighboring Acre and Amazonas states, with the aim of creating a new “sustainable development zone” at the intersection of the three states. If approved, the scheme – dubbed ‘Amacro’ – is widely expected to drive a surge in beef and soy production in this part of the Amazon.

“We have a political context in Rondônia where environmental protection is seen as a barrier,” said Andrade. “They insist on expanding agricultural production at the expense of protected areas. It is the most archaic view of economic development.”

On a federal level, critics of President Jair Bolsonaro say he has emboldened invaders by railing against environmental protections and promising to open up protected areas to loggers, miners and ranchers. Brazil’s Senate, meanwhile, is advancing two federal bills that environmentalists warn would make land grabbing easier.

Since taking office in 2019, Bolsonaro has also slashed budgets for environmental enforcement and moved to obstruct the system of environmental fines by allowing offenders to dispute them. Fines punishing environmental crimes have plunged to their lowest level in 24 years..

Satellite imagery captured in August 2021 by Planet Labs shows fires burning in and near Guajará-Mirim State Park. Fire is often used to clear forest and prepare land for agriculture.
Satellite imagery captured in August 2021 by Planet Labs shows fires burning in Guajará-Mirim State Park. Fire is often used to clear forest and prepare land for agriculture.

In a response to a request for comment, a representative of Brazil’s Ministry of Environment said that the agency’s budget this year rose by R$270 million ($47.4 million), with the funding “used for the purchase of equipment, vehicles and navigation systems.” With this increase, the resources aimed at environmental policing rose from R$228 million to R$478 million ($40 million to $83.9 million) in 2021, the representative added.

“The hiring of 739 new civil servants is already planned to expand the staff of Ibama and ICMBio inspectors, as a way of strengthening the fight against illegal deforestation,” the Ministry representative said in an email.

Bolsonaro has also softened his tone recently, vowing during the UN’s climate summit last month to end deforestation in Brazil. The federal government this week pointed to a 19% drop in deforestation for the month of November as proof that it is moving in the right direction.

Still, cumulative deforestation surged to its highest level since 2006 this year, with areas under federal and state protection – like Guajará-Mirim park – under particular pressure. Forest destruction within protected reserves has jumped by nearly one-third.

“Those who invade protected areas are opportunists – they commit these crimes and expect that, at one point, their actions will be legalized,” Lazzari said. “They believe that deforesting, occupying that area in some way may give them some future rights. And it encourages others to do the same.”

In Rondônia, advocates now worry that local politicians – fresh off a defeat in Guajará-Mirim park – may look to weaken environmental protections elsewhere. Land grabbers are already shifting to other reserves under state or federal protection, like the Estação Ecológica de Cuniã, according to Batista.

Like in Guajará-Mirim, land grabbers hope that state or federal lawmakers will eventually grant them amnesty or legalize illicit land claims by redrawing the borders of protected areas, according to Andrade.

“We are certain that further attempts to weaken the environmental protections that we have [for] protected areas will certainly come,” Andrade said. “We know that we still have many long battles ahead of us.”


Banner image from Planet Labs via Global Forest Watch.

Editor’s note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.

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