A municipal brigade member watches logs at an illegal sawmill in Valdinei Ferreira Jango (AFP/File, Lunae Parracho)
Brazilian authorities on Thursday wrapped up a major operation against illegal logging in the Amazon, seizing thousands of tons of precious timber amid growing frictions over land conflicts in the region.
Operation "Captain of Forest 2" involving federal police, the military as well as experts from several forest protection agencies began on November 18 in this municipality of the northern state of Para.
Authorities said they seized 3,000 cubic meters (105,944 cubic feet) of timber logs worth $2.5 million and six tractors. An illegal lumber yard was also shut down.
More than 90 percent of the logs seized were of ipe wood, a large tropical hardwood tree prized for its durability, strength and natural resistance to decay and insect infestation, they added.
Ipe, an endangered species with the alluring nickname "Amazon gold," is worth more than $1,300 per cubic meter.
The Amazon is the world's largest tropical rainforest, and its protected areas in Brazil cover more than 2.1 million square kilometers (814,000 square miles).
Valdinei Ferreira, the man suspected of large-scale illegal logging in the area, is still at large and was fined only $1 million.
"A large part of the timber illegally logged is for export and leaves from the port of Belem," the capital of Para state, said Davi Rocha, head of IBAMA, the Brazilian government's environmental protection agency, in Itaituba in the southwest of Para.
IBAMA, established in 1989, has played a key role in deterring deforestation.
An environmental crimes law passed in 1998 gave the agency new enforcement powers, which it has used, albeit selectively according to environmentalists, in raids aimed at arresting and fining the most blatant violators of the law.
Experts believe that 40 to 60 percent of the timber extracted from the Amazon is illegal, compared with more than 80 percent 10 years ago.
Ghilherme Betiollo, an expert at public forest protection agency ICM Bio who coordinates the anti-logging operation, explained that protected areas are now swarming with illegal loggers who are blocking access to prevent control operations by authorities.
In 2009, Amazon lumber represented a $2.5 billion market, according to a study by the Imazon institute and the Brazilian forestry agency.
But the government presence in the area is largely insufficient. In Trairao national park, just two officials of ICM Bio must monitor 257,000 hectares (635,000 acres), and in the Riozinho do Anfrisio park two other must keep an eye on 736,000 hectares.
Last October a community leader protesting illegal deforestation was shot to death, the eighth environmentalist farmer to be killed since May in Para state.
Joao Chupel Primo, 55, was killed "because he condemned illegal deforestation in Itaituba," according to pastoral Land Commission spokesman Gilson Rego.
The alleged killer, identified as Carlos Augusto, was arrested.
Yet the local population appears divided over the issue. Some back the official campaign against deforestation.
But others fear reprisals from the illegal loggers, who are armed with guns and global positioning satellite locators, and others see the activity as their only source of income.
"We get involved in logging because the enemy is stronger than us. Here we don't even have a police station," said 41-year-old Moises Rodrigues, who lives in Areia, near Trairao.
But Maria Silva, 60, says logging means work for many local residents.
"Without the loggers, we don't know what we would do," she added.