Logging in the Amazon: laws advance, but only 10% of extraction is legal

In the third part of our Amazon series, we visit Cachoeira do Aruã, the site of a conflict that led to the fall of a former environment minister accused of involvement in the illegal logging trade

Amazônia Ocupada, episode 3:

To reach Cachoeira do Aruã, a remote riverside community in the Brazilian state of Pará, one must travel from the port of Santarém along the River Arapiuns. For much of the four-hour speedboat trip, the riverside is flanked by pristine forest, giving the impression of arriving in an almost untouched Amazon.

Editor’s note

This article is a summary of episode three of Amazônia Ocupada, a new podcast series from Diálogo Chino, available in Portuguese only. Listen here.

The reality is much different: the area around Cachoeira do Aruã is a hotspot for the extraction of wood. Today, the settlement is home to around 130 families, with the population having grown since logging companies began to exploit the region.

This dense native forest is punctuated by signs of logging activity. On the banks of the Arapiuns River, we see two clearings before which large rafts are moored, the departure point for huge loads of Amazon logs, especially in the dry season between July and January.

Aruã has also become a tourist attraction, with visitors arriving to see the waterfall that gives the area its name. It also attracted headlines in March 2021, when the former Minister for the Environment, Ricardo Salles, was pictured in the region, soon after the Federal Police seized more than 226,000 cubic metres of wood, worth around 129 million reais (US$25 million).

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Salles came to try to mediate the situation between the police and the logging companies, as he claimed at the time. But accusations soon arose that the minister himself might be involved in the illegal timber market and that he was trying to interfere in the investigations – something he denies.

“It feels like Cachoeira has become known worldwide,” says resident Elinelma Sampaio. “As the name says, Cachoeira [meaning “waterfall”] is an extraordinary place. The waterfall is beautiful, but it is also embarrassing because of the deforestation. Cachoeira is being talked about worldwide, and spoken about badly.”

Elinelma Sampaio
Elinelma Sampaio, a ribeirinho riverside dweller: “Cachoeira became known worldwide because of deforestation” (Image: Flávia Milhorance / Diálogo Chino)

The extraction of wood by loggers is the focus of the third part of Diálogo Chino’s new podcast series, Amazônia Ocupada (available in Portuguese only). Across five episodes, we examine how a model of exploitation of the Amazon was initially encouraged by Brazil’s military government in the 1970s – a model that, even today, still drives the advance of the agricultural frontier. We see how a story of colonisation for damaging activities repeats itself in the Amazon forest, beginning with the removal of the most valuable woods and continuing with cattle ranching and soybean production.

Today, as in the cases of soy and cattle ranching, there are ways to legally extract timber while keeping the forest standing. There have been regulatory advances to prevent its predatory extraction, with the creation of forest concessions in the mid-2000s. There are even companies operating in Cachoeira do Aruã through these concessions.

“You have a forest area, divide it into 30 parts and exploit one part each year, managing to maintain this cycle,” explains Marco Lentini, project coordinator for Imaflora, an NGO that promotes sustainable forestry combined with environmental conservation. “That way, you can maintain this cycle. That forest will always be a forest, capable of maintaining its production level in the long term.”

Vegetación a orillas del río Arapiuns
Amazon forest along the Arapiuns River, in Pará state. It is mostly a well preserved area, but is dotted with logging operations (Image: Flávia Milhorance / Diálogo Chino)

Regulating the activity along these lines was a way the Brazilian government managed, over the last two decades, to keep huge tracts of public land under control while generating income for local communities. Under this concession regime, businessmen need to monitor their areas, which are periodically inspected by environmental agencies.

Rubens Zilio, director of logging company Patauá Florestal, is an example of this colonisation of the Amazon, much of which advanced between the states of Mato Grosso and Pará along the BR-163 highway. He began his logging operations in Sinop, a region at the transition of the Amazon and Cerrado biomes, but migrated in the 1980s towards the north in search of “new horizons”.

“I came to get what I didn’t have there, what was running out in the region, as it was becoming an agricultural area. There was no more wood,” explains Zilio. Today, Patauá Florestal has two 40-year concessions that cover an area of 362,000 hectares in the Altamira National Forest of Pará. “I came here to find an area where I can work for the rest of my life”, he says.

vista aérea de la extracción de madera
Aerial view of a forestry concession on the Arapiuns River. Standards and regulation have advanced, but the illegal market is still strong (Image: Flávia Milhorance / Diálogo Chino)

Lentini believes that with this form of forest management at least 25 million hectares would be needed to supply, in a more sustainable way, the demand for Amazon timber. “That’s basically 5% of the area of the Amazon. In addition to making life much better for traditional communities, it would allow us to definitively eliminate this problem of illegal wood supply,” the specialist says.

Despite important advances in the regulation of the timber sector, and examples of successful forestry concessions, Imaflora estimates that only 10% of the timber supply in the Amazon comes from proven regular sources. The extraction of illegal timber continues to be a lucrative business, even attracting criminal groups to the activity.

Episode two: How cattle ranching became the biggest deforestation driver in the Amazon

In recent years there have been several actions by the police, environmental agencies and the public prosecutor’s office against illegal logging in Cachoeira do Aruã. In the case of the shipment seized last year, the Federal Police found evidence of an attempt to “launder” the wood. This occurs when legal cargo is mixed with irregularly obtained materials – a mechanism similar to the laundering of cattle, as seen in the previous episode.

Today, only 16% to 25% of Amazon wood is exported, mainly to Europe and the United States, according to Imaflora’s estimate. The rest remains in the domestic market, which is more concerned with price and quality, than with the product’s origin. However, this mindset is starting to change among companies that source wood.

“We were surprised to discover that around 40% of the companies that buy wood on the domestic market already do some kind of mapping of their supply chains,” explains Lentini, discussing a recent survey carried out by the organisation.

Episode three of Amazônia Ocupada is now available, in Portuguese only, on Spotify, Apple, Amazon and Deezer. The fourth episode and accompanying English article will be released on Monday 26 September.

More from this series

Primeiro episódio do podcast Amazônia Ocupada, uma série em cinco partes produzida pelo Diálogo Chino (Lucas Gomes / Diálogo Chino) Podcast

How the Amazon became a global hub for agricultural exports

In a new series, we trace the story of the Amazon since the 1970s, when Brazil’s military government promoted its occupation, attracting migrants to deforest and develop agriculture

Why cattle ranching is the biggest deforestation driver in the Amazon

From Brazil’s Mato Grosso state, the second part of our new Amazon series explains how expansion of cattle farms has driven the occupation of public lands in the rainforest

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