Brazilian Army Takes the Offensive Against Environmental Crimes
By Dialogo September 16, 2011
Brazil is enlisting the help of its armed forces to stop deforestation of the Amazon, whose rainforests are disappearing more rapidly than ever.
In May alone, the Amazon rainforest shrank by 268 square miles — a 144 percent increase over May 2010 rates, says Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE). In the past 12 months, the states of Mato Grosso and Pará have lost 1,649 square miles of vegetation, up from 1,426 square miles in the 12 months ending in July 2010.
Such data is collected by DETER (Deforestation in Real Time), a satellite system that detects clearing when at least 61 acres of forest are being destroyed. Despite the current bad news, DETER has had some success stemming deforestation. In 2009, the Brazilian government committed itself to an 80 percent reduction in Amazon deforestation by 2020.
Even so, the sudden increase in deforestation last May took the government by surprise, with Brazilian Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira calling the new data alarming. That has led the military to intensify inspections in the vast region, in collaboration with the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Resources (IBAMA).
Taking the lead on these collaborative efforts is the Joint Command of the Armed Forces (EMCFA), established in August 2010.
“The biggest challenge for EMCFA is interoperability,” said the head of EMCFA, Army Gen. José Carlos de Nardi. “We have made gains with each new operation, for instance now with Ágata 1, led directly by us.”
EMCFA has participated in two major operations with environmental ramifications: Arco Verde and Ágata. Both are coordinated by the Defense Ministry’s System of Protection of Amazonia (SIPAM).
Operation Arco Verde, launched last May, works with locals in the state of Mato Grosso to come up with new models of economic development that subvert the logic of deforestation.
Among the entities actively involved in Arco Verde are the Brazilian Army, Air Force, National Security Force, IBAMA, Federal Police, Environmental Military Police, Road Patrol, local jurisdictions and various non-profit organizations.
In 60 days of work in northern Mato Grosso, the army set up checkpoints, motorized patrols, aerial surveillance and confiscation of equipment used for illegal activities
“In the checkpoints we apprehended trucks that were carrying illegally obtained wood, other vehicles, weapons and several fugitives of the law with open orders of capture,” said an army report.
Luciano Guerra Cotta, the head of IBAMA in Mato Grosso, said residents have been advised that all equipment and goods present at the scene of “environmental crimes” would be confiscated, upon orders of the president.
“Now, with the support of the army we are in a great position to execute those orders,” said Cotta. “Those infringing on the law are warned: if you continue to clearing the forest, you will lose any property used in the commission of these crimes.”
About 35 percent of the clearing detected in May occurred in Mato Grosso, where the military is reinforcing IBAMA’s environmental protection efforts. Army troops provide logistical and operational support to confiscate goods and equipment used for illegal activities.
“This makes very clear that the order of the minister of environment to end deforestation in the northern region of Mato Grosso will be followed to the letter,” said Cotta. “This is a priority of the federal government and that’s why the Brazilian Army is with us in the field.”
The Strategic Border Plan launched by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in June places major importance on protection of Brazil’s Amazon borders, particularly waterways used by organized crime. Some 11 million Brazilians live in 710 border municipalities, according to IBAMA.
The objective of Operation Ágata, focusing on the municipalities of Tabatinga and São Gabriel da Cachoeira, was to crack down on drug trafficking, weapons smuggling, illegal mining, trafficking of wild animals and biopiracy.
“We already control the borders, but they are very long,” said the group commander, Col. José Maurilo Machado de Lima. “This operation is the first coordination effort of the Federal Government to intensify the work in the border. We are going to do periodic operations to solidify border control.”
One of the more dramatic events of Operation Ágata occurred Aug. 10, when four Brazilian Air Force planes dropped eight 230-kilogram bombs to destroy a clandestine airstrip near the Colombian border. The Army closed the area to ensure the success of the operation as well as the safety of nearby residents. Two Sikorsky H-60 Black Hawk helicopters brought military personnel as well as civilians from IBAMA.
The runway wasn’t in use, but the way it was destroyed will make sure it won’t be rebuilt.
During the operation, 3,500 military personnel were on active duty along the border with Colombia. The work included naval patrols, interdiction of illegal logging, and the discovery and destruction of three clandestine runways utilized by drug, timber and human traffickers.
SIPAM detected the illegal runways and alerted EMCFA, which says the operation was a success and that it will be repeated.
“We increased the presence of the Brazilian state in the border area and inhibited the action of criminal organizations that work there,” said Army Gen. João Carlos Vilela Morgero, an official with EMCFA.