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Illegal logging in Maranhão
Maranhão, Brazil

Illegal Logging Threatens Lives and Culture of Indigenous People in the Maranhão Amazon in Brazil

The Araribóia Indigneous Land is the second largest in Maranhão, with approximately 15,000 Indigenous people living in an area of ​​about 413,000 hectares covering six cities: Arame, Amarante, Bom Jesus das Selvas, Buriticupu, Grajaú and Santa Luzia.  Even though it is demarcated, homologated and registered, the territory is a target for invasion: hunters, farmers, illegal logging activity and the leasing of pastures. One of the leaders of the Araribóia Indigneous Land, who was not identified for his protection as he is among the threatened members of the traditional community, says this ceaseless invasion, especially illegal logging, brings destruction to the environment and generates numerous internal conflicts. According to him, what he wants with his struggle is to preserve the land where he lives, his family and the continuity of everything he seeks to preserve. 

Marcilene Guajajara from the Coordination of Organizations and Articulations of the Indigenous Peoples of Maranhão (COAPIMA) confirms this dynamic. Since 2003, this agency has received constant complaints about illegal logging in the state and they come, in general, from cities as Amarante and Arame. She claims that the lives of Indigenous peoples have been affected by accelerated deforestation and direct conflicts, also making the health of this population vulnerable. 

trucks carrying wood
Wood seized in the region in 2022 / Credit: PRF/MA.

“Today, most of these people live under threat within the territories. It causes a lot of fear. People no longer have as much freedom to live as they used to,” she says. 

The leadership of the Araribóia Indigneous Land reports that constant monitoring of the limits of these territories is necessary as a strategy to survive and care for them. When there are larger operations, such as an investigation of complaints among other types of inspection, there is support from the Federal and Civil Police, the National Public Security Force and even the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA). 

In response to a request for information through the Law on Access to Information in Brazil, IBAMA claimed that there are several criminal groups involved in fraud in the forestry chain and that buy wood from illegal sources. Often, these same groups are responsible for financing the cutting of wood and covering up the respective origin through virtual credits. 

In general, illegal logging causes environmental and social impacts, as it results in the depletion of the fauna associated with these environments, direct damage to the sources of rivers and their respective routes, thus affecting the food autonomy of the peoples most connected to coexistence with nature. This is what Gilderlan Rodrigues, coordinator of the Indigenous Missionary Council, CIMI, states. According to him, “Illegal logging affects an entire social group of indigenous peoples”. 

An overview of illegal deforestation in the legal Brazilian Amazon

The Amazon biome covers nine countries in Latin America, 60% of which is located in the north of Brazil. It's home to about 26% of the country's known flora, including native, cultivated and naturalized vegetation. There are more than 13,000 non-woody and woody species. All of them have high value for human life and they are exploited, mainly, through a world market that seems to care little about the origin and, even less, who is affected in the process. 

On its official website, the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change claims to be promoting actions to conserve biodiversity and harness the region's potential for sustainable development. These are actions that include “sustainable landscape management projects, including environmental adaptation, consolidation of conservation units, sustainable and innovative production chains, recovery of degraded areas and payment for environmental services.” 

A man logging
A forest ranger cuts a wood bridge to block the road used to transport illegal wood at the Araribóia territory / Credit: CIMI/MA.

One way of trying to keep track of information about deforestation in the region, for example, is through the Monitoring Project for Deforestation in the Legal Amazon by Satellite (PRODES) of the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), a unit linked to the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation of Brazil. The PRODES platform shows that Maranhão is the fifth state in the Brazil's Legal Amazon in accumulated deforestation rate since the beginning of the program in 1988 until 2022, with more than 26,000 km² deforested. 

There is also an alert system for deforestation of native vegetation with high resolution images: the MapBiomas Alerta. The platform allows you to see alerts detecting deforestation of woody vegetation since January 2019. Since that date, almost 6.5 million hectares have been deforested across the country, mainly in the Amazon region, representing 58% of the total deforested. Among the states in the region, Maranhão occupies the fourth place in the ranking among those that most have lost this type of vegetation, behind Amazonas (third), Mato Grosso (second) and Pará (first). It is also in Maranhão where the city with the highest level of native vegetation extraction is found — Alto da Parnaíba city — reaching 239.1 hectares of affected areas per day (Table 1). 

table on deforestation
Credit: Le Monde Diplomatique Brasil

Against this backdrop, more than 90% of the deforestation taking place in the Amazon shows signs of illegality.This is what the public policy and finance analysis organization Climate Policy Initiative (CPI), in partnership with the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio), says. Forest destruction is generally linked to illicit activities such as illegal mining, land grabbing and illegal logging.For the region, this has meant a series of criminal practices associated with an increase in violence.. 

According to the research and public policy organization, this scenario can contribute to the removal of formal markets, in addition to representing a risk for the inhabitants of the Brazilian Amazon region. We are talking about traditional populations, who seek recognition and have been systematically demobilized in their territories and, therefore, socially and culturally affected. 

The De Olho nos Ruralistas platform presents the results of a survey on deforestation across the country, based on the fines imposed by Ibama, tracing a history of environmental infractions over a 25-year period (from 1995 to 2020). According to the survey, most of the million-dollar fines occurred in the Amazon; what is surprising are the dates relating to the state of Maranhão (Infographic 1).

Fines applied for environmental infractions
Infographic 1: Fines applied for environmental infractions / Credit: Le Monde Diplomatique Brasil

The fines occurred from April 2005 to December 2006, but as collected and applied, Maranhão is among those states that deforest the most and with record speed. It was not possible to have access to any update in this regard by the time of publication. 

The “illegal wood route” and the recent history of forfeiture in Maranhão 

The State Secretary for the Environment and Natural Resources of Maranhão (SEMA) reported that, from April 2022 to June 2023, approximately 760 m³ of illegal wood was seized in Maranhão alone, in partnership with the state's Federal Highway Police (PRF). The secretary pointed out that, among the types that deforest the most are legal entities whose activity is the resale of processed wood (loggers), in addition to charcoal and firewood. In general, they are resources that supply domestic demands used in civil construction. 

SEMA emphasizes that illegal logging is considered a crime and is subject to the penalties provided for in the Environmental Crimes Law (nº 9.605/1998) among other laws and regulations within the scope of Maranhão that may be directly applicable. The institution also has a complaints channel in its own Ombudsman's Office, at +55 98 3194-8911, or through the SIGEP/SEMA system

According to data from the Federal Highway Police of Maranhão (PRF-MA), seizures of illegal timber as a result of enforcement actions reached 6,208 m³ in 2021, 4,847 m³ in 2022, and already 3,204 m³ in the first half of 2023 alone. According to Adel Barbosa, an inspector at the PRF-MA's Communication Center, the drop in the number of seizures may be related to ways of circumventing the system or even the use of alternative routes to avoid checkpoints.

The biggest seizures in Maranhão occurred in the cities of Imperatriz and Santa Inês, which are known routes for timber from inside and outside the state. In general, the illegal timber from the Amazon region comes mainly from the state of Pará (85%), by road, and that from other states (such as Amazonas, Roraima and Amapá) arrives by ferry in the capital of Pará and in Santarém and then follows the roads.

In this direction, the PRF-MA operational units in Imperatriz, Porto Franco and Açailândia cover part of the length of BR 010, known as Belém-Brasília, which crosses the states of Pará, Maranhão, Tocantins and Goiás. The PRF-MA operational units in Santa Inês and Nova Olinda, on the other hand, represent, for example, a field of attention for BR 316, a federal highway that also leaves Belém, this time on its way to northeastern Brazil, reaching the city of Maceió, capital of Alagoas.

Infographic 2 / Credit: Le Monde Diplomatique Brasil

Through these and other routes, the illegal wood arrives at clandestine points where it is cut into beams, beams, laths and slats. It then makes its way to the Northeast, Southeast and South of Brazil. Among the most prominent species seized are Maçaranduba, Jatobá, Cumaru and Tatajuba, most of which are destined for the construction sector. Jatobá, for example, is one of the species threatened with extinction and remains in the vulnerable category according to the classification of the Brazilian Forestry Service

When the illegal wood is seized by the PRF, the truck driver who was transporting it signs the Detailed Term of Occurrence (TCO) making himself available to the Special Criminal Court when called upon.  The environmental agencies, such as Sema or Ibama, are then officially notified with all the information about the seizure. It is these same organizations that are responsible for removing the respective cargoes and following up on the appropriate legal procedures. At the "end of the line" are the Public Prosecutor's Office and the Special Criminal Judiciary in the role of summoning and prosecuting those responsible, within two years, when this type of crime is statute-barred.

The fight of the forest guardians and the fear of the violent present 

In the midst of all this, the Indigenous people find themselves in a vulnerable situation, says another indigenous leader from Arame, one of the cities that belong to the Araribóia Indigneous Land in Maranhão. According to the leader, invasions due to logging have been taking place since at least 1984 and have never stopped. He also states that about half of the territory has some logging activity and that there is great concern about the advancement of activities related to the leasing of land for cattle grazing. 

In addition to concerns about activities that could worsen the situation of deforestation, the so-called Guardians of the Forest inspect and monitor the territory and are also concerned about the isolated peoples who live by hunting, fishing and gathering, for example. This monitoring is the result of collective and unpaid work, completely voluntary and also dangerous. Exposure, while considered necessary for the survival of indigenous culture and a focus of the struggle, leads to violent encounters and even the murder of people who important to the history and culture of these communities, according to the leader.

“We do this work of inspection and monitoring of our territory and we hinder the activity of these loggers who keep stealing our wood from our territory. We don't have peace in our villages. This is my revolt, my indignation, I am a leader, I am part of the community. It is difficult for us to live in a democratic country that does not have a wide view of our Indigenous people. So we are subject to the invaders,” reflects the leader. 

In an attempt to stop the actions of invaders, the leaders also notify the National Foundation of Indigenous Peoples (FUNAI), but say that the requests take time to be answered or verified. 

According to the 2022 report by the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) using data from 2021, there was an increase in invasions in Indigenous territories, intensifying the various types of violence, resulting in violations of the rights and culture of these peoples. For the sixth consecutive year, the increase is on three main fronts: invasion of possessions, illegal exploitation of resources and damage to property. CIMI recorded that these occurrences represent a threefold increase since 2018, encompassing 226 Indigenous Lands in 22 Brazilian states. 

Gilderlan Rodrigues, CIMI coordinator, says that the mission is a good one. “The challenge is to make the institutions responsible for the protection of territories, for the lives of peoples, work, be strengthened to be able to fulfill their role. Delay is also another challenge. It is complicated." 

In this context, what remains is the fight of the Guardians of the Forest and Indigenous leaders, who are continuously searching for recognition of their territorial spaces of struggle, resistance and existence. 

Ingenous with an arrow
Forest guardians monitor the Araribóia Indigenous territory / Credit: Edivan Guajajara.

According to leaders who were interviewed, to resist is to work daily in territorial articulation for the lives of thousands of families, their respective knowledge and culture, as in the Araribóia Indigenous Land in Maranhão. This represents some of the experiences of violence and resistance among the 330 Indigenous Lands identified in the Amazon biome in the country

Read the original Portuguese-language version of this story.

This story was produced with support from the Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Le Monde Diplomatique Brasil on July, 28, 2023. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Illegal logging in Maranhão / Credit: Arquivos CIMI/MA.