There are so many commercial interests at play in the control of the Amazon — logging, mining, transportation — that serious enforcement is needed to protect the region’s vast biodiversity. Illegal interests are invariably protected by arms, and history is littered with environmental disasters caused by pollutant-heavy and profit-hungry oil companies.
So in 2013, the Brazilian Government’s Environmental Protection Agency, Ibama, set up the ‘Grupo Especializado de Fiscalizacao’ (GEF). This has been described as a set of ‘special ops nerds’ — a group of scientists, biologists and environmental defenders trained in special police tactics and empowered to act like weapon-wielding commandos.
GEF patrols in helicopters, using satellite images and intelligence to detect deforestation and illegal mining. It is then legally permitted to swoop in and take control of illegal activities in protected areas by destroying or burning equipment. There are stories of the GEF team destroying hydraulic excavators valued at about R$600,000 ($145,00) each.
The crack group was led by Roberto Cabral Borges, an environmental analyst at Ibama. And it had serious success: between 2014 and 2018, GEF deactivated more than 200 illegal logging and gold, diamond and cassiterite mines in protected areas. In an interview with Folha, Cabral explained that this was important as the real image of gold mining today “is the destruction of the Amazon rainforest by hydraulic excavators and contamination of rivers, fish and population, with irreparable damage to the environment and human health.”
Borges himself felt the full effects of the job, having reportedly been shot in the shoulder while pursuing gunmen who were destroying areas of the forest.
But the Bolsonaro Government, in keeping with its repeated belief that indigenous people have too much land, has been scaling back and undermining programmes that protect the forest. The far-right president has been openly critical of Ibama’s ability to destroy equipment involved in illegal activity. One of Bolsonaro’s political supporters said that “we will revoke on the first day this crap that authorizes the destruction [of mining and logging equipment]. I have no doubt, it’s one of the first things Bolsonaro will do.”
Ibama has therefore suffered under Bolsonaro’s rule. BBC analysis found that between January and August 2019, Ibama’s fines for environmental crimes dropped by a third compared to the same period last year, making it the lowest level in ten years — despite a documented increase in logging.
Just eight of Ibama’s 27 offices across the country have a permanent head, and although the environmental agency had plans to send GEF into the field 10 times in 2019, it seems as if the Government is blocking their deployment.
Nevertheless, GEF — and Borges in particular — remain a force with a proven track record of protecting the Amazon, ready to be called into action once the political tide turns.Tags: Amazon Rainforest, Bolsonaro, Brazil, deforestation, Special Ops