Illegal logging in Brazil turns Amazon into a powder keg

ALTAMIRA, Brazil (AFP) – A rifle resting on his shoulder, Tatji Arara looks despondent as he steps over the trunks of huge trees felled by timber traffickers in the heart of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, now the scene of numerous land conflicts.

“Every day, we find new trees cut down. I’ve never seen anything like this,” laments the 41-year-old, a leader of the Arara indigenous people in the northern state of Para.

He said illegal logging on Arara lands – an area equivalent to 264,000 football fields – has intensified since President Jair Bolsonaro came to power in January.

Bolsonaro, a far-right champion of agribusiness, vowed during last year’s election campaign that he would not give up “one centimetre more” of land to indigenous communities in Brazil, home to around 60 per cent of the Amazon rainforest.

According to Para-based conservation group Imazon, deforestation in the Amazon increased 54 per cent in January – the first month Bolsonaro was in office – as compared with a year earlier.

Some 37 per cent of the devastated areas are in Para.

The Arara territory, where around 300 indigenous live, has been under government protection since 1991.

But there are fears that could change under Bolsonaro, a climate change skeptic.

Aerial view of the Transamazonica Road (BR-230) near Medicilandia, Para State, Brazil. – AFP

“Bolsonaro is poisoning the spirit of the people. Lots of people think he will take our land, but we won’t let him,” said Tatji Arara, wearing shorts and a team shirt for Flamengo, one of Brazil’s most popular football clubs.

“If the illegal extraction of wood continues, our warriors will take up their bows and arrows. There could be deaths,” he warned.

In a letter to the local federal prosecutor’s office in February, the Arara said tribal elders were considering “getting justice for themselves”, including evoking an ancestral ritual of making a traditional flute “with the skulls of the invaders”.

Hundreds of representatives of indigenous groups convened in the nation’s capital Brasilia yesterday for their annual lobbying mission to defend their land rights.

The Arara lands are technically part of the municipality of Altamira, the largest in Brazil in terms of surface area – bigger than Portugal – and home to about 110,000 people.

Before illegal logging ramped up, local indigenous communities had already suffered – in the name of modernisation.

The construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric mega-dam project on the Xingu River, which is due to be finished this year and will be one of the biggest in the world, displaced dozens and disrupted the ecosystem.

It was also in Altamira that Brazil’s military regime began constructing the Trans-Amazonian Highway in the 1970s – it eventually left a scar of more than 4,000 kilometres across the Amazon.

A plaque commemorating the highway’s inauguration stands beside a veritable monument to the current problem of deforestation: the huge stump of a Brazil nut tree, one of the biggest in the Amazon and a key source of income for the Arara.

Tatji Arara points out the burned wreckage of a truck used to carry timber that was set on fire in February by scores of indigenous people.

Just off the red-dirt highway, loggers have bored their way into the rainforest using heavy machinery.

Destroying everything in their path, the brazen looters are in no hurry to remove the timber, leaving it to be collected another day.

“When they are caught in the act, they say that these lands belong to no one, that the Indians are idiots, that they are lazy because they don’t want to plant soybeans,” said Tatji Arara.

The 566 indigenous territories demarcated by the Brazilian government represent more than 13 per cent of the huge country’s surface area.