Environmental criminals destroyed massive public rainforests in six years, with only two percent of 302 federal police raids targeting perpetrators, a new study shows.

Environmentalists have long pressed the federal government to turn these unallocated public forests into protected areas.
Environmentalists have long pressed the federal government to turn these unallocated public forests into protected areas. (Reuters)

Environmental criminals in the Brazilian Amazon have destroyed public rainforests equal to the size of El Salvador over the past six years, yet the Federal Police — the Brazilian version of the FBI — carried out only seven operations aimed at this massive loss, according to a new study.

Between 2016 and 2021, 302 environmental crime raids were carried out by the Federal Police in the Amazon, said Igarape Institute on Wednesday, a Brazilian think tank. 

Only two percent targeted people illegally seizing undesignated public lands, it said.

"Indeed, this veritable criminal ecosystem behind Amazon plunder has expanded nationwide, reaching 24 of Brazil's 27 states as well as neighbouring nations."

The destruction took place in state and federal forests that are "unallocated," the study said, meaning they do not have a designated use the way national parks and Indigenous territories do. 

According to official data, the Brazilian Amazon rainforest has about 580,000 sq km of forests in this category, or an area almost the size of Ukraine.

As Brazil has repeatedly legalised such invasions, these public forests have become the main target for criminals who illegally seize land.

The report said the lack of enforcement likely stems from the weak legal protection of these areas, in other words, the same problem that draws the illegal activity. 

Environmentalists have long pressed the federal government to turn these unallocated public forests into protected areas.

Stalled legal protection

Since Brazil's return to democratic rule in 1985 after two decades of military rule, most successive governments have made moves to extend the legal protections, and today about 47 percent of the Amazon lies within protected areas, according to official data. 

Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, however, has repeatedly said the country has too many protected areas and stalled this decades-long policy.

In 2016, some 2,240 sq km of unallocated public land were illegally deforested. Last year, it reached almost double that amount. 

Over six years, the accumulated loss has reached some 18,500 sq km, according to Amazon Environmental Research Institute, or IPAM, based on official data.

Deforestation is increasingly taking place on these lands in particular. In 2016, they made up 31 percent of all illegally felled forests. Last year, they reached 36 percent.

Almost half of Brazil's climate pollution comes from deforestation, according to an annual study from the Brazilian nonprofit network Climate Observatory. 

The destruction is so vast that the eastern Amazon has ceased to be a carbon sink, or absorber, for the Earth and has converted into a carbon source, according to a study published in 2021 in the journal Nature.

Illicit activities

Igarape divides environmental crime in the Amazon into four major illicit or tainted activities: theft of public land; illegal logging; illegal mining; and deforestation linked to agriculture and cattle farming.

The enforcement operations were spread over many locations, 846, because most investigated deep into illegal supply chains. 

Nearly half were in protected areas, such as the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, which, despite a heavier police presence, suffers a growing invasion by thousands of illegal gold miners.

The Igarape study also pointed to an extensive "regional ecosystem of crime," since the police operations took place in 24 of Brazil's 27 states plus 8 cities in neighboring countries. "Environmental crime stems from illicit economies that access consumer markets and financing outside the Amazon," the report said.

The Federal Police didn't respond to an Associated Press email seeking comment about its strategy in the Amazon.

Source: AP