From the veranda of his farmhouse on the outskirts of this isolated riverside settlement, Gilvan Onofre can hear the helicopters coming, their rotors slicing through the humid Amazon air.
“There is no longer any way of hiding,” sighed Onofre, a 70-year-old cattle rancher who moved to the region in the 1970s seeking his fortune and admits to having destroyed huge tracts of rainforest. “Everyone knows that Ibama is photographing us and what we are doing from 2m above.”
Ibama is Brazil’s environmental protection service, the group tasked with monitoring, catching and punishing those responsible for the plunder of the Amazon rainforest.
Boca do Acre, a cattle-ranching town in the deep south of Amazonas state, is one of the new frontlines of the government’s war on illegal deforestation. When Onofre arrived here on Dec. 23, 1972, there was hardly a cow to be seen. Boca do Acre was a tiny community of rubber-tappers surrounded by dense jungle accessible only by river.
Since then, the landscape has changed beyond recognition. It now has the largest cattle herd in Amazonas and much of the virgin rainforest has gone, replaced with dozens of sprawling cattle ranches, dotted with white zebu cows and the occasional cowboy.
“In 30 or so years, we have gone from zero to 400,000 [heads of cattle],” boasted Onofre, president of the local ranchers’ association. “Nowadays, everybody says we have to preserve the forest, but when we arrived nobody knew we had to protect anything; we had to deforest. We chopped the trees down so we could feed our animals, our cattle.”
Amazonas remains by far the best preserved of Brazil’s nine Amazon states, with about 97 percent of its original forest cover intact. However, environmentalists and government officials fear the state’s southern limits are becoming a new frontier for deforestation, with ranchers and loggers looking to push north into the untouched forests.
Ibama president Curt Trennepohl admitted last week in an interview that “aliens” from other states had set their sights on the forests surrounding Boca do Acre and other towns in southern Amazonas. Ibama’s intelligence reports suggested that “people with a history of exploitation and involvement in illegal deforestation” were trying to move in, many of them from the lawless state of Para.
Recent years have brought positive news for defenders of the Amazon region. Between 2004 and 2009, deforestation fell from around 27,000km2 to 7,600km2, but in December last year Brazilian Minister of Environment Izabella Teixeira announced the lowest levels of deforestation on record, with about 6,451km2 of forest lost between August 2009 and July last year. The celebrations proved short-lived.
By last month, satellite images indicated that, while deforestation had continued to fall in some logging regions, among them Para, it was on the rise in better-preserved regions such as Amazonas. The images indicated that deforestation there soared by about 87 percent between August last year and February, compared with the same period a year earlier. Much of that was in Boca do Acre. Neighboring municipalities, such as Labrea, Apui and Novo Aripuana, also showed troubling levels of destruction.
“If the government is not present to revert this process ... then it is going to take over Amazonas state,” said Andre Muggiati, a Greenpeace campaigner based in Manaus.