I met up with the special ops team in a sultry town on the southern edge of the Amazon. A group of officers, men and women, in black fatigues were relaxing in the shade of a majestic mango tree outside their offices.
They were smoking, chatting and, I noticed with a shiver of apprehension, carrying heavy black pistols slung casually on their thighs. Not what you’d imagine environment agents to carry, but these weren’t bureaucrats carrying clipboards – they were soldiers on the front line in what Brazil regards as a war, a war to protect the Amazon rainforest.
On a map pinned to the wall three commanders were working out strategies and logistics, just like a military operation. I was starting to feel anxious. “Are the loggers likely to be armed?” I asked, trying to hide the tremor in my voice.
“Don’t worry about guns,” Evandro Selva, the lead officer, told me dismissively. “They’re only likely to have hunting rifles. Nothing serious.”
Tide of destruction
For decades pretty much the only story we’ve heard from the Amazon is about the remorseless tide of destruction sweeping through the forest. The received wisdom has always been that it is unstoppable. It is certainly true that the economic logic of deforestation is powerful – land in the Amazon is worth far more if the trees are cut down. But I was here to discover the remarkable progress Brazil has made in silencing the chain saws.
My journey was to take me across the southern Amazon, the area the Brazilians call “the arc of destruction”. It is one of the last frontiers left on the planet: a grey area between civilisation and one of the world’s last true wildernesses.
For years it was a vision of hell. Vast fires swept through the forest while the chain saws whined, and the armoured tractors that loggers use to clear land roared as they grubbed up the roots of the great Amazonian trees.
As I set off with Evandro and his team, we could see the fruits of all this labour from our helicopter. We flew over vast open fields – some of them many kilometres square – that have been carved out of the virgin forest in the last decade or so.
Loggers flee the scene
An hour into our flight and Evandro signalled that we were nearing the target. Even I could tell the trees had been freshly cut. There were some still standing – tall, fragile-looking Brazil nut trees – but on the ground were great rough mounds of branches and brush. I could see open scars in the red earth where the machines had gouged their passage.
One of the officers pointed down. I saw a truck piled high with tree trunks and a tractor in front of it. Beside it were two, possibly three men.
The helicopter kicked up a storm of dust and dry leaves. The rotors seemed perilously close to the trees. I hung on tight. Then we were on the ground and running. The truck and tractor were still there but, of course, the culprits had fled. “They’ll be back,” said Evandro confidently. “We’ll just hide here and wait for them.”
The three officers hid among the logs and branches. I did the same. Meanwhile the helicopter flew off in another flurry of leaves and red earth.
How can this possibly stop the onslaught, I thought to myself. In the decade between 1996 and 2005 19,500km2 of jungle was lost every single year. I know the comparison is overused but that really is an area the size of Wales. It reached a peak in 2003 when more than 27,000km2 was lost. Then, in 2004, Brazil declared war: it said it would cut deforestation by 80 per cent by 2020.
Seven years later and it has almost reached its goal. The latest figures, released just weeks ago, show the year ending July 2011 had the lowest rates of deforestation since records began three decades ago – just over 6,200km2 was cut. That’s 78 per cent down on 2004: still an area about the size of Devon, but a huge improvement.
Of course the Brazilian government cannot claim all the credit. On my journey across the arc of destruction I met a bizarre cast of characters, all of whom are playing a role.
I went on patrol with the indigenous Amazonian Indians who have been recruited as “smoke jumpers”: forest fire-fighters. I was taken on a tour of one of the most efficient agricultural enterprises on the planet – an Amazonian soya farm – by the multibillionaire they call the “King of Soya” who now claims to be an environmentalist.
I even visited a condom factory in the jungle. It makes the world’s first rainforest-friendly rubbers – tens of millions of them – and is helping to create a sustainable industry from the forest by using latex harvested from wild rubber trees.
And I met John Carter, the Texan crocodile-wrestling ex-US Special Forces soldier turned Amazonian rancher, whose alliance of farmers is using the politics of persuasion to improve land management. John is very persuasive. I’m still amazed he managed to get me to swim with the crocodile in the river beside his ranch.
The crocodile in question was at least 6ft long, a black cayman, the largest predator in the Amazon. It was floating very still a dozen feet away but he assured me it would not attack. It was only once we were in the water that I thought to ask what we should do if the beast dived. “Get out quick,” he said.
Back at the logging site I was still hunched in the bushes. We’d been waiting half an hour when I heard a branch snap and suddenly the officers were up and running. “Para ai, para ai,” they shouted [stop right there].
In all, the officers arrested five men and impounded three trucks and two tractors. I’d been so nervous about confronting these guys but they seemed rather pathetic smoking roll-ups in their scruffy clothes. The agents, however, seemed very content with their haul.
The fact that there is still an illegal logging operation just an hour’s helicopter ride from a major Brazilian city shows that the huge pressure on the forest continues. But, extraordinary as it sounds, it really does seem as if the war to stop the destruction of Amazon rainforest – the greatest ecosystem on the planet – is being won.
What’s more, this is happening before it is too late, because what most people don’t realise is just how much of the forest is still standing. Satellite images confirm that almost 80 per cent of the Amazon remains intact. What an inspiring thought to begin the new year.
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 23 December 2011.
Justin Rowlatt investigates deforestation in Brazil in Crossing Continents, tomorrow at 11am on BBC Radio 4.
His report also features on Newsnight tonight at 10:30pm on BBC2.