Deep In The Amazon, An Unseen Battle Over The Most Valuable Trees | KERA News

Deep In The Amazon, An Unseen Battle Over The Most Valuable Trees

Nov 4, 2015
Originally published on November 12, 2015 1:02 pm

In this part of the Amazon rain forest, they call it "the war over wood."

It has front lines.

One of them is here, in Machadinho d'Oeste in the western Brazilian state of Rondonia.

The self-described "Guardians of the Forest" defending the land don't look like fighters, at least when we first meet them. But they are pitting themselves against criminal logging gangs that have infiltrated their protected reserves.

In their everyday life, they are rubber tappers. They take us on a trail that leads to their rubber trees, which grow wild on the reserves where they live. These trees are native to the Amazon region, one of the most dangerous places in the world to be an environmental defender.

Tappers milk the trees for their sap by cutting them and collecting what comes out in small metal buckets. It's what natural rubber is made from, and it's completely sustainable. As long as the trees live, they can be used this way.

The rubber tappers use a whistle that mimics a local bird as they move from rubber tree to tree. They say they use it to disguise themselves in the forest so they won't startle the wildlife.

With us is tapper Antônio da Silva, age 88. He's been a tapper most of his life.

Antonio takes us up a steep, jungle-covered hill. I'm out of breath, but he pats his belly and quips that rubber tappers don't get fat because of daily workouts like these.

Back in the 19th century, Brazil's rubber trees were like gold — the only source of a precious commodity in a rapidly industrializing world. Brazil prospered on the back of them.

As da Silva recounts, a nefarious Englishman stole the seeds of the tree, and production moved to Asia, collapsing the industry in Brazil. Now, rubber tappers like him are granted the right to sustainably extract their livelihood from the forest. In return, they defend these protected areas from encroachment.

The next day, the rubber tappers look very different.

We are heading into a part of the Amazon rain forest that the rubber tappers call enemy territory. We are the first journalists they've taken into this part of the forest.

Our guides include Elizeu Berçacola, one of the rubber-tapper leaders. He's 49 and has an intense, frenetic energy. He's got a pistol tucked into his belt and his great-grandfather's rifle from 1906. The other men also carry a motley assortment of weapons.

Giselda Pilker is the opposite — she's kind of the peace-loving mother of this group. Her son is named John Lennon, after the member of the Beatles.

The tappers — seven of them in all — signal to one another when it's OK to proceed. We are having to stop and start all the time to make sure we won't come into sudden contact with illegal loggers.

These are criminal gangs who steal protected wood from the forest. As we move deeper into the jungle, we see signs that they've been here, everywhere.

The rubber tappers are having to hack branches and fallen logs out of our way.

The rubber tappers point out some of the more valuable tree species — the ones that are older, therefore bigger, the hardwoods like mahogany or ipe, also known as Brazilian walnut.

Illegal loggers send teams into the forest to identify these trees, and then they come in stealthily later and cut them down.

This, Berçacola explains, is how illegal deforestation begins. The forest is thinned of its biodiversity, picked apart tree by tree. What's worse, the illegal logging gangs take the seed-bearing trees, what the rubber tappers call the "mothers of the forest."

What's driving this is demand. This wood is lucrative and sells for thousands of dollars internationally. America is the largest export market for Brazilian timber.

The rubber tappers are trying to stop the illegal trade from happening, with patrols like the one we are on today. That's put them in direct conflict with what are essentially organized criminal groups.

As we move forward, Berçacola tells us — although we may not realize it — we are approaching the front lines.

"We rubber tappers are being hunted because we are trying to protect what you see around you," he tells me.

Sixteen rubber tappers in this area alone have been murdered in the past decade. One corpse was found stuffed into the burrow of a wild animal.

Berçacola is wearing a battered backpack that has three bullet holes in it. It's from a recent attempt on his life. His wife and children have left the state because of threats against them.

Giselda Pilker tells us how one rubber tapper was decapitated as a warning.

She says there isn't enough local law enforcement to protect the forest, so that's why they try to do it.

Technically, this kind of vigilantism is illegal, but the understaffed police turn a blind eye.

This area isn't the only one having armed conflicts. Indigenous groups have also been taking up arms in parts of the Amazon to fight for their ancestral lands.

We start moving again and we come across a wide dirt road that cuts through the green. The men tense up. They load their weapons in case of a confrontation.

Berçacola tells me what we've found is an illegal logging road — but unlike the other track we were on, this one is wide and smooth, an example of how well-used it is and how the illegal loggers operate with impunity. Berçacola tells us there are at least nine of these roads in this area alone.

This is illegal deforestation's ground zero.

We see piles of stacked logs that have been illegally cut, waiting to be taken out of the forest.

We creep up on foot toward a clearing. We are whispering to one another because we are not sure what we will find.

In just this one tiny part of one forest reserve in the Amazon, we discover three illegal logging camps. They don't look like much, but they can house teams of men that strip the forest down.

Most of the people who do the dirty work of illegal logging are actually the poorest of the poor. It's practically slave labor, backed up by shadowy gangs. The workers sleep out in the elements, and they are paid very little.

As we walk around one camp, we realize it's only been recently vacated. There are a few suitcases. We open them up, and inside we find very meager belongings: a couple of pairs of shorts, some toothpaste, a notebook and a few well-thumbed pornographic magazines.

Berçacola and his crew then set fire to the camps, to make sure they can't be used again.

As the camps burn, we suddenly realize we are not alone.

Pilker shouts out that she has spotted a motorbike coming toward us. We've been warned that the illegal loggers have scouts watching their camps.

The rubber tappers are startled, but they charge after the biker. They kneel down and take aim and fire. The crack of gunfire breaks the heavy silence of the jungle.

Luckily, it ends up being just the one scout on a motorcycle, and the tappers chase him off. Berçacola is pumped up and triumphant.

He explains it's been a good day and the group wants to continue their patrol. They say they are thrilled that they have managed to chase off people who are doing damage to the trees.

The euphoria, though, is fleeting.

While we are standing next to an illegally chopped down tree that's the color of blood, I ask Pilker, the rubber-tapper leader, what the future of the rain forest is. Her whole family lives off forest reserves like these.

She breaks down sobbing, tears tracking down her face like rain.

"We struggle so much to defend the land, we fight so hard," she tells me. "We die, so many have died to defend what you see here."

She says, simply, they are losing the fight.

"To cut down a tree is like cutting out a piece of us. No one does anything to save us," she says. "We people of the forest are peaceful. We don't want this war."

Valdemar Geo contributed reporting to this story.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have a report this morning on the shrinking rainforests of South America. The forests of the Amazon River basin are called the lungs of the world. They take in enormous amounts of carbon dioxide. They breathe out oxygen. They're so vital. And we have learned that a much-publicized effort to save the forest in Brazil is not working nearly as well as planned. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has spent two weeks in the Amazon, traveling through the forest. And she's on the line. Lourdes, how bad is it?

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Well, the rate of deforestation has gone down dramatically, actually, in Brazil. But, you know, we're losing 2,000 square miles of rain forest every year. And the main problem is not the sort of yearly averages that we hear about but how much forest we've lost over all and where. And when you look at those numbers, scientists that I've been talking to say the ecosystem could be at a point of no return.

INSKEEP: Where did you go to see that happening?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I went to the smallest Amazonian state of Rondonia. And I chose it because it's a microcosm of the issues at large. You can see the various stages of deforestation, the link between politics and what's happening on the ground, the environmental police and how understaffed they are. And it tells us a little bit also about the small players who are really important, some of whom are directly under threat. To get a picture of how deforestation affects people on the ground, I decided to travel into the jungle on a patrol with the so-called guardians of the forest. No journalist has ever made this trip with them before.

It's a pretty bumpy ride.

We're traveling with a group of rubber tappers in the back of a beat-up pickup truck, bouncing over a rough, overgrown track. We're heading into a part of the Amazon rain forest that the rubber tappers call enemy territory.

They say if there's a problem at any time, basically we withdraw as speedily as we can.

Tappers survive by taking the sap from rubber trees, which are native to the Amazon. They live in protected Amazon reserves, like the one we're in now, peacefully surviving off the forest. But today, they're on a different mission.

ELIZEU BERCACOLA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Our guides are Elizeu Bercacola, one of the rubber tapper leaders...

BERCACOLA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's got an intense, frenetic energy.

GISELDA PILKER: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Giselda Pilker is the opposite. She's the kind of peace-loving mother of the group. Her son is named John Lennon, after The Beatles. The tappers - and there are seven of them in all - signal to one another when it's OK to proceed.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Whooping).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Whooping).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We're having to stop and start all the time to make sure that we won't come into sudden contact with illegal logging groups, criminal gangs who steal protected wood from the forest. As we move deeper into the jungle, we see signs that they've been here everywhere. The rubber tappers are having to hack branches and fallen logs out of our way. I'm interpreting what the rubber tappers are telling me in Portuguese.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "These trees were thrown down by illegal loggers to stop them from being able to move in and track what they're doing."

The rubber tappers point out some of the more valuable tree species, the ones that are older, therefore bigger, the hardwoods.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "These illegal loggers, they send teams into the forest to identify these trees so they know where they are. And then they come in stealthily later and cut them down."

And he says that is the first wave of invasion into the forest.

BERCACOLA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "This," Elizeu explains, "is how illegal deforestation begins."

The forest is thinned of its biodiversity, picked apart tree by tree. What's worse, they take the seed-bearing trees, what the rubber tappers call the mothers of the forest. What's driving this trade is demand. Rare Amazonian wood is lucrative. And America is the largest export market for Brazilian timber. The rubber tappers are trying to stop the illegal trade from happening with patrols like the one we're on today. That's put them into direct conflict with what are essentially organized criminal groups, which means the rubber tappers today are armed.

Carrying machetes, pistols, rifles.

Elizeu has a pistol tucked into his belt and his great-grandfather's rifle from 1906. The rain forest here thrums with life. It's cool and wet. But despite the calm of the surroundings, the men are watchful.

BERCACOLA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Elizeu tells us although we may not realize it, we're approaching the front lines.

BERCACOLA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "We rubber tappers," he says, "are being hunted because we're trying to protect what you see around you." He tells me 16 rubber tappers in the area, called Machadinho d'oeste in the Brazilian state of Rondonia, have been murdered in the past decade. Elizeu's wearing a battered backpack that has three bullet holes in it. It's from a recent attempt, he says, on his life.

PILKER: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Giselda Pilker, who isn't carrying a gun, describes how one rubber tapper was decapitated as a warning. She says there isn't enough local law enforcement to protect the forest. So that's why they try and do it. Technically, this kind of vigilantism is illegal. But the understaffed police turn a blind eye. We start moving again, and we come across a wide dirt road that cuts through the green. The men tense up. They're loading their weapons in case of a confrontation.

Elizeu tells me what we found is an illegal logging road. But unlike the other track we were on, this one's wide and smooth, an example of how well-used it is and how the illegal loggers operate with impunity. Elizeu tells us there are at least nine of these roads in this area alone. This is illegal deforestation's ground zero.

So we're just driving down this road. And there's a big pile of logs that have been stacked on the side of the road, ready to be taken out of the forest.

And we see dozens of these piles. We get out of the car. There are felled trees everywhere.

So these logs are really thick. They're 30 feet long. They're stacked up on the side of the road. The rubber tappers are telling us that the illegal loggers will probably be back very soon to pick them up on the back of trucks and take them to the mills in town.

We creep up on foot towards a clearing.

We have to be very quiet.

In just this one tiny part of one forest reserve the Amazon, we discover three illegal logging camps.

Basically, it's a tarp over a couple of holes, a place to eat. There's no one here right now, though.

It looks like they just left, and it's making us all jumpy. Elizeu starts rifling around.

So he's opening some of the suitcases that have been left here. And it's pretty sad what's inside, a couple pairs of shorts, some toothpaste, a notebook, very meager belongings.

BERCACOLA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "A lot of the people who do the dirty work of illegal logging are actually just the poorest of the poor. It's practically slave labor. They sleep out here in the elements. They're paid very little."

Elizeu and his crew set fire to the camps to make sure they can't be used again. Smoke billows into the air. Suddenly, we're not alone.

PILKER: (Shouting in Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Giselda spots a motorbike coming towards us. We've been warned that the illegal loggers have scouts watching their camps.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: This way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This way.

We try and hide, but the rubber tappers, headed by Elizeu, charge after the biker, firing their weapons.

(GUN SHOTS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Shouting in Portuguese).

(GUN SHOTS)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So we're leaving now because when there's one, more will follow.

It ended up being just the one scout on a motorcycle. And the tappers chased him off.

BERCACOLA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Elizeu is pumped up and triumphant. It's been a good day, he says. And the group decide to continue their patrol alone. These rubber tappers say they are fighting what they call the war over wood. I asked Giselda, the rubber tapper leader, what the future of the rain forest here is. Her whole family lives off of reserves like these. She broke down sobbing. She says they're losing the fight.

PILKER: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "We struggle so much to defend the land. We fight so hard," she tells me. "We die. So many have died to defend what you see here."

PILKER: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "To cut down a tree is like cutting out a piece of us. No one does anything to save us," she says. "We people of the forest are peaceful. We don't want this war."

PILKER: (Speaking Portuguese). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.