IMAGE: LOGGED AMAZON FOREST
Alberto Cesar  /  Greenpeace via AP
Recently logged forest stands next to a soybean farm in Mato Grosso, Brazil, in this 2004 photo provided by Greenpeace. A crackdown on illegal logging Thursday focused on Mato Grosso state.
msnbc.com news services
updated 6/3/2005 8:58:07 AM ET 2005-06-03T12:58:07

Environmentalists were hopeful that Brazil is finally taking the destruction of the Amazon seriously, after federal police announced they had broken up the biggest illegal logging operation there ever.

A total of 89 people were arrested in the crackdown, nearly half of them from the government agency charged with protecting the forests from a ring that had illegally cut down an estimated $370 million of Amazon timber since 1990.

They included Hugo Jose Scheuer Werle, the head of the government agency, known as Ibama, in the state of Mato Grosso.

Slideshow: Paving the Amazon Werle is accused of accepting money from loggers in exchanges for documents declaring the wood was legally removed from the rainforest. According to federal police, Werle’s personal assets grew by $177,000 during the two years he headed the agency.

The sweep across six states suggested the government was finally reacting to environmentalists’ criticism that it had failed to act to save the Amazon after data showed an area of jungle larger than the U.S. state of New Jersey was cut down last year.

That deforestation was the second-highest level on record for the world’s largest tropical forest.

Unprecedented operation
Environment Minister Marina Silva said Thursday that the operation marked the beginning of constant monitoring by the police of Ibama’s anti-deforestation efforts.

“This is the result of an effort that has never been carried out by the Brazilian environmental sector before,” Silva told journalists.

Businessmen, loggers and 40 Ibama employees were among those arrested, federal police said.

“I am sure the decision to launch this plan now comes as a response to the deforestation figures,” said Paulo Adario, Greenpeace’s Amazon coordinator. “The initiative to carry out this operation is very important because it is part of cleaning up Ibama’s image.”

Four logging firms were also shut down in the sweep which concentrated on Mato Grosso, where just under half of last year’s deforestation took place.

Nurith Bensusan, coordinator of public policies at the World Wildlife Fund, said that two-thirds of all destruction in Mato Grosso last year was illegal. “If it can be controlled there would be a phenomenal impact on deforestation.”

The ring is one of the biggest criminal organizations in the country and is “made up of loggers and specialists in the illegal extraction and transport of timber who corrupted public officials at Ibama,” federal police said in a statement.

The government said it would suspend the transportation of felled tress in Mato Grosso for 30 days and would inspect all logging companies in Mato Grosso over the next 60 days.

Export permits falsified
The ring bribed officials at Ibama, Brazil’s main government body charged with environmental inspections and fighting illegal logging, to falsify permits that allowed it to transport Amazon timber to markets in Brazil and abroad.

“Worse than corruption is corruption which is not punished,” said Justice Minister Thomaz Bastos.

A government plan to sharply improve its ability to monitor the Amazon centers on expanding Ibama’s presence.

Adario said any attempt to get rid of corruption in Ibama would help that plan because in many places in the Amazon it was the only government agency.

“We want a stronger presence by the government in the Amazon,” he said.

Destruction of the Amazon rose to 10,088 square miles in 2003-2004 from 9,496 square miles a year earlier. Environmentalists blamed the destruction on an agricultural boom that has pushed farmers to seek more land to plant crops and graze cattle where forests once stood.

Often illegal loggers precede farmers into the forests, extracting wood for large profits and leaving the land bare.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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