On the trail of the loggers pillaging the Amazon rain forest

An area of the Amazon rain forest which has been slashed and burned stands next to a section of virgin forest, as seen from a police helicopter during an operation against sawmills and loggers who trade in illegally-extracted wood from the Alto Guama River indigenous reserve in Nova Esperanca do Piria, Para State, September 29, 2013. Ricardo Moraes / Reuters
An aerial view shows a tract of the Amazon cleared by loggers and farmers for agriculture, near the city of Santarem, Para State, April 20, 2013. Nacho Doce / Reuters
A truck carrying a tree extracted illegally from the rain forest drives at night along a trail parallel to the Trans-Amazonian highway near the city of Uruara, Para State, April 20, 2013. Nacho Doce / Reuters

Brazil's government reported Thursday that annual destruction of its Amazon rain forest jumped by 28 percent after four straight years of declines, an increase activists said was linked to recent loosening of the nation's environmental law meant to protect the jungle.

The figures show 2,256 square miles of rain forest were felled between August 2012 and July 2013, compared to 1,765 square miles cleared the previous year. However, the destruction was still the second-lowest amount of jungle destroyed since Brazil began tracking deforestation in 1988.

In a series of trips deep into the Amazon this year, photographer Nacho Doce shadowed agents from Brazil’s environmental police force as they went in search of the loggers and wildcat miners who are illegally plundering the forest. 

A police officer inspects a tree illegally felled in Jamanxim National Park, near the city of Novo Progresso, Para State, June 21, 2013. Nacho Doce / Reuters
A man named Alejandro carries his chainsaw after illegally cutting down a tree from virgin Amazon rain forest inside the Jamanxim National Park, June 24, 2013. Nacho Doce / Reuters

In a post on Reuters' Photographers Blog this week, Doce described how he hiked through the forest with one of the agents, "listening to birds singing, breathing in that rich air, and looking at the trees that were so tall they blocked out the sky. They were so grand that the sight of them chopped down pained me in a way I can't describe."

One day, the sound of chainsaws pierced the serenity of the forest. They had found what they were looking for. Doce followed as the police raced towards the noise and apprehended three young men.

Police officers guard Alejandro after arresting him, June 24, 2013. Nacho Doce / Reuters

The expressions on the men's faces were of fright and disbelief at having been captured, Doce recalled.

"It occurred to me early on that the people we would find sawing and digging were really not to blame for their crime against nature," he wrote.

"They were born there, the former with chainsaws in their hands and the latter with shovels. But the people who paid them to commit these criminal acts were nowhere near. Who are they? Where do they live? What are their positions in society?"

"This is an ongoing criminal investigation, with a crime scene that just grows and grows."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

A tractor used to drag logs out of the rain forest burns after being destroyed by police on a raid to stop illegal logging in Jamanxim National Park, June 21, 2013. Nacho Doce / Reuters
A tree, which was illegally felled, lies on the floor of the rain forest in Jamanxim National Park, June 21, 2013. Nacho Doce / Reuters
Chainsaw operators (L-R) Andre, Antonio, and Alejandro pose after being arrested for illegally cutting down trees in virgin Amazon rain forest, June 24, 2013. Nacho Doce / Reuters
A sawmill worker processes trees illegally extracted from the Amazon jungle near the city of Morais Almeida, Para State, June 27, 2013. Nacho Doce / Reuters
Herders drive cattle, which were raised on pasture in a deforested part of the Amazon, along the Trans-Amazonian highway near the city of Uruara, Para State, April 25, 2013. Nacho Doce / Reuters


30,000 miles of Amazon roads built in just 3 years

Gold rush sparked by global financial crisis devastates Amazon

Slideshow: Dams rising across Brazil's Amazon