Covert GPS tracking by environmentalists reveals methods used by illegal loggers in Amazon

Environmental activists in Brazil are using technology in an effort to stop illegal loggers from destroying even more parts of the world’s largest rainforest.

Activists working for the environmental organization Greenpeace have for months been carrying out the dangerous task of placing GPS trackers on the back of trucks driven by loggers in the Amazon and then tracking the circuitous nocturnal routes the environmental offenders take to get the illegally-harvested wood to port.

“Illegal logging can be hard to come to grips with. Logging happens deep in the forest, far from the eyes of the rest of the world,” wrote Richard George, a Greenpeace forest campaigner. “But all that is changing. Covert GPS tracking technology and satellite images means we can find out what loggers are really up to – and tell the world about it.”

What the activists found through their act of environmental espionage was an intricate, 200-mile system of routes and logging camps set up in the remote Brazilian state of Pará, where the loggers harvested precious hardwoods from government-owned and protected regions of rainforest before covertly hauling the wood on the back of trucks at night to the Amazon River port city of Santarém.

“The beacons had to be well-placed on the vehicle – hidden, but not so hidden so the signal was lost,” the leader of the Greenpeace operation in Brazil, who requested anonymity, told the Guardian in the U.K. “We had to work opportunistically, waiting for the best moments when the truckers were [distracted], talking to someone.”

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The wood is then shipped to the United States, Europe, China and Japan, where – thanks to false paperwork and other scams – the timber is pawned off as legal to buyers wary of breaking European and American laws banning the trade in illegal lumber.

“Companies trading in timber from the Amazon are taking a massive risk,” George said. “Until the Brazilian government brings the logging sector in the Amazon under control, buyers need to take responsibility for the wood they're buying, making sure it's been harvested legally and sustainably, or stop buying from high-risk regions like the Amazon.”

The work of the activists to track these timber truckers is inherently dangerous. As with any business that skirts the law, violence is common and the remoteness of the logging operations makes it even more difficult for law enforcement to monitor.

In neighboring Peru, authorities said last month that an outspoken opponent of illegal logging and three other Ashaninka indigenous community leaders were slain in a remote region bordering Brazil. The activist, Edwin Chota, had received frequent death threats from loggers he tried to expel from traditional Ashaninka lands.

“Everyone is afraid of something sometimes. But, even with fear, we wanted to expose that official papers are worth nothing in proving the legality of Amazon timber,” the Brazilian leader said. “We were convinced the operation would bring strong evidence of this silent crisis affecting the Amazon and its people.”

Greenpeace and Brazilian environmental authorities are hoping that the GPS and satellite technology will make it both safer to track down the loggers and harder for these criminals to carry out their business.

“Greenpeace’s research into timber companies transporting and receiving illegal timber demonstrates the necessity to improve the control and monitoring mechanisms to prevent illegal logging,” the Environmental Ministry (SEMA) office in Pará said in a statement.

A fifth of the Amazon has already been deforested thanks in large part to illegal logging and while crackdowns by the Brazilian government slowed the trend over the last decade, deforestation increased in 2013 by almost one-third due to a controversial law signed by President Dilma Rousseff that weakens legal protections in the Amazon.

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