A military unit created to protect the Brazilian Amazon from illegal logging appears instead to be providing security for construction of a new hydroelectric project - which locals and indigenous groups are opposing.
Directly after passing its overhaul of the forest code in October 2012, the Brazilian government created the National Force for Environmental Security to demonstrate the seriousness of its intention to protect remote regions of the Amazon.
The security force's goal was to assist the national department for the environment and natural resources, known as IBAMA, in its fight against illegal logging. Armed troops were sent to the Amazon in "Operation Green Wave," which was supposed to put illegal cattle grazers and soy producers behind bars.
But six months on, the forest protection army is being criticized for lackluster results, and for providing security for construction of a new hydroelectric plant.
Last November, the special unit arrested three people who illegally logged a 2.5- square-kilometer (1-square-mile) area in the massive state of Para. With assistance from the federal army, marines and air force, IBAMA seized 20,000 cubic meters of lumber and numerous tractors. It also imposed fines for illegal logging, totaling more than half a billion euros.
Despite these efforts, according to the Brazilian Institute for Space Research, deforestation in the Amazon increased by 26 percent from August 2012 to February 2013 in comparison with the same period in the previous year.
Some estimates say 1,700 square kilmeters of Amazonian rainforest have been destroyed since October 2012
Luciano de Meneses Evaristo of IBAMA responded that treeless areas are not necessarily deforested. "In 50 percent of the cases, upon arriving to the location, our team finds that it's covered in water, or mountainous," he told DW.
Regardless, the special unit's effectiveness continues to be debated. Recently, troops were deployed to guarantee the security of IBAMA researchers in Para, who are there to review the environmental impacts and technical viability of several hydroelectric dams in the region of the Tapajos River - one of the Amazon's largest tributaries.
The Brazilian security secretary said that due to strategic reasons, it wasn't able to divulge the exact number of soldiers on the ground. But it's estimated that about 240 men are in the region to protect the researchers - purportedly from attacks by indigenous groups.
Dams get priority
Critics see a strong contradiction in the security force's apparent environmental mission and providing security for dam-building. Two dams have already been constructed in the region, said Brent Millikan, director of the non-governmental organization International Rivers. "The prediction is that the new dam will inundate 20,000 hectares [200 square kilometers, or 70 square miles]," he said.
The new dams form key elements of a federal economic development program - which critics say is getting priority over the environment. Security forces were apparently deployed to prevent interference in dam work by the local population.
The Brazilian public prosecutor did, however, file an environmental lawsuit against construction of the dams. But the government successfully appealed the action, winning the right to continue with the project.
Millikan said that the local population wasn't consulted about the new hydroelectric projects planned for their region. He noted an incident in November 2012, where police killed an indigenous person during "Operation Eldorado." Since then, Millikan said, local tribes view any sort of act as an incursion, he added.
Meneses Evaristo of IBAMA said that "the Indians are confusing things," had acted aggressively in the Eldorado action, and continue to do so now. He claimed the indigenous people don't understand the dam proposal and the purpose of the troops there.
Millikan described how the indigenous groups sent a letter to the soldiers and researchers asking them to withdraw from the area. "They say they don't want war, but if the government insists on invading their territories, there will indeed be war."