Alarm Bells Sound for the Amazon

At a remote sawmill in Tailandia, an Amazonian backwater, a crowd of police and environmental agency officers gathered recently. This was the beginning of a grass-roots clampdown on illegal loggers in Brazil.

The operation, known as Arc of Fire, is no ordinary surge: It's a battle launched urgently to save the diminishing rain forest of the Amazon.

Brazil had managed to reduce the rate of deforestation in the past three years, a trend that showed signs of reversing in the last five months of 2007.

In that time alone, about 1,250 square miles of the Amazon -- an area roughly the equivalent of Rhode Island -- were cleared, a huge spike for that time of year. Then, in January 2008, new statistics from environmental agencies estimated that the deforestation climbed more than 30 percent for the month.

Tailandia was one of the first places the authorities targeted.

It's a small, impoverished town, cloaked with the pungent smell of rotting wood and smoke. Most of its inhabitants survive by logging, making charcoal or by cattle-ranching. It is not a place where environmentalists -- or journalists -- are welcome. Both are regarded as troublemakers.

The most common reasons to clear the land are cattle-ranching, logging and agriculture, in particular soybean cultivation.

Brazil's land mass and farming industry make it one of the most agriculturally productive countries in the world. It has already been dubbed "the world's feeding bowl" and is exporting more and more to emerging economies, such as India and China.

As China's middle-class continues to grow, so, too, does its demand for food. Brazil exports 10 million tons of soybeans to China a year for both animal feed and human consumption, trade that is crucial to Brazil's economic development.

Farming and other activities, including illegal mining and controversial dam projects, have already destroyed 20 percent of the Amazon, according to WWF-Brazil, the conservation organization formerly known as the World Wildlife Fund.

In February 2008, just before Arc of Fire was launched, loggers in the town of Tailandia rioted, making it impossible for environmental agency workers to begin the crackdown. The loggers burned tires and attacked buildings, fearing the loss of their livelihoods if logging practices were brought to an end.

"We'll be unemployed," one logger, who declined to be named, told ABC News. "People here live off logging. When this stops everyone will feel the effect."

And it's not just poverty that's an issue.

The state of Para has some of the worst human rights abuses in Brazil. People are trafficked from across the impoverished northeast of the country to work in slavelike conditions in the sawmills, illegal charcoal ovens and cattle farms.

They usually work in horrific conditions, with no basic rights and existing on roughly $5 a day. If they try to seek help from the authorities, they are threatened with death.

Ecologists are viewed with extreme suspicion, and they risk their lives coming up against loggers and ranchers.

Environmentalists have tried to blow the whistle on the illegal deforestation and the widespread abuse of human rights that accompanies it. One such environmentalist, Dorothy Stang, was murdered in 2005 for her work in Para. The U.S. nun was killed for drawing attention to the workers' living conditions and highlighting the environmental damage caused by the loggers.

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