RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil, May 29, 2008 — -- 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.
The cattle rancher who was accused of ordering the killing was recently released following a retrial. The acquittal caused outrage among Stang's family members and human rights activists, and left many questioning the transparency of the Brazilian justice system.
Many other activists have been forced into hiding, having fled death threats from landowners.
One man in Tailandia -- who gave his name as Joao -- painted a distressing picture of his existence. He works under difficult conditions; searing heat while making charcoal in one of the town's illegal ovens.
"We're all afraid of being killed," he said. "We live in fear from one hour to the next of having our lives and our families' lives taken. It's very dangerous here."
The mayor of Tailandia, a logger himself, is said to enjoy popularity among the workers, despite whispered accusations by locals that he, too, has threatened those who come up against his business interests.
Under the guard of the federal and military police, employees from Brazil's national environment agency have to assess which wood is logged legally and which illegally.
Officers clutching tape measures and working under the unwelcome gaze of the sawmill workers climb tree trunks and check documents for falsification. Faking documents to produce a land ownership certificate for clearing forests is a common practice in these parts.
For years, environmentalists have complained vociferously about the absence of security forces to stop corruption at the local government level.
But Para state has long had an issue with corruption. The state governor, Ana Julia Carepa, said that local officials and loggers should be punished for corrupt practices.
"We're not afraid of cutting into our own flesh," Carepa told ABC News. "These are public officials who need to be arrested to combat these unlawful acts."
Since then, police have confiscated 15,500 tons of illegally felled wood and imposed fines of $25 million. The confiscated wood is taken away for auction and the proceeds go to fund environmental protection projects.
But recent reports out of Tailandia indicate that the loggers are back in business and the logging continues.
The justice ministry recently claimed that deforestation had dropped significantly since Arc of Fire was launched, but environmentalists point to simple timing as an explanation: Logging falls off in February and March because of the wet season.
Satellite footage provided by Brazil's National Space Research Institute offers a far bleaker picture with evidence pointing to an alarming growth of deforestation in the Amazon, despite the authorities' best efforts.
The recent resignation of environment minister Marina Silva was interpreted by many observers as further indication that the government was failing in its battle to save the Amazon. Nicknamed the Guardian of the Amazon, Silva fought long and hard in the capital of Brasilia to get more financing and more support to carry out her work. Eventually, the constant political pressure caught up with her.
The newly sworn-in environment minister, Carlos Minc, has vowed to continue the fight and take a tough stance against environmental crimes. Minc has said he will ask for the Brazilian army to be mobilized to protect the Amazon and has already angered the country's soybean farmers in Mato Grosso state, claiming that more forests have been destroyed for their plantations, which the farmers angrily deny.
Such failures to properly manage the Amazon have led some politicians and environmentalists to question the Brazilian government's ability to look after one of its most precious commodities.
Brazilians are sensitive about their ownership of the Amazon. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore famously enraged the nation in 1989 when he said, "Contrary to what Brazilians think, the Amazon is not their property. It belongs to all of us."
A recent article in The New York Times titled 'Whose Rain Forest Is This, Anyway?" also provoked waves of controversy and prompted the Brazilian president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, to retort this week that "The Amazon has an owner and that owner is the Brazilian people."
Lula also made a point of saying that it was often other countries that top the list of the world's worst polluters, and it was those same countries that were most concerned with the preservation of the rain forest, an indirect jab aimed at U.S. critics of Brazil's environmental policies.
"There are many countries that have not taken care of their environmental situations," Claudio Maretti, conservation director for WWF-Brazil, told ABC News.
"We do believe there is a co-responsibility, but the world is organized around nation-states. But we don't discuss the sovereignty of the states in relation to environmental issues; we discuss shared responsibilities. We need governments and social and political forces to press Brazil to be more responsible but not to question its ownership. The Amazon is part of Brazil, and Brazil must be responsible for it."
Part of the issue is the Amazon's vast territory. The forest covers about 1.6 million square miles, a little less than 60 percent of Brazil's land mass. Its sheer size makes it extremely difficult -- some would say impossible -- to police.
"There are a lot of illegal activities that involve land-grabbing and one sign that the land is being occupied is deforestation," Maretti said. "We need to set up protected areas that are not defined as yet on the map."
The concerns are mounting. Although Brazil has signed the Kyoto treaty, which is intended to reduce greehouse gases, it is the sixth-highest producer of carbon emissions in the world. Most of this is blamed on deforestation and environmentalists say that deforestation alone contributes to 25 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, about 10 percent more than that produced by factories or transportation.
This is where, according to scientists, the Amazon plays a vital role in preserving the earth from the full onslaught of climate change.
The forest acts as a sort of thermostat, helping to produce rain and cooling the overall global temperature. It then absorbs the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by photosynthesis. This delicate system is disrupted by "the slash and burn" process: Not only are the carbon-dioxide-absorbing trees chopped down, but they are then burned, giving off more carbon.
Also, the Stern Review on the economics of climate change warned of dire consequences if the issue continued to go unchecked. Carbon emissions have raised global temperatures by 1 degree in the past 50 years, according to the report.
The effect of this has already caused polar icecaps and glaciers to melt, according to the report, with the potential for severe flooding in the future that would displace millions of people. Although the impact is hotly debated, Stern attributes increases in extreme weather activity, such as heat waves and heavy tropical storms, to global warming.
The report also argues that poorer countries will be the worst affected, which could dampen the global economy and leave many more people in the developing world further impoverished.
The Amazon debate continues to dominate the headlines. Brazilian officials are well aware of their responsibility in the fight against global warming but argue that to question their sovereignty over the Amazon is obstructive.
But as the figures continue to confirm the worst, Brazil is likely to have an increasingly difficult time convincing the international community that it is using every measure at its disposal to protect its ecological treasures.