RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) -- Environmental criminals in the Brazilian Amazon destroyed public forests equal the size of El Salvador over the past six years, yet the Federal Police -- the Brazilian version of the FBI -- carried out only seven operations aimed at this massive loss, according to a new study.
The destruction took place in state and federal forests that are "unallocated," meaning they do not have a designated use the way national parks and Indigenous territories do. According to official data, the Brazilian Amazon has about 580,000 square kilometers (224,000 square miles) of forests in this category, or an area almost the size of Ukraine.
As Brazil has repeatedly legalized such invasions, these public forests have become the main target for criminals who illegally seize land.
The study, from Igarapé Institute, a Brazilian think tank, analyzed 302 environmental crime raids carried out by the Federal Police in the Amazon between 2016 and 2021. Only 2% targeted people illegally seizing undesignated public lands.
The report says the lack of enforcement likely stems from the weak legal protection of these areas, in other words, the same problem that draws the illegal activity. Environmentalists have long pressed the federal government to turn these unallocated public forests into protected areas.
Since Brazil's return to democratic rule in 1985 after two decades of military rule, most successive governments have made moves to extend the legal protection, and today about 47% of the Amazon lies within protected areas, according to official data. Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, however, has repeatedly said the country has too many protected areas and stalled this decades-long policy.
In 2016, some 2240 square kilometers (865 square miles) of unallocated public land were illegally deforested. Last year, it reached almost double that amount. Over six years, the accumulated loss has reached some 18,500 square kilometers (7,100 square miles), according to Amazon Environmental Research Institute, or IPAM, based on official data.
Deforestation is increasingly taking place on these lands in particular. In 2016, they made up 31% of all illegally-felled forest. Last year, they reached 36%.
Almost half of Brazil's climate pollution comes from deforestation, according to an annual study from the Brazilian nonprofit network Climate Observatory. The destruction is so vast that the eastern Amazon has ceased to be a carbon sink, or absorber, for the Earth and has converted into a carbon source, according to a study published in 2021 in the journal Nature.
Igarape divides environmental crime in the Amazon into four major illicit or tainted activities: theft of public land; illegal logging; illegal mining; and deforestation linked to agriculture and cattle farming.
The enforcement operations were spread over many locations, 846, because most investigated deep into illegal supply chains. Nearly half were in protected areas, such as the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, which, despite a heavier police presence, suffers a growing invasion by thousands of illegal gold miners.
The Igarape study also pointed to an extensive "regional ecosystem of crime," since the police operations took place in 24 of Brazil's 27 states plus 8 cities in neighboring countries. "Environmental crime stems from illicit economies that access consumer markets and financing outside the Amazon," the report says.
The Federal Police didn't respond to an Associated Press email seeking comment about its strategy in the Amazon.