Forest Forces: Technology and Community-based Forest Crime Prevention in the Brazilian Amazon

Completed initiative

Published January 2019

The trunks of illegally logged trees in Brazil, waiting to be transported down river.

Illegal logging threatens many timber species in Brazil. Credit: Wilson Dias/Agência Brasil

Brazil experiences the greatest rate of deforestation: about one football pitch of rainforest per minute. Globally, Brazil has the highest number of land and environmental defender murders, with a high proportion of crimes committed in the Brazilian Amazon, where gunmen threaten and kill resistance against illegal logging.

With the aid of technology, this initiative exemplifies how local forest protection, even in remote areas without electricity and telephone, can be carried out effectively and inexpensively by supporting communities with access to trusted law enforcement actors. The model can be replicated in other areas, especially in indigenous and other protected areas with GPS borders.



The Brazilian Amazon.

The poaching and wildlife trade problem

Species affected Timber Species

Products in trade

High-value timber species such as Ipe (Brazilian walnut), that are commonly exported and used for flooring, decking, exterior lumber, veneer.

Overview of the problem

Illegal wildlife trade not only concerns fauna, but also flora, such as tropical hardwoods, and occurs particularly in the tropics, where a substantial part of logging and deforestation is illegal. Satellite data from 2017 illustrates global deforestation occurring at the rate of 40 football fields per minute. Annually, this corresponds to forest loss the size of Italy.

Brazil experiences the greatest rate of deforestation: about one football pitch of rainforest per minute. In 2017, the country lost 4.5 millions of hectares of forest, three times more than DR Congo, and the country ranked second in terms of deforestation. Brazil also ranks high in terms of forest-crime related murders. Globally, Brazil has the highest number of land and environmental defender murders, with a high proportion of crimes committed in the Brazilian Amazon, where gunmen threaten and kill resistance against illegal logging.

Organized criminal groups in the Amazon rainforest illegally harvest trees which they sell on the (international) market and try to stay immune from the law by using threats, violence, fraud, and corruption. 

Indigenous Territories are regularly subject to trespassing by loggers or gold prospectors. Illegal loggers seek large, high-value timber trees such as “ipé”, which is commonly exported. 

Brazil’s forest protection system is satellite and GPS oriented – this sophisticated rapid-response satellite system can automatically detect and locate large-scale deforestation. Perpetrators have, however, adapted to the satellite enforcement system, by shifting to small-scale deforestation, acting during the night and more frequently during the rainy season, when clouds block the view of the main satellites.

The anti-IWT initiative

While international agreements and regulations exist to stop deforestation in the Amazon, the reality on the ground is that illegal logging (for timber) and deforestation (for agriculture) continue. In 2014, in order to compensate for the lack of local forest monitoring, we set up a project of GPS forest community watch on some hotspots of illegal logging and continued deforestation for soy in Brazil’s Para state, known for its high (illegal) deforestation rates and high levels of violence against forest community leaders.

Traditional communities in the Amazon often fall victim to deforestation, but their presence in rainforests also offers opportunities for forest crime prevention. The so-called “crime drop” that several western countries have experienced is explained by an increased security and decreased opportunities for crimeSituational crime prevention, often by non-law enforcement actors, has reduced crime opportunities and led to drops in various types of crime.

This poses the potential for a rainforest equivalent to be developed with the use of local intelligence to detect and prevent forest crime opportunities.

This is a pilot project aimed to test whether remote forest communities would take GPS-referenced pictures of illegal forest activities to law enforcement and justice actors, located in a distant town. 

In 2014, we distributed some waterproof GPS cameras among forest communities, including indigenous people, that live near deforestation hotspots.

Those who did not have access to electricity and mobile phone network were given power banks and portable solar chargers. GPS pictures of illegal logging and deforestation or land grabbing allowed local people to collect information without fear of reprisal by the illegal loggers. Photographic evidence was passed onto the local law enforcement agency, which welcomed the possibility of receiving and using these GPS pictures as possible proof and so they could then take appropriate action. 

The strategy

Strengthening disincentives for illegal behaviour

Non-monetary, in-kind incentives for community intelligence
Strengthening and supporting traditional norms and sanctions against IWT
Further detail

Waterproof GPS cameras were distributed among forest communities that live near deforestation hotspots. GPS pictures of illegal logging and deforestation or land grabbing are being taken and collected. Para’s Prosecutor’s Office has welcomed the possibility of receiving and using these GPS pictures as possible proof. GPS pictures have already helped forest communities. For example, in 2016 they enabled Chief Dada to present GPS pictures as evidence of illegal logging in their territory. The authorities consequently fined a timber company.

Has the initiative made a difference?

Over three years, positive results have been shown in some, but not all, of the five communities.

The field experiment was very effective in the only indigenous territory, which was expected because Brazil’s Indigenous Territories have invisible GPS-borders, with outsiders not permitted to enter without permission.

A GPS-camera allowed a twelve-member surveillance team of Maró Indigenous Territory to collect GPS-evidence of illegal activities within their territory. The chief, Odair “Dadá” Borari, brought pictures with GPS-coordinates to the Environmental Inspection Agency, IBAMA (Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources), in Santarém, Pará. The pictures showed stocks of logs and buildings of timber companies with GPS coordinates suggesting their location inside Maró Indigenous Territory. When GPS-coordinates were entered into IBAMA’s satellite system, IBAMA’s satellite pictures confirmed the location of the crime spot, showing the same timber stocks and buildings. This led to helicopter surveillance being initiated the same day to confirm the spot and hence the illegality. Eight logging concessions were canceled and several timber companies were expelled from Maró Indigenous Territory, with impacts for long-term deterrence of illegal logging.

What works and why

Success was dependent on the level of community organisation and leadership. 

Factors for success

Supportive, multi-stakeholder partnerships with a shared vision

Effective and trusted community leaders

Further detail

Cooperation and support from trusted law enforcement agents was essential.


Factors that limited or hindered success

Ineffective and/or untrustworthy community leaders

Organisers, donors and partners

Financially supported by crowd funding of alumni of Utrecht University.

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