BRASILIA Brazil's environment minister led a crackdown on illegal timber businesses in the Amazon on Thursday, displaying force after loggers ransacked government offices and escaped with contraband wood.
Environment Minister Carlos Minc shut down two saw mills in the city of Paragominas in the northern state of Para and impounded 3,000 cubic meters (105,900 cu ft) of tropical wood, which would roughly fill up to 150 trucks. He was flanked by police officers and environmental protection agents.
The move is part of the government's uphill battle to try to break the supply chain of illegal wood cut by tens of thousands of loggers, ranchers and farmers and consumed by millions of people in Brazil and abroad.
On Sunday a mob in Paragominas ransacked offices of the environment agency Ibama, torched its garage, stole trucks with confiscated logs, and used a tractor to break down the entrance of the hotel where the government agents stayed. The stolen wood has still not been found.
"These acts (of vandalism) won't remain unpunished. Everything is impounded and the environmental criminals will be punished," Minc said after visiting saw mills, where illegal tree trunks logs were hidden in the thicket of the forest.
Minc ordered the owner of one of the saw mills to pay a fine of 1.3 million reais for having bought tree trunks from a nearby native Indian reservation, where logging is prohibited.
"They pay off Indians to get the wood out," Francisco Antonio da Silva, Paragominas town hall secretary, told Reuters.
"Unfortunately there are still loggers who don't obey the law, but they are the minority," he said.
Deforestation rates have slowed in recent years but huge swathes of the world's largest rain forest are still chopped down each year.
Since taking office as minister in May, Minc has cracked down on illegal cattle ranchers and soy farmers advancing into the forest. He also signed agreements with meat packers and saw mills not to buy meat and timber from illegally logged areas.
But critics say Ibama still lacks proper financing and staffing and that that big government infrastructure projects such as hydroelectric dams actually promote deforestation.
The government will announce its annual Amazon deforestation rate on Friday.
(Editing by Sandra Maler)