Staff at the federal prosecutor's office surrounded by legal documents relating to the hacking fraud
To monitor the amount of timber leaving the Amazon state of
Pará, the Brazilian environment ministry did away with paper
dockets and two years ago introduced an online system. Companies
logging the rainforest for timber or charcoal production are only
allowed to fell a certain amount of timber every year and this is
controlled by the use of transport permits issued by the state
government's computer system.
To be exported from Pará, each shipment of timber requires one
of these transport permits, and the volume of timber in each
shipment is deducted from the total amount allowed under the
company's forest management plan. Once that amount is reduced to
zero, no more transport permits are issued so there's no profit in
felling more trees.
Brazil, the world's "hacking capital"
At least, that's what's supposed to happen. But today the public
prosecutor will release details of how hackers employed by 107
logging and charcoal companies have compromised the system,
falsifying online records to increase the timber transport
allocations for certain areas of the forest. In the past, Brazil
has been called the world's
hacking capital and has a
history of criminal gangs hacking into bank computer systems to
engage in large-scale online fraud.
Hacking has led to 1.7million cubic metres of timber being
illegally smuggled out of Amazon
The result of the Amazon hacking scandal is that nearly 1.7
million cubic metres of illegal timber have been smuggled out of
the Amazon, enough to fill 780 Olympic-sized swimming pools. The
sums of money involved are also huge, and the public prosecutor is
suing the companies responsible for 2 billion reais (US $833m).
According to federal prosecutor Daniel Avelino, many of these
companies have a track record of illegal practices: "Almost half of
the companies involved in this scam have other law suits pending
for environmental crimes or the use of slave labour, amongst other
Investigation started in April 2007
Police started investigating the suspect hackers in April 2007,
swooping in a couple of months later to arrest 30 ring leaders. One
is still in jail - the intermediary who brought the hackers and the
loggers together - in total, 202 people are facing prosecution.
André Muggiati, campaigner in our Amazon office in
Manaus, told me they have flagged up potential security holes in
the past. "We've pointed out before that this method of controlling
the transport of timber was subject to fraud. And this is only the
tip of the iceberg, because the same computer system is also used
in two other Brazilian states."
"By hacking into the permit system, these companies have made
their timber shipments appear legal and compliant with the forest
management plans. But in reality, they're trading illegal timber
which is making the problem of deforestation worse, and a lack of
control and policing in the areas they're logging means they think
they can get away with it."
Scandal comes as Brazilian national congress prepares to vote
on forest code
If this scandal weren't bad enough, it comes as the Brazilian
national congress prepares to vote on a change to the country's
forest code which could massively increase the amount of legal
logging that will be allowed.
At the moment, land owners in the Amazon are able to clear trees
from 20 per cent of their property but if the proposed changes are
adopted, it will raise that to 50 per cent. Given the contentious
nature of land ownership in the region, no one knows exactly the
damage this will cause but as deforestation rates are once again on
the increase, it's certain to push them up even further.
Brazil must adopt a zero deforestation plan
This scandal of loggers and hackers just demonstrates that the
Brazilian government is failing to protect the Amazon forest from
logging companies determined to break the law. If the rainforest is
to have any long-term future, the only answer is to adopt a
zero deforestation plan, like the one we and other campaign
groups think is needed, setting ambitious targets to bring
deforestation under control. Otherwise illegal logging and
corporate fraud such this will continue to be a massive
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