High-tech smuggling operations may not be what you'd normally associate with the ongoing clearance of the Amazon rainforest, but logging companies intent on plundering it for timber have been using hackers to break into the Brazilian government's sophisticated tracking system and fiddle the records.
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, a state in northern Brazil, for example, 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.
At least, that's what's supposed to happen but Brazil's public prosecutor just released details of how hackers employed by 107 logging and charcoal companies have compromised the system, falsifying the 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 there is a history of criminal gangs targeting from banks and engaging in large-scale online fraud.
The result is that nearly 1.7 million cubic meters 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 (£558 million or US$ 833 million).
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 lawsuits pending for environmental crimes or the use of slave labour, amongst other things."
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 – and in total, 202 people are facing prosecution.
André Muggiati, a campaigner in Greenpeace's Amazon office in Manaus, revealed that they 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."
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% of their property but if the proposed changes are adopted, it will raise that to 50%. 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.
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 Greenpeace 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 problem.