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Plots of Amazon rainforest illegally sold through Facebook ads

As deforestation becomes an increasingly pertinent issue for the Amazon rainforest and its indigenous peoples, a new exposé reveals plots of land are being illegally sold through Facebook ads.

Recently, it seems every passing week throws out a new troubling story about threats to the Amazon’s biodiversity and its indigenous peoples.

Forced to contend with the worst wildfires in a decade over the last two years, and facing the potential bulldozing of national parks to accommodate a 94-mile highway, rights groups in Brazil are at constant odds with the government over how best to confront a pandemic of the region’s own variety: deforestation.

The Amazon is now facing the grim possibility of irreversible damage. In-fact, the WWF estimates that more than a quarter of the rainforest will be without trees by 2030 if the current rate of deforestation remains unchanged.

Ecological matters are handled guardedly by President Jair Bolsonaro and his right wing constituency as they aim to tackle issues internally, but an alarming exposé from the BBC this week is likely to take the matter beyond the borders of Brazil.

Illegal plots sold on Facebook

An investigation from the BBC has uncovered a marketplace for the illegal sale of plots of land within the Amazon rainforest, the sellers brazenly popping up in classified ads on Facebook’s Marketplace feature.

The BBC suggests that a quick search of Portuguese buzzwords meaning ‘forest,’ ‘native jungle,’ and ‘timber’ within the search tool returned illegal listings for plots of land in protected areas – with many of them reserved to shield indigenous communities.

Often featuring satellite images and GPS co-ordinates, sales for areas covering the equivalent span of 1000 football pitches were either active or had closed. Those making the sales of up to $35,000 were without the necessary titles to prove ownership of land under Brazilian law.

With deforestation at a 12-year high within the region, the risk of being penalised for invading land and torching it to eventually create lucrative farmlands or cattle ranches is incredibly low. Therefore, those with shady business aspirations now view the rainforest as a huge investment opportunity.

A common strategy is to deforest land and then plead with politicians to abolish its ‘protected status,’ on the basis it no longer serves its original purpose. Worryingly, this seems to work very well too.

Many of the classified ads the BBC discovered originated from Rondonia, the state with the highest levels of deforestation in the country. One particularly upsetting listing showed a plot available for the price of $16,400 within the Uru Eu Wau Wau reserve, which happens to house several ingenious groups that have been completely untouched by modern civilisation for centuries.

Welcomed by an indigenous group with an understanding of the outside world, the BBC showed community leader Bitate Uru Eu Wau Wau the listings on Facebook Marketplace.

‘I don’t know these people. I think their objective is to deforest the indigenous land, to deforest what is standing. To deforest our lives, you could say.’

Obliged to protect his people, he pleaded for local authorities to intervene, and also urged Facebook – ‘the most accessed social media platform’ – to take action of its own.


Facebook’s response

Pleading ignorance to the fact this content was proliferating on its platform, a spokesperson for Facebook claimed it is willing to work with authorities in Brazil to provide incriminating evidence and to stop illegal trading on Facebook. Though it has warned that local judiciaries will have to do most of the leg work.

What this hopefully will do is wake Facebook up to the fact that its content needs to be better regulated. So long as you’re providing a place for people to connect, you have a level of responsibility to keep users safe and to monitor for nefarious activity. Those who currently use Facebook Marketplace will probably notice some wholesale changes soon.

As for the local response in Brazil, it’s safe to say people aren’t exactly holding their breath. Ecological issues have never been at the forefront of Jair Bolsonaro’s constituency.

Given the erratic behaviour (and arguably anti NGO posturing) that saw the government’s Ministry of Environment cut all funding to combat illegal deforestation last year – for all of three hours before reversing the decision – it would be a surprise to see any genuine push to thwart deforestation now.

If we’re to protect the sanctity of the Amazon rainforest, its rich biodiversity, and native peoples, quite frankly we have to see drastic action soon. As local activist Ivaneide Bandeira rightly states, ‘Never, in any other moment in history has it been so hard to keep the forest standing.’


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