RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil is deploying more than 8,500 troops to the far reaches of the Amazon rain forest this month in an operation aimed at cracking down on drug smuggling, gold mining, and illegal deforestation, officials said.
The troop mobilization sends a clear message ahead of the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development, which is scheduled to take place here in June, that Brazil is taking steps to assert greater control over its porous frontiers in the Amazon. Soldiers are being sent to border areas near Venezuela, Suriname, French Guiana, and Guyana.
“The Amazon is Brazil’s No. 1 priority from a strategic viewpoint, given its importance to humanity as a source of water, biodiversity and food production,” said Gen. Eduardo Dias da Costa Villas Boas, chief of the Amazon Military Command, in a telephone interview.
The operation, expected to last several weeks, showed its first results Thursday when officials announced the detection of 10 clandestine airstrips in the state of Roraima. The airstrips were being used for illegal mining operations on indigenous territory, Villas Boas said.
Defense Minister Celso Amorim, speaking before the Brazilian Senate in March, said the country was planning to increase its military presence in the Amazon over the next several years. “It’s the most vulnerable part of our country,” Amorim said. “We have a wealth of resources, which can make us the target of adventures.”
Sovereignty over the Amazon, about 60 percent of which is in Brazil, is a sensitive issue among Brazilians, with some military thinkers expounding on perceived threats to the region. The Amazon is also changing fast as it urbanizes; in Brazil, more than 20 million people live in the Amazon. Manaus, in the state of Amazonas, was Brazil’s fastest-growing city over the past decade.
In addition to scourges like illegal timber extraction and deforestation for producing pig iron, drug smuggling from neighboring countries has emerged as a big concern. In Amazonian cities like Belem do Para, usage of a cheap variety of crack cocaine has surged, alarming public health officials.
At the same time that lawmakers have carried out a contentious debate over legislation creating new rules for land use in the Amazon for agriculture and ranching, Brazilian military officials have reached out to neighboring countries in an effort to strengthen ties and share information.
For instance, Brazil forged a military agreement this year with Colombia enhancing cooperation along their border in the Amazon. Ahead of this month’s operation, Brazilian officials said they went to Venezuela, Guyana and Suriname, explaining to authorities in those countries that the deployment was intended to reinforce the government’s presence in some of Brazil’s most remote areas.
While Brazil emphasizes that relations are peaceful with all its neighbors, the military still deals with occasional flare-ups of instability in the Amazon.