Ângelo Rabelo founded Brazil’s now 10,000-person-strong “Forest Police” in 1987. Now he is working to broaden the duties—and impact—of the force to include environmental education, scientific research and endangered species protection.
The New Idea
From 1982, Ângelo Rabelo worked as a deputy police chief in the Pantanal region of the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. At that time, police action in the vast and lightly inhabited region was heavily preoccupied with combating the illegal activities of hide dealers and wild animal traffickers. Angelo formed and led an elite commando group that for the first time gave the state the chance to confront the extremely violent gangs whose tactic was to shoot to kill. In 1987, the state government recognized the permanent need for such a force and set up the country’s first “Forest Police” under Ângelo’s leadership. Since that time the model of setting up a separate force to protect the environment developed in Mato Grosso do Sul by Ângelo has, with his urging, been replicated through most of Brazil’s 26 states and has grown to be a truly national force of some 10,000 members.
Ângelo still sees the need to expand and strengthen the policing of the environment against the illegal activities of poachers and collectors, especially in the state of Amazonas, which is the most important state in Brazil not to have set up a “green force,” as Ângelo calls it. But through his years leading the force in Mato Grosso do Sul and in evangelizing for it nationwide, he has come to see another more urgent need—to transform the Forest Police into a multi-dimensional environmental agency that works for the environment in several important ways in addition to its traditional policing role. His new vision for the Forest Police includes training members as environmental educators, gatherers of scientific data on environmental conditions and monitors of the status of endangered and bellwether species. Seeing the need to fully articulate this transformed Forest Police to other environmental agencies, he is also systematically marketing his retooled force to public agencies, environmental nongovernmental organizations and donors, eco-tourism entrepreneurs, researchers and scientists. The net result will be the articulation of a vital new piece of the institutional puzzle of sustainable development in Brazil.
Late twentieth century human civilization is fouling its own nest with such vigor that it may be destroying itself. While scientists debate the fine points, there is no longer any question that a major civilizational change of course is required from one that over-consumes to one that finds a sustainable relationship with the natural environment. In hosting the 1992 “Earth Summit,” Brazil became the central focus of the growing concern to head off civilizational suicide. Brazil’s vast but threatened forests and wetlands became the symbol for a “last chance” for humanity to “get it right.”
Seen in this context, the real threat to the environment is not the illegal activities of the poacher or collector of endangered species. It is fundamental human attitudes about and resulting behavior toward the natural world in which we live. While it is necessary to confront and prohibit illegal predation, the urgent task is to change our fundamental relationship with nature to a sustainable one.
The problem of the human-environment interface is systemic and requires whole system solutions. There are many obstacles to this. The resources dedicated to the task are too few, typically overspecialized and certainly isolated from each other. Forest guards, for example, are “in the field” far more than many research scientists and have a better actual vantage point to monitor species status. But they are neither asked nor trained to do so—and they certainly don’t talk with field researchers. Naturalists study and honor species or habitats, but rarely find the language or means to connect their knowledge to changing social and economic patterns.
Ângelo’s strategy has three parts. First, he continues to expand and strengthen the Forest Police forces throughout Brazil, concentrating especially on environmentally vital states such as Amazonas, where large landowners have successfully opposed the creation of a green police thus far. Second, he is transforming existing forces into multidimensional environmental agencies. Third, he is marketing the retooled green police to other environmental actors as a key new resource toward the creation of a comprehensive network for environmental protection in Brazil.
The lynchpin of Ângelo’s vision is the transformation of existing Forest Police forces through training and demonstration projects. He began training his own force in Mato Grosso do Sul in 1991 with courses in environmental science and nature conservation. These courses were linked to new activities that demonstrated the vitality of the new knowledge for the forest guards. For example, his guards were sent to give slide shows and talk in schools about the importance of environmental protection. They also set up what have turned out to be hugely popular “Environmental Education Museums” in the wild, staged with materials apprehended from poachers and experienced through guided visits by forest guards who speak of their experiences and adventures and teach on how to protect the environment.
Always seeking to break down the separation between the Forest Police and communities and to raise the guards’ self-esteem and win recognition from society, Ângelo initiated a volunteer forest guard program supported by a high-visibility campaign using educational material, posters and billboards.
He also instituted a “Junior Forest Guard” campaign to bring together children from a favela neighboring a botanical garden who are responsible for depredation to its plant and animal life. When they were not in school, the children heard talks and received help with their homework, as well as beginning to participate actively in overseeing and defending the area. The project was so successful that it spread to parents and neighborhood associations in the region.
With the experience of the Forest Police of Matto Grosso do Sul to refer to, Ângelo is devoting the bulk of his energy to communicating his model to other forest police units around the country. To that end, he has run an increasingly popular national conference for the past three years and is using the conference as a base to develop joint activities by the different state forest police forces. He is also strengthening his networking with nongovernmental organizations, universities, environment secretariats and donors involved in the issue.
He sees new computerized technology—especially geographical information systems and Internet-based information aggregation and sharing capability—as an important tool to build a holistic environmental protection network in Brazil and is working to apply it in his own efforts.
In the longer term, he has his eye on developing permanent training institutions for forest police and the development of university degrees more appropriate to the environmental challenge before society.
Ângelo comes from a family of soldiers. In 1989, Ângelo was among the combat elite in the Brazilian military at the most dangerous and exciting posting a soldier could have at that time—hunting down the heavily armed poachers in the vast Panatanal wetlands. Then, as he was lying flat on a ledge looking for poachers, a bullet aimed for his head tore down through his shoulder and didn’t come out his back until it was halfway to his hip. During his convalescence, Ângelo was seconded to the Mato Grosso do Sul State Environment Secretariat for two years as director for environmental education, and it was there that he began a profound personal transformation from an effective tactical combat soldier and “leader of men” to an environmental educator and public entrepreneur.
“That bullet changed the course of my life,” says Angelo. “Without it,” he adds with characteristic self-irony, “I might not have learned a far more powerful way to fight for the environment.”