BRASILIA Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, under pressure over his stewardship of the Amazon rainforest, unveiled plans on Thursday to create three protected reserves covering an area the size of the U.S. state of Vermont.
In a speech marking World Environment Day, Lula said the steps aimed at combating a spike in deforestation would take time to work, and foreigners did not have the moral authority to tell Brazil how to manage the world's largest forest.
"It's not easy to discuss the environment, thinking that the mere creation of a law or a decree will solve the problem," he said.
"Sometimes a thing that seems so consensual can take two or three years to materialize because we have to respect institutions."
At least 23 million hectares (89,000 sq miles) of the rainforest are already protected. The new reserves in Para and Amazonas state would expand the area by 2.6 million hectares (10,000 sq miles).
Lula's proposal has to be approved by Congress and could face challenges in the Supreme Court.
The resignation last month of renowned Amazon defender Marina Silva as environment minister raised worries among environmentalists that Lula is siding with farming and industrial interests that want to develop the forest.
The measures were welcomed by Denise Hamu, the head of the World Wildlife Fund in Brazil, who said it was a positive step. Others were more skeptical.
"Is it important? Yes. Is it sufficient? No," said Mario Menezes of Friends of the Earth, adding that the government lacked a systematic approach to protecting the forest.
TOO MUCH CHOPPING
Deforestation of the Amazon is on course to rise after three years of declines, with figures for April released this week showing a startling 1,123 sq km (434 sq miles) of trees lost in the month. The worst months for forest loss are usually in the dry "burning season" around June to September.
About 7,000 sq km (2,700 sq miles) were lost between August and December last year, a sharp annualized increase from a total of 11,224 sq km (4,333 sq miles) in the year from August 2006.
The spike in deforestation rates late last year prompted Lula's government to deploy troops to crack down on illegal logging. New Environment Minister Carlos Minc this week launched an operation to impound cattle grazing on illegally cleared pastures.
But environmentalists say such measures often fail to have much impact due to the sheer vastness of the Amazon agricultural frontier and the strong incentive that higher global food prices have on farmers to clear new land.
Silva's resignation prompted strong criticism of Brazil's environmental policy by foreign environment groups, and Lula has bristled at what he sees as foreign interference.
"We want to share this discussion with everyone because I don't know if this government owns the truth," he said. "But it is important that when someone comes into our house they ask permission to open our fridge."
The government's line is that conservation and development, which includes plans for several large hydroelectric power plants, can go hand in hand.
"Our problem is that we are very far behind in both the conservation initiatives and the development initiatives that we need to undertake," Roberto Mangabeira Unger, minister for strategic affairs, told Reuters.
"But we now have a remarkable opportunity. This is the very first time in Brazilian history that the Amazon lies at the center of national attention," added Unger, who is coordinating the government's strategy to sustainably develop the Amazon.
(Additional reporting Todd Benson; Writing by Stuart Grudgings)