Brazil unable to curb Amazon destruction: enviros

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazil’s government is unwilling and unable to halt destruction in the Amazon rainforest despite emergency measures it announced last week to curb rising deforestation, environmental experts say.

Farmer Jose Timoteo rubs his eyes while surveying land that was deforested for agricultural use, near the town of Pacaraima, 10 kilometers (six miles) from the Venezuelan border in northern Brazil, in this file photo. Brazil's government is unwilling and unable to halt destruction in the Amazon rainforest despite emergency measures it announced last week to curb rising deforestation, environmental experts say. REUTERS/File/GN/RCS

High commodity prices and increased land use elsewhere in Brazil are driving ranchers and farmers deeper into the Amazon in search of cheap land, environmentalists say.

Between August and December last year, 7,000 square km (2,703 square miles), or two-thirds the annual rate, were chopped down.

In response, the government of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva banned logging and cut farm credits in the 36 municipalities with the highest deforestation rate. It also said it would ban farm products from illegally deforested areas and would register property deeds to prevent land theft.

“We are convinced if we play all our cards we can reduce deforestation in 2008 as well,” Environment Minister Marina Silva said.

In the two years through July 2007, the rate had fallen by 50 percent.

But environmentalists said the measures were half-hearted and insufficient and some could even increase deforestation.

“It’s a positive first step, but only a drop in the ocean,” said Paulo Moutinho, coordinator at the Environmental Research Institute of the Amazon.

Applying restrictive measures where deforestation already occurred would force loggers and ranchers to neighboring municipalities, said Roberto Smeraldi, head of Friends of the Earth in Brazil.


“The government is following, not anticipating, deforestation -- these measures could fan the fire,” Smeraldi told Reuters.

It is the third time in four years the government pledged to sort out property titles and this time it is focusing only on 36 municipalities, Smeraldi said.

“Loggers are celebrating in towns left off the hook -- the government has a terrible enforcement track record,” he said.

Only 2 percent to 3 percent of fines imposed on illegal loggers are collected, says Paulo Barreto, senior researcher with Imazon, a think tank promoting sustainable development in the Amazon.

Critics say much of the government favors economic development over conservation in the Amazon and does not back the proposed measures.

“Marina (Silva) is a lone voice,” Barreto said.

While it sends more troops and cartographers to curb logging, the government is promoting deforestation through large infrastructure and mining projects, roads, as well as settlements for landless peasants, Smeraldi said.

A proposed hydroelectric plant on the Rio Madeira could attract 100,000 settlers to the region.

“The government raises a red flag with the left hand and chops trees with the right,” Smeraldi said.

Lula, the military and other nationalists frequently complain about foreigners meddling in the Amazon.

“Those (foreign) NGO’s (nongovernmental organizations) should go plant trees in their own countries,” Lula said on Wednesday.

Ranchers and farmers will continue cutting trees to create pasture or farmland as long as it is cheaper than recovering degraded land, the experts said.

“Government and agriculture need to tackle the underlying economics of deforestation, to radically rethink their approach to the Amazon, if nothing else, out of self-interest,” Moutinho said.