By Raymond Colitt
BRASILIA, July 8 (Reuters) - Brazil’s nature reserves, which harbor much of the world’s biodiversity, are grossly mismanaged, underfunded, and often ransacked by intruders, the environment minister said on Tuesday.
Nature reserves account for more than eight percent of Brazil’s vast territory, an area equal to the U.S. state of Texas. Brazil also claims to have the world’s largest forested national park, the Tumucumac park in Amapa state with 3.8 million hectares (9.39 million acres).
But several of Brazil’s parks, which harbor treasures from the Amazon forest or the Pantanal wetlands, are sanctuaries not for wildlife but illegal loggers, miners and ranchers.
Of 299 protected areas, 57 percent have no permanent law enforcement officials, 76 percent have no management plan, and nearly one-third have no manager, an internal study showed.
"We discovered a very serious problem and we called the public to show this ecological striptease," Environment Minister Carlos Minc told a news conference in Brasilia.
"The current situation is not sustainable," he added.
In the Bom Futuro or "Good Future" National Park in northwestern Rondonia state, around 1,600 wildcat miners, farmers, loggers, and ranchers are raiding natural resources.
In some years the rate of deforestation in protected areas of the Amazon was higher than in unprotected areas, Minc said.
In reserves where limited hunting, fishing, or farming is permitted, people "live in misery" because there is no proper planning, management or control, said Minc, the co-founder of Brazil’s Green Party.
The World Bank, Global Environmental Fund, WWF and KfW, the German development bank, together have pledged around $200 million to a government-run project to create new parks and better manage existing ones. The Arpa project, which began in 2003, operates in 60 parks, mostly in Amazon states.
Minc, who replaced former rubber tapper Marina Silva as environment minister six weeks ago, pledged to fill vacant management posts this month, train inspectors by November, and put 4 million hectares (9.9 million acres) of forest reserves up for sustainable management by timber companies.
The government also wants to expand eco-tourism in more outlying regions. The famed Iguacu waterfalls on the border with Argentina and Rio de Janeiro’s statue of Christ the Redeemer account for 95 percent of the 3.5 million visitors to national parks.
The departure of Silva, seen as a guardian of the Amazon, had raised concern among environmental groups over rising deforestation rates.
Since then, Minc has spearheaded a series of crackdowns on illegal soybean farmers, loggers and ranchers.
But experts say better conservation requires additional funds and logistics. In many reserves, park guards are far outnumbered by heavily armed and well equipped intruders. The guards often lack vehicles, gasoline, and guns.
"The problem is disorganization," said Sylvana Canuto, head of the government’s Chico Mendes Foundation, charged with overseeing the reserves. (Editing by Stuart Grudgings and Sandra Maler)