Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ENVIRONMENT-BRAZIL: A Plan to Privatise the Amazon?

Mario Osava* - Tierramérica

RIO DE JANEIRO, Aug 18 2004 (IPS) - The debate has taken some unusual twists. There were rumours in the news media of a bill for ”privatising” the Brazilian Amazon, when the intention was just the opposite: to halt the illegal appropriation of public lands by private parties, a phenomenon that accelerates deforestation.

Ultra-nationalist groups allege that the legislative bill in question – still being drafted – would hand over the Amazon to foreign capital. But government officials say the proposed legislation, which promises heated parliamentary debate, is intended to keep Brazilian territory out of foreign hands.

It is a matter of ”consolidating national sovereignty over that territory,” Joao Paulo Capobianco, secretary of forests and biodiversity for the Environment Ministry, told Tierramérica.

The bill proposes creating a legal framework for sustainable use and management of forests belonging to the state, and involves three approaches.

Two of the three are already known: the creation of conservation units and the communal use of resources by Indians and other ”traditional” residents of the area. The third and most contentious is the granting of concessions to the private sector for limited forestry exploitation.

The Brazilian Amazon states cover more than five million square kilometres. Of that area, 25 percent is already in private hands and 29 percent is set aside for conservation units and indigenous reserves, said Capobianco.

The draft bill states that the areas for logging concessions would be chosen using ”strict filters”, criteria to ensure that exploitation is sustainable, and would involve a gradual process, which in the first 10 years would grant permits for no more than 20 percent of the available land, said the official.

Logging would be regulated by policies that already have proven effective in tropical forests, with a limit of five or six trees per hectare, in other words, three percent of adult trees, every 25 to 30 years, Capobianco explained.

Any company operating in Brazil, even if based on foreign capital, can bid on the concessions, and there will be no privatisation, because the ownership of the land itself will remain in the hands of the state, he said.

The idea has been debated for several years, and most environmental activists accept it in general terms, but have reservations on specific issues and doubts about its implementation and regulation.

Outright condemnation has come from nationalists like Aziz Ab’Saber, 79, a respected geographer and conservationist.

”I am against it. This is the beginning of a strategic plan to occupy the Amazon, the beginning of its internationalisation,” Ab’Saber told Tierramérica.

The Environment Ministry has given in to ”foreign pressure” and adopted a model that ”will harm biodiversity and would benefit the interests only of entrepreneurs, mostly international ones,” he said.

There are successful local experiences in the Amazon that could be replicated in order to promote sustainable development and fight deforestation, said the geographer.

However, existing monitoring efforts and law enforcement have not halted the destruction of more than 23 million hectares of forest per year, mostly cleared for farming. The burning of the Amazon is responsible for three-quarters of Brazil’s carbon dioxide emissions, which contribute to global warming.

At the root of the problem is the chaotic legal situation of the Amazon, where around half the land belongs to the state but there are no registered titles, says Roberto Smeraldi, coordinator of the non-governmental organisation Friends of the Earth-Brazilian Amazon.

The principal merit of the project is that it would force the state to establish its ownership of that land, although it will take time and will be a difficult task, Smeraldi said in a conversation with Tierramérica.

Currently there is ”fraudulent privatisation” occurring, he said. It is taking place under a rule that allows governmental agencies to recognise ownership of up to 2,499 hectares of land for those who possess the land de facto.

That favours land takeovers, often ”with violence and the expulsion of small farmers,” which expand the private dominion of land without benefit for the state, the true owner of that territory, he added.

What’s worse, he said, those who appropriate the land through fraud like that usually destroy the forest, often by burning it, in order to prove that they occupy it.

There are two basic reasons in favour of the proposed concession mechanism, Smeraldi told Tierramérica.

First of all, 99 percent of the plans presented for sustainable use of the Amazon’s natural resources are rejected due to ”lack of adequate documentation of ownership,” and the existing legal insecurity scares off entrepreneurs with ”good intentions”, attracting instead those ”who are willing to do just about anything,” he said.

The concessions would eliminate this hurdle and allow monitoring.

The second, he says, is that extended, renewable concessions would stimulate long-term investment, that is ”if the concession holder does a good job.”

But the proposed bill is lacking criteria and parameters for guarantees, through some system of insurance, such as through the banking system, that would permit immediate recovery of payment if the concession holder does not meet its obligations, said the activist.

Furthermore, it entails a variable payment system from the concession holders, based on the product they extract and the profits, when a fixed price would promote more efficient use of resources, said the Friends of the Earth director.

Some environmental activists fear that government control of the concession holders would be as inadequate as it has been in other state-run endeavours in the Amazon.

The project requires ”the effective presence of the Brazilian state” as a power in the Amazon, according to international watchdog group Greenpeace.

But Capobianco says there is little danger of the situation getting out of control because the revenues from the concessions will help pay for oversight bodies and inspectors.

Jean Pierre Leroy, of Fase, an environmental NGO, says there is no guarantee that the concessions will be economically viable, given that legal sustainable use techniques can be more costly than illegal logging.

But Environment Ministry official Tasso de Azevedo responds that the concession holders will save money because they will not have to purchase the land, and they will obtain raw materials with the security of legality.

They will also have access to credits for equipment and will be able to make long-term plans for processing lumber and capitalising on by-products, such as resins, oils and fruits, Azevedo said.

(* Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent. Originally published Aug. 14 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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