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ENVIRONMENT-BRAZIL: Gov’t Offensive in Defence of Amazon Jungle

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Feb 18 2005 (IPS) - Hope is sometimes born of tragedy. Decisions adopted by the Brazilian government in the wake of the murders of U.S.-born nun Dorothy Stang and three rural activists in the past week in the northern state of Pará could help curb deforestation and violence in the Amazon jungle region.

That is the view of environmentalists like Paulo Moutinho, one of the heads of the Amazon Institute of Environmental Research (IPAM), in response to measures announced late Thursday that are aimed at protecting a total of 13.4 million hectares of forest, an area four and a half times the size of Belgium, and at strengthening state control over Pará.

Decrees issued by leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva created five nature reserves covering a total of 5.2 million hectares. Two of them, amounting to 3.8 million hectares, are in Pará, where conflicts over land were the cause of this week’s killings.

Another measure included in the decrees bans activities harmful to the environment, like logging, over the next six months on 8.2 million hectares along the BR-163 highway. Plans to pave the road, which crosses the western part of the state of Pará, in the near future have fuelled illegal land-grabbing by speculators, landowners and settlers, and aggravated the tension.

The government also decided to move faster in sending a bill on the administration of public forests to Congress. The new law would regulate the sustainable use of forestry resources on state-owned land, through concessions to companies or local communities.

That idea has been amply discussed with society and productive sectors, as an alternative to the illegal occupation and deforestation of the Amazon, where an estimated three-quarters of the forest consists of public lands.


The new measures, plus the government’s decision to set up an “integral management cabinet” in Pará and to send 2,000 troops in (they began to be deployed Tuesday) represent the Lula administration’s response to the crisis unleashed by the high-profile murder of Stang, a 74-year-old Catholic missionary from Dayton, Ohio who was a naturalised Brazilian citizen.

The government’s environmental initiatives, which are also designed to combat the conflicts over land that are at the root of the violence in Pará, were basically ready.

But their announcement was hastened by the intensification of the conflicts – the four murders and the death threats received by 40 other Amazon activists, said Moutinho.

“The government’s strong reaction,” which has clearly demonstrated its determination to defend public lands and impose order in Pará with respect to land ownership questions, has calmed fears in that region and may finally curb the illegal seizure of public land, which lies at the heart of many of the disputes, he added.

The presence of the army is important in underlining that determination and ensuring conditions under which environmental, land reform, judicial, economic and social authorities can do their jobs, said the activist.

The history of the Amazon jungle shows that the creation of reserves, “and especially indigenous reservations”, successfully curbs deforestation, even without effective enforcement by the authorities, said Coutinho.

But the “most forceful” measure, the ban on environmentally harmful activities on 8.2 million hectares along highway BR-163, was not published Friday, said a worried Roberto Smeraldi, the head of Friends of the Earth-Brazil.

The highway links Cuiabá, the capital of the state of Mato Grosso – the biggest soy-producing area in Brazil – with Santarém, an Amazon river port. Paving the highway will favour exports of soy, Brazil’s main export.

Experience has shown that highways carved out through the jungle are the main route through which the problems of deforestation and land disputes are introduced into the Amazon jungle. Mega-projects like enormous hydropower dams, iron ore and bauxite mining, and informal mining of gold by “garimpeiros” have also drawn many migrants to Pará, which has led to rising crime rates.

The government’s new measures are “positive,” said Smeraldi, who added however that it was too bad that a tragedy had to happen for the government to begin to effectively implement initiatives that were approved several years ago, in some cases.

Another “essential” step that must be taken, he added, is to formally demonstrate that public lands belong to the central or state governments, in order to put an end to conflicts over land ownership, said the activist.

Until that is done, the “grileiros” – landowners, loggers or land speculators – will continue taking over public land using forged title deeds or violence, accentuating longstanding environmental and social problems, he argued.

The government’s bill on forestry concessions, which was “ready over a year ago” after a lengthy process of debate and consultations with civil society and economic sectors, could foster “an important change” in the fight against illegal logging. However, it must still be enacted by parliament, and after that would depend on effective implementation, Smeraldi added.

More upbeat, Moutinho said he expected changes in the situation in Pará, which is one of the states suffering the most severe deforestation and rural violence.

The government and society must begin to distinguish harmful, illegal logging that destroys biodiversity and the environmental benefits provided by forests from activities that represent true development and benefit local populations in a sustainable manner, he explained.

“You can’t generalise,” he said, because even the extraction of timber and the planting of soy can be done in a sustainable fashion, if such activities comply with the new forestry code and leave some forested areas in place, he said, adding that “There are landowners who would like to do that.”

 
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