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ENVIRONMENT-BRAZIL: Controversy Over Indigenous Land and Biofuels

Mario Osava

BRASILIA, May 8 2008 (IPS) - The legal status of an indigenous territory in the far north of Brazil, and biofuels, are two hot potatoes at the Third National Conference on the Environment being held in the capital city, which is focusing on climate change.

The indigenous reserve at Raposa Serra do Sol poses a “dilemma for civilisation,” and it would be a “backward step” if the Supreme Court fails to confirm its demarcation, “courageously” decided by Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, said Environment Minister Marina Silva at the inauguration of the conference, attended by 3000 people.

The 1.7-million hectare indigenous reserve in the state of Roraima is on the borders with Guyana and Venezuela. Part of it is occupied by rice-growing estate owners who are resisting leaving the land, as required by law.

What is at stake is whether the reserve, that was declared to be one unbroken whole, which means the non-indigenous farmers must go, is instead broken up and reduced in size so that the rice farmers and a small town can remain where they are.

Faced with the possibility of violent conflicts, the Supreme Federal Court (STF) suspended a police operation to evict the rice plantation owners in April. But on Sunday, 10 indigenous people were wounded by gunshots fired by estate workers, which further heated things up.

The military commander of the country’s Amazon region, General Augusto Heleno, stirred things up further, saying that the demarcation of indigenous lands on the border is a threat to national sovereignty. His remarks were echoed by other military officers.

Environment Minister Silva wants the Supreme Court judges to take a “civilised view” of the conflict, which they must settle soon. Rice can be grown on any fertile land, but the indigenous people’s ancestral land ensures their physical and cultural survival and is an important “point of reference” in their lives, she argued.

In addition, demarcating indigenous lands is “the greatest possible contribution to preserving the environment,” and poses no risk to sovereignty, she said, adding that on the contrary, indigenous people are “allies” in monitoring the border.

Before Silva’s speech on Wednesday night, Temístocles Marcelos, a representative of social and environmental movements, accused the judicial branch of being “backward and élitist” for holding up the effective demarcation of indigenous lands. He specifically mentioned Raposa Serra do Sol, and supported the police action to remove the rice growers.

With respect to biofuels, the minister said they represent an opportunity to “mitigate and adapt to” climate change, as well as being a tool for “solidarity with developing countries,” which could use them for “clean energy” and, at the same time, reduce poverty.

This is the position held by the entire leftwing Lula administration, which particularly defends ethanol from sugarcane as a means of cutting greenhouse gas emissions and promoting rural development in poor tropical countries.

Silva emphasised that over the last 30 years, Brazilian ethanol has already saved 600 million tonnes of carbon from being emitted into the atmosphere. And Brazil has 50 million hectares of arable land lying fallow, which could be used to expand ethanol production, so that “not a single tree need be felled in any part of the country,” she said.

This area is almost equivalent to the whole of that devoted so far to grain cultivation in Brazil, and is at least 14 times greater than the amount of land used to grow sugarcane for ethanol production.

But biofuels are a divisive topic for delegates at the Brasilia conference, who come from all of the country’s 27 states. Many environmentalists fear that the expansion of agrofuels, as they prefer to call them, will result in more deforestation, including in the Amazon, and create domestic food shortages.

The conference is in greater danger of being diverted from its purpose by the indigenous land question, which could catapult it into insoluble differences, than by the bioenergy debate, which is directly related to climate change, warned Ulisses Crepaldi, a delegate from Sao Paulo who runs a small-scale environmental management business.

Some delegates from Amazonia are against the conference supporting the demarcation of Raposa Serra do Sol as a “continuous” reserve, and instead want the native territory to be cut down in size to preserve the rights of the farmers who have lived in the area for decades. Crepaldi agreed with them.

On climate change, Silva said that “Brazil cannot avoid its responsibility,” even though under the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, it is not obliged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. One way forward would be to diversify clean energy sources, by developing wind and solar energy, for example, she said.

Oil and natural gas profits will be used to create a fund to finance programmes to mitigate, adapt to and reduce vulnerability to climate change, according to a draft law that the Environment Ministry will be sending to parliament in the near future, she announced.

“Zero illegal deforestation” and targets to curb greenhouse gas emissions in the productive sector were proposals defended by the head of the Brazilian Business Council for Sustainable Development (CEBDS), Fernando Almeida, who represented the private sector at the conference.

During preparations for this week’s National Conference on the Environment, 5,132 proposals were presented, which are to be collated and selected during the three days of debate. Nearly 2,000 delegates and guests are participating in that process.

The secretary general of the presidency, Luiz Dulci, said that “more than three million Brazilians have participated” in conferences on the environment since the president took office in 2003, helping to formulate public policies to protect the environment.

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