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BRAZIL: Vigil Against Farming Offensive in Amazon

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, May 14 2009 (IPS) - Celebrities and environmental organisations held a vigil at the Brazilian Congress in an effort to block passage of a bill that they say could cause an even greater “environmental disaster” in the Amazon jungle.

The vigil, which began Wednesday and ended Thursday morning, was held inside the Senate chamber in Brasilia, the capital. Organised by the Movimento Amazônia Para Sempre (Amazonia Forever Movement), it was led by actress Christiane Torloni and other actors like Victor Fasano and Marcos Palmeira.

According to the movement, the bloc of legislators representing agribusiness interests in Congress is promoting reforms that would “weaken environmental legislation.”

One example is a provisional measure that would grant farmers title to up to 1,500 hectares of illegally occupied land in the Amazon jungle.

The original purpose of Provisional Measure 458/2009, introduced by the government, was to regularise the tenure of land occupied before 2004, in exchange for the fulfilment of a number of requirements, such as replanting deforested areas and limiting further logging.

But amendments introduced by lawmakers in the lower house of Congress, like Asdrúbal Bentes of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), allied with the government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, seek to eliminate these conditions.

Environment Minister Carlos Minc, who took part in the vigil, said that if these amendments were passed they could usher in an “environmental disaster,” in the form of rampant deforestation.

The government would be seen as “giving land titles away with one hand and a chainsaw with the other,” the minister told the press.

If the amended law is approved, the administration fears that the Amazon Fund, launched to receive international donations for protecting the Amazon rainforest, would be threatened.

Mario Menezes, assistant director of Friends of the Earth-Brazilian Amazon, told IPS there was a “great risk” that the bill in question could benefit “grilheiros,” illegal settlers who occupied public land “illicitly and often violently.”

The government argument that the bill will benefit small farmers is “not true,” according to Menezes. Large “grilheiros” who occupied, for instance, 15,000 hectares can easily comply with the letter of the law by registering parcels of 1,500 hectares in the name of third parties, and end up occupying even larger stretches of land.

The Brazilian Artists’ Open Letter on Amazon Deforestation, which will be presented to the legislative committees discussing the amendments to the bill, calls attention to the latest statistics on the deforestation of the Amazon.

“We have just celebrated the smallest Amazon rainforest deforestation rate of the past three years: 17,000 square kilometres,” equivalent to nearly half the size of the Netherlands, it says.

Sixteen percent of the total rainforest area, equivalent to three times the size of the state of Sao Paulo, has already been deforested, the letter says.

“We have absolutely no reason to celebrate. The Amazon is not the planet’s lung, but it renders services to Brazil and to the world,” it continues.

This green area extending over five million square kilometres is “a thermal layer generated by nature to prevent the sunrays from reaching the ground, thus enabling the existence of the most luxuriant forest on earth, which helps to regulate the planet’s temperature,” it says.

The Amazon Forever Movement also refers to the expansion of the agricultural frontier in protected areas.

“A country that possesses 165,000 square kilometres of abandoned or semi-abandoned deforested areas could double its grain production without having to fell one single tree,” the open letter says.

Menezes has just published a study on livestock-raising in the Amazon, in which he concludes that 40 percent of the Brazilian cattle herd is located in the jungle.

He found that cattle ranchers, who occupy 60 million hectares in the Amazon, were responsible for 80 percent of the 73 million hectares that have already been deforested. One-third of all the beef produced in the region is exported.

According to Menezes, “above all, the study shows that the public money is going to the meat packing plants,” because the National Development Bank (BNDES) is financing this sort of development.

Last year alone, he noted, the BNDES invested six billion reals (2.9 billion dollars) in cattle farming, more than its total investment in the automotive industry, for example.

In Menezes’ view, livestock farming stimulates the most deforestation, thus favouring the illegal occupation of land by large farmers.

One solution to this problem, he suggested, would be for public finance to be redirected to agriculture and livestock farming in areas that have already been deforested, and to invest in technological development to increase productivity and avoid further expansion into the rainforest.

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