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BRAZIL: Laws No Help to Amazon Animals, or People

Mario Osava* - IPS/IFEJ

RIO DE JANEIRO, Sep 5 2010 (IPS) - Every year, more than a million Amazonian turtle eggs do not make it to the hatching period, nor do they serve as food for humans in the Tabuleiro de Embaubal, a series of beaches along the final stretch of Brazil’s Xingú River.

Yacaré caimans hunted illegally in the Mamirauá nature reserve. Credit: Juarez Pezzuti

Yacaré caimans hunted illegally in the Mamirauá nature reserve. Credit: Juarez Pezzuti

Thousands of turtles lay 1.8 million eggs each year in Embaubal, in the eastern Brazilian Amazon. But about 70 percent are destroyed by flooding or by the mothers themselves, which dig up sand where eggs have already been laid, explained biologist Juarez Pezzuti, a turtle and Amazon ecology researcher.

The rigid aspects of the law that banned turtle hunting in 1967 and of another in 1998 that established penalties for environmental crimes prevent local people from making sustainable use of wildlife, wasting one of the country’s great riches, according to Pezzuti.

Furthermore, the laws mean that millions of residents of the Amazon are acting illegally, as they rely on hunting and fishing for food, he added.

It is a national “taboo” because the ban on handling turtle eggs follows “bureaucratic, not scientific, criteria,” and ignores the successful experiences in other countries like Costa Rica and Ecuador, said Pezzuti, who is a professor at the Federal University of Pará.

He noted that it is a contradictory measure: while river fish, molluscs and crustaceans can be commercially exploited in their own habitat, he stressed that the same is not true for turtles, yacaré caimans (of the crocodilian order) or other wild species like the capybara, a large rodent.

Making use of a portion of the turtle eggs in Embaubal and many other locations would improve the diet of the river dwellers and would provide another source of income, without harming the species itself because such actions would only replace the natural destruction of the eggs that is already occurring, Pezzuti argued in an interview with this reporter.

Participatory management of turtle eggs, involving the local population itself, offers the advantages of providing food security and environmental education, and opens the way for greater knowledge of these reptiles, said the researcher.

It could also benefit biological diversity and improve the relationship between the local community and environmental authorities, who are now resented due to the repressive nature of the laws that do not take into account the traditional way of life of those who live along the river, he said.

They are rules that “ignore the tradition and dietary habits” of the Amazon peoples, and end up being ineffective in their application to Brazil’s very different regional realities, agreed Serguei Camargo, professor of environmental law at the University of Amazonas State.

The 1998 Law 9.605 “on penal and administrative sanctions derived from behaviour and activities harmful to the environment,” protects the public administrator more than it does the environment, because the environmental matters are treated as “more administrative than penal” and the government is incapable of dealing with them, said Camargo.

Hunting is only tolerated as a way to prevent hunger for the hunter’s family, protecting agriculture and livestock, and eliminating harmful animals — and the last two cases require official authorisation.

Camargo believes the solution lies in a new wildlife management law that would establish rules for participatory and community management. It would not conflict with prior laws because a specific norm has more power in the regulated activity, he explained.

The yacaré caimans, abundant in the Amazon and in Brazil’s west-central Pantanal wetlands, added heat to the debate in which ecologists defend “legislation that is among the most advanced in the world,” and fear that any flexibility would lead to devastating hunting, threatening many species with extinction.

On Dec. 30, a larger black caiman, known in Brazil as the “jacaré-açu” (Melanosuchus niger), tore off most of biologist Deise Nishimura’s right leg in the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve, on the banks of the Solimões River, as the Amazon is known in its middle stretch.

Nishimura, who studies river dolphins, survived — miraculously. Something blocked her femoral artery and prevented a fatal bleed-out as she was taken to the nearest hospital, an hour away by boat.

The black caiman, killed the next day with Nishimura’s leg still inside, was four metres long. This species, unique to the Amazon, can reach six metres, which makes it a preferred target for hunters seeking its skin.

In recent years such “accidents” have increased, a result of the growing number of caimans, which is causing fear among the river population, George Rebêlo, an expert in crocodilians at the National Institute of Amazon Research, told this reporter.

Precisely in Mamirauá, a pioneer project has been in place since 2003 for controlled exploitation of the caiman, based on a gap in Law 9.985 (2000), which created the National System of Nature Conservation Units.

Of the hunting quota (736 caimans per year), in 2008 just 446 were taken, and none in 2009, reported Sonia Canto, who heads the Amazonas state government’s wild animal production support agency.

Because the hunting ban has been in place more than four decades — and is only practiced clandestinely — the old chain of production has disappeared, like the tannery industry, refrigerated cargo boats and the sanitary inspection system. “That is the biggest obstacle today,” Canto said.

The jacaré-açu is no longer on the endangered species list, and its skin fetches good prices for its size and high quality, she said. The exploitation of this caiman species under close management has excellent prospects if the bottlenecks in regulation can be overcome. Furthermore, its meat is “healthy and has no cholesterol,” she said.

In Canto’s opinion, caiman hunting should initially be limited to the conservation areas, where it can be monitored more closely. There are 34 such areas in Amazonas state, which allow the sustainable use of their natural resources, she said.

Balanced management maintains biodiversity and the ecosystem itself, improves food security and provides needed additional income for the population, according to the official.

The authorities do allow raising yacaré caimans and turtles on farms. But those are artificial conditions, which provide little new knowledge about the species, and they do not reduce pressure to hunt these animals because the farms do not supply food to the river communities that hunt to survive.

*This story is part of a series of features on biodiversity by Inter Press Service (IPS), CGIAR/Biodiversity International, International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ), and the United Nations Environment Programme/Convention on Biological Diversity (UNEP/CBD) — all members of COM+, the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development (

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