Rain Check

Dams, Killing of Activists Undermine
Brazil’s Vow to Protect Amazon Forest

The approval, by the Brazilian Congress’ lower house, of a bill to change the country’s 1965 Forest Code, has caused a public outcry within and outside the borders of South America’s largest economy.
Seen as a victory for powerful agribusiness interests, the bill that now heads to the Senate may undermine decades-long efforts to protect the Amazon rainforest, according to environment organizations, ecology activists and community leaders.
One of the changes proposed to the code would be to allow farmers and ranchers to clear vast swaths of the rainforest to plant soy, for example, or pasture for cattle, responding to soaring global commodity prices and demand. Changes would also lift limits on logging near waterways and on mountain slopes, and grant amnesty for illegal deforestation that occurred in protected areas before 2008.
DEFORESTATION AND ILLEGAL LOGGING
Critics say that some big landowners had already started an unusually intense process of clearing forests from their properties, anticipating to be pardoned by the amnesty that this bill may grant them.
Such process in itself has been grown exponentially in the past years due to advanced machinery and powerful land-moving equipment employed by farmers. Between March and April of this year, for instance, deforestation in Mato Grosso state has jumped from an average of 30 to roughly 158 square miles, an area the size of a small city.
Between August 2010 and April of this year, total clearing of the whole extension of the so-called Legal Amazon was 26% higher in comparison to the same period a year before. At the current rate, the area equivalent to France that has been cleared since the early 1960s is expected to at least double within the next 30 years.
But that won’t happen, according to the Brazilian government. Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira, for instance, firmly believes in the awareness of rural producers of the region about the long-term impact of deforestation on their survival. Her ministry has created a special commission to address the issue and coordinate oversight in Mato Grosso. It’s clear, though, that only pressure from the Brazilian citizenry over their elected officials may accomplish what a short-handed and underfunded ministry can’t.
Even before the final vote in the Senate, expected within the next three months, the Brazilian society has already gotten mobilized and massive rallies have been held in the capital Brasília, to protest the vote. The bill has many controversial proposals but granting amnesty for those responsible for the illegal logging and clearing of the rainforest is, by far, the sorest issue.
A SWITCH OF GEARS
What activists hope to change goes way beyond the mere wording of a regulatory bill, though. They expect the future of the Amazon to be at the center of the national debate, and for that to also radically change gears. Brazil must finally come to terms with the fact that the current model of exploration, development and integration of its last piece of relatively wild land can no longer follow what’s been set in the 1960s by the military dictatorship.
After the devastation and catastrophic impact of their two major projects in the region, the huge and still partly unpaved Transamazonia highway and the Belém-Brasília roadway, it’s almost unbelievable that what the current, way less right-wing-oriented government sees as a viable model of development follows so closely that outdated and brutal model. An approach that the group of generals who controlled the country with iron fist during 20-odd years conceived within closed-doors and with absolutely no public input.
What those two barren roads, long scars cut deep on the vast green, only managed to accomplish was the speeding up of the Amazon deforestation, the introduction of fatal diseases, prostitution, slavery and death that almost wiped out entire populations of the region’s indigenous peoples. Above all, it helped a relatively small group of individuals in good political standards with the regime to accumulate wealth and big extensions of land in exchange for their support.
LAWLESSNESS AND MEGA PROJECTS
Such powerful landowners are mostly still in charge of the local decisions over the forest, defended by their own private armies and with the help of a corrupted class of politicians.
Just this past May, two major figures of local movements in defense of a sustainable and democratic  forest were summarily executed in separate ambushes. The killers of José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva, a forest conservationist, and his wife, Maria, who were gunned down in the state of Pará, and of Adelino Ramos, a well-known peasant advocate, shot dead in the Amazon state of Rondônia, remain at large, although the police said that a suspect in Mr. Ramos’s killing was in custody.
They’re the latest of more than 1000 environmental activists, organizers and rural workers murdered in the Amazon since the assassination in 1988 of Chico Mendes, an iconic rubber tapper and union leader, who became internationally known and helped to draw attention to the fate of the forest he died defending.
As for the exaggerated scale of projects this and previous Brazilian governments seem to imagine for the Amazon, no better example is the recent approval of the license to build the Bello Monte damn, which is to become the world’s third-largest hydroelectric power plan. Besides flooding a large part of the Xingu National Park, Brazil’s largest indian reserve, the project is expected to dispossess and force the relocation of about 30 to 40 thousand people. For obvious reasons, it’s impossible to determine the damage the damn will cause to yet to be discovered plant and animal species.
Again, no one argues that Brazil needs to invest heavily in becoming self-sufficient for all its energy needs, which are growing faster that even its industrial capacity. Most of the enormous potential of power Bello Monte will generate will be utilized by the way-more developed south of the country and its big cities.
SUSTAINABLE ALTERNATIVES
But what environmental activists have been defending for years is the need to build smaller, more focused projects that also would address the diversity of the Amazon’s many different areas. One of Brazil’s most respected environmentalists Azis Ab’Sáber, for example, has proposed years ago to create 21 small sub-regions, each with a certain degree of independence and focused on sustainable models of development.
The project analyst Joao Luiz Guimaraes, from the Boticário Foundation, is another well known ecologist who went as far as selecting the main areas he sees with the potential for a different way of preserving the rainforest. Even better, some of these areas are already in early stages of development.
To prevent the out-of-control deforestation, for example, a simple method (with the help of heavy enforcement, of course) of certification would suffice. That could also be applied to the exploration of precious minerals, oil, flora and fauna research, and anything that would be extracted from the forest.
Eco-tourism, satellite monitoring, sale of indian-made goods, rigorous control over contact between indigenous populations and Brazilians from outside the region, there’re many ways that potentially could work better and help the preservation of the forest, without the need for oversized projects.
A FALSE RUMOR AND THE OUTLOOK
A few years ago, a hoax circulated on the Internet, alarming Brazilians that there was a group of unspecified “foreign powers” interested in wrestling the control of the Amazon rainforest from Brazil. Even a minister of then president Luiz Inacio Lula’s cabinet fell to the rumor. As it turned out, there was no such a thing, if only because no nation seems inclined to ask its citizens support the astronomical costs of managing a threatened forest the size of Europe, in some (and most likely, against the wishes of a) huge and faraway country.
But the Group of Seven, of the world’s richest nations, did set up a fund in 1990 that has already allocated $290 million to support sustainable development projects of the rainforest. And it has been served its purpose for boosting small, localized projects in the region, specially for the control of wood extraction. In result, most of the wood that Brazil exports nowadays is tightly monitored. It’s inside the country that illegal logging finds its main markets.
So, it is important that a bill such as the one being considered by the Brazilian Senate is radically modified to enhance, not relax, current standards of oversight and penalization of illegal logging and deforestation in the Amazon. As it’s crucial that environmental groups and communities that are directly affected by the pollution, lawlessness, devastation of natural resources and exploitation by powerful agribusiness interests, are heard and take the driver’s seat on the issue.
But it’s equally important that what is changed too is the whole mentality of prioritizing big, out of scale projects for the Amazon, with no regard for immediate, long-term and irreversible losses of plant and animal species.
And the Brazilian government needs to reach out to those most affected by the consequences of 50 years of wrong policies, not to the big economic interests that always will try to sway important decisions to benefit and maximize their own profits.

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