Battle for The Amazon

Published on
by
The Guardian/UK

Battle for The Amazon

A massive increase in deforestation has put two branches of the Brazilian government on collision course

by
Conor Foley

The Amazonian rain forest burns as a result of fires started by farmers in Rondonia state, Brazil. (Photo: Stephen Ferry/Getty)

Brazil's new environment minister, Carlos Minc, announced this week
that he will be pressing for criminal charges against 100 of the worst
individuals or companies responsible for most of the deforestation
since 2005. New figures just released show that the rate of
deforestation has increased by 133% since last month in the nine states
of the Amazon region, which is an increase of 228% compared to a year
ago.

Minc also said that the government will create an
environmental police force with 3,000 heavily armed and specially
trained officers to enforce the law. "I am a pacifist and
environmentalist," he told journalists, "but without greater repression
we are not going to end the destruction of the Amazon."

Top of Minc's list of culprits is the Brazilian National Institute for Agrarian Reform
(Inrca), responsible for finding land for Brazil's large landless
population, whose settlements in the Amazon are ranked amongst the top
eight worst offenders. However, Incra's president, Rolf Hackbart,
rejected the idea of bringing criminal proceedings as "absurd" saying
that it will only serve to undermine the government's agrarian reforms.

Brazil
faces two related environmental problems, based on its highly unequal
system of land ownership, which means that a tiny elite hold massive
estates, while millions remain landless. Increased mechanisation and
the spread of cash crops has driven large numbers of these into the
Amazon, where they clear land for farming using cash and burn
techniques. This, and illegal logging for Brazil's high quality wood,
has steadily increased the pressure on the rainforest and is also a
major cause of global warming.

Under President Lula, Brazil has
had some success reversing deforestation in recent years, but this year
saw a sharp increase in the levels of destruction. The rising price of
food is undoubtedly one of the major reasons for this, but Minc also
stressed that it was down to a lack of inspection and enforcement of
the law.

Hackbart, however, blamed the "economic model of
agriculture" as the main reason for the destruction. He said that Mato
Grosso, one of the states bordering the Amazon, is "a sea of soya
and cattle ranches." The big farmers are destroying the environment
through the production of cash crops and cattle, he said, and pushing
smaller farmers into the Amazon. He argued that the crisis needs to be
tackled holistically and blaming Incra and the small farmers is to
attack the principal victims of the crisis.

Minc assumed office two months ago after the resignation of Marina Silva,
a native of the Amazon and an internationally respected campaigner. She
had clashed repeatedly with other members of President Lula's
government, in particular, Dilma Rousseff, Lula's chief of staff, who
is leading its flagship programme for accelerated growth and Roberto
Mangabeira Unger, the "minister for long-term planning". Although she
was a long-time friend and colleague of Lula's, he also sided against
her, stressing that the preservation of the Amazon should be "balanced
against economic development and the needs of the people who live
there".

Silva had also come up against some entrenched vested
interests at the local level and Minc again warned at the weekend that
a lack of cooperation by some state governors was a major part of the
problem.

Brazil's environmentalists have repeatedly criticised Blairo Maggi,
the governor of Mato Grosso and the world's largest soya bean producer,
for being one of the chief causes of the Amazon's destruction.
Greenpeace awarded him their Golden Chainsaw Award in 2006.

Five years ago Maggi told the new York Times:

To
me, a 40% increase in deforestation doesn't mean anything at all, and I
don't feel the slightest guilt over what we are doing here. We're
talking about an area larger than Europe that has barely been touched,
so there is nothing at all to get worried about.

 

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