BONN - One day, Lucio Flores, a Brazilian Terena Indian, was travelling by truck through the Amazons region alongside a local landowner. Looking at the dense tropical forest around, the landowner said, "Look at this, there is nothing here."
A little further as they left the forest to cross a soybean plantation, the landowner exclaimed: "But here there is soy!" To him, forest was nothing, soy everything.
Flores narrated the story to a group of environmentalists, government representatives and journalists at a side session of the UN conference on biological diversity under way in Bonn.
For him, the story was a symbol of the opposed views dividing the business community and indigenous peoples. "For agro business, nature is nothing," Flores said. "For us, it is all."
In Brazil the opposites are particularly telling. It has the world's largest environmental reserve -- the Amazons region -- and is at the same time the world's largest producer of ethanol, the agro-fuel distilled from sugar cane, and the world's second largest producer of soybean, after the U.S.
The rapid development of sugar cane and soybean over the last 30 years has led to deforestation of large sections of the Amazons region, leading environmentalists say.
"Nowadays, 21 million hectares of Brazilian land are devoted to the plantation of either sugar cane, mostly for the production of ethanol, and soybeans, both for agro fuels as well as fodder for cattle," said Camilla Moreno, a lawyer working for Terra de Direitos, a Brazilian non-governmental organisation.
Moreno said the Brazilian government has allowed deforestation despite ambitious forest protection laws.
"According to the Brazilian forest law of 1965, there was a legal obligation of reforesting a land area within 30 years with at least 20 percent of native vegetation," Moreno told IPS. In the Amazons area, the requirement was 50 percent.
"After the peak of deforestation reached in 1995, a provisional measure was approved in 1996 to increase the Amazon reserve to 80 percent. But there is no follow-up," Moreno said.
Paulo Adairo, campaigner with Greenpeace Brazil, told IPS that in the 36 larger municipalities in the Amazons region, only 20 percent of the landowners comply with the legislation.
Under the Brazilian government's agro-energy plan of 2005, soybean and sugar cane cultivation areas must expand to 200 million hectares by 2030. That would mean deforestation will continue.
"The Brazilian government simply ignores the fact that there is no ecologically sustainable way of growing monocultures, whether they are sugar cane or soybean," Adairo told IPS.
The agro fuels boom is not on the agenda of the Bonn conference although deforestation, a consequence of the former, is. Deforestation is in turn a leading cause of a higher concentration of greenhouse gases, and thus of global warming and climate change.
At the end of the chain of cause and effect, climate change is decimating global biodiversity. According to UN figures, some 150 species of fauna and flora disappear every day, victims of global warming.
"The destruction of forests and the consequent erosion of biodiversity severely impacts millions of forest-dependent people. But it also affects global food security and accelerates climate change," Belmond Tchoumba, co-coordinator of the forest and biodiversity programme of Friends of the Earth International told IPS.
The world's leading countries in deforestation are Brazil and Indonesia. Both are also leading producers of inputs for agro-fuels. Palm oil plantations for agro-diesel are the primary cause of forest loss in Indonesia.
Numerous estimates predict that by 2020, Indonesia's oil-palm plantations will triple in size to 16.5 million hectares -- an area the size of England and Wales, resulting in a loss of 98 percent of forest cover.
Neighbouring Malaysia, the world's largest producer of palm oil, has already lost 87 percent of its tropical forests, and continues deforesting at a rate of seven percent a year.
Several environmentalists have urged the UN conference on biodiversity to take immediate action to take decisions to stop deforestation of prime forests and to stop the trade of illegally derived forest products.
© 2008 Inter Press Service