Paving the Amazon

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Brazil is scrambling to appear in control of the eco-conflict raging in the Amazon rainforest. After the assassination of 73-year-old environmentalist Dorothy Stang (an American and a nun), Brazil's president has sought to make up, in weeks, for years of inertia on the Amazon issue.

But an overview of some of the leading newspaper commentators and environmental reporters in Brazil and Latin America reveals that green activists have little confidence that President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva will be able to save even patches of rainforest without renewed dedication and serious reform.

Most worrisome to environmentalists is the fact that the interests of agribusiness seem to be trumping any hope of a sustainable future in the Amazon.

President Lula is doing too little too late to cover up for his ineffectiveness on the environment, writes Elio Gaspari, an influential columnist for Rio daily newspaper O Globo. Sister Dorothy, he writes "got six bullets from the same reality that killed Chico Mendes," the internationally-known rainforest crusader and rubber-tapper assassinated by ranchers in 1988, who became the first martyr for the Amazon cause.

After the Feb. 12 assassination, Lula announced he would protect some 8 million hectares of rainforest from logging and signed a decree creating conservation areas covering over half that expanse, with more on the drawing board. He also deployed 2,000 troops to the area and created a new specialized forestry service to rein in illegal loggers.

Those are nice gestures, writes Lucio Flavio Pinto, an environmental journalist from the Amazon. But plans like those announced by Lula often come to nothing once they face the realities of the jungle. "Once the meetings in urban and civilized settings are over ... it is incompetent and corrupt officials in the outback that are entrusted to implement the plans," Pinto writes in the Feb. 28 edition of his newsletter, Jornal Pessoal.

The challenges are multiplied in the most conflict-ridden areas of the Amazon, like the Terra do Meio (Portuguese for "Middle Lands") the Texas-sized region in the southern Amazon's Para state, where Stang was killed. The noose is tightening around the region bordered by the Amazon, Tapajos and Xingu rivers. Loggers, land speculators and ranchers are increasingly making incursions into what is still mostly-pristine jungle and indigenous lands.

In fact, the government is moving ahead with plans to pave BR-163, a highway that bisects the southern Amazon through Terra do Meio. BR-163 is still only a dirt track for most its length (and impassable in the rainy season). Brazilian media have already dubbed it the "Soybean Highway" because agribusiness is the main force pushing for it to be paved. The idea is to get soybeans (the current darling of Brazil's export economy) quickly and cheaply loaded onto barges, down the Amazon to the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal, and on to hungry markets like China's.

But for environmentalists, the plan to pave BR-163 symbolizes everything that is wrong with Lula's Amazon policy.

The Amazon's history shows the destruction of the rainforest is inextricably linked to road building. The military government's construction of the Trans-Amazon in the 1960s and 1970s, meant to extend their authority to the jungle frontier, led to a chaotic mass migration of poor workers and resulted in the mind-numbing deforestation statistics of today.

It's no coincidence that Stang, who helped run a sustainable agriculture collective and denounced the violent tactics of land speculators and loggers, was killed near Anapu, which is on the Trans-Amazon. The highway radiates violence and predatory exploitation – satellite maps show how scars of deforestation emanate out into the greenness of the forest.

The environmental movement is also disappointed that Lula, for the first time, has allowed the planting of genetically-modified soybeans in Brazil, another surprising concession to big agribusiness.

People like María Tereza Jorge Pádua, a well-known rainforest activist and founder of green organization Funatura, writes in online eco-journal O Eco that she felt especially betrayed that environmental minister Marina Silva, who fought alongside Chico Mendes in the 1980s, and who should know better, offered only "unconvincing" opposition to the "destructive" BR-163 plan.

BR-163's paving will fill the pockets of speculators who already are snapping up land along BR-163's margins in Terra do Meio. The land rush has begun, and "grileiros," a word coined in Brazilian Portuguese for those who usurp land by fraudulent or violent means, already are the law of the land.

That's why in a Feb. 25 letter to Brazil's attorney general, Greenpeace and 17 other organizations pleaded for more aggressive crime-fighting. "Terra do Meio's population ... lives in terror of a web of grileiros and ranchers."

In a community meeting convened by NGO Instituto Socioambiental to discuss BR-163's paving, an indigenous man, Aka Panará, spoke of personal fears that may prove prophetic. "We are all very worried about the road's paving," he said. "Will it eat up all our earth and leave us hungry?"

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