Crackdown Not Enough to Stop Amazon Deforestation
RIO DE JANEIRO , Jul 20 (Tierramérica) - Operation Curupira looked like a spectacular triumph in defence of the Amazon forests. It dismantled corruption and fraud network that had helped make the central-western Brazilian state of Mato Grosso the nation's leader in deforestation.
But the police sting did not resolve the problem of destruction in the Amazon -- and apparently generated some others.
The offensive led by the Federal Police and the Attorney General's Office, began on Jun. 2. The police detained nearly a hundred people and ended up charging 174 with "association to commit a crime." The main offence was sales, by environmental authorities to entrepreneurs, of false documents authorising the transport and trade of illegally extracted lumber.
But the crackdown entailed other measures that had an impact on the legal logging sector.
The Brazilian Environment Institute, IBAMA, suspended in early June all permits for transporting lumber, "suffocating the industry and forcing worker layoffs or company closures," says Augusto dos Passos, president of Simenorte, a union of logging companies in northern Mato Grosso state, based in Alta Floresta.
Dos Passos's company, which had 120 employees in March, today has just 35. The firms affiliated with Simenorte represent 8,000 workers whose jobs are now at risk.
Another measure, still being studied by the government, is a moratorium on deforestation six months out of the year, proposed by Elielson Ayres de Souza, an investigator designated to oversee IBAMA in Mato Grosso after Operation Curupira arrested or fired more than 40 local leaders from that institute.
Dos Passos is an outspoken opponent of the six-month moratorium. It is an initiative "of a madman who knows nothing about the lumber industry or about Mato Grosso," and if it were to be carried out, would mean "the death of the industry," he told Tierramérica.
The entrepreneur is calling for a march to the capital, Brasilia, "with 1,000 trucks filled with logs and lumber to make a great bonfire in front of the (Presidential) Palace," to demonstrate "the desperation" of the legal logging companies.
But his colleague Jaldes Langer, who heads another logging union in the city of Sinop, in central-north Mato Grosso, says a rally in Brasilia would be "premature", although it is a "very serious situation." He prefers to wait for clarification of the government's measures.
In the neighbouring city of Juara , loggers closed down business on July 11 and brought together thousands of people to protest against IBAMA.
According to De Souza, who took over the helm of IBAMA in Mato Grosso, the moratorium is the only way to contain deforestation and promote sustainable forestry activities, allowing extraction of raw materials only in areas with approved environmental management plans.
But with their limited number of inspectors neither the local IBAMA office nor the state's Environmental Secretariat can patrol the extensive forested areas of Mato Grosso, he admitted. With the moratorium, all deforestation would be illegal, and satellite imaging would allow officials to shut down any such activity immediately, De Souza said.
But Dos Passos disagrees. The problem, he says, is that the areas of the state that have approved forest management plans in place are insufficient to maintain legal extraction activities.
State legislation would allow deforestation of half of the properties in the "transition zone" of the Amazon forests. However, national law requires 80 percent "forest reserve" status in the entire Amazon, including the transition zones, and therefore IBAMA, a federal agency, does not recognise the management plans based on state-level legislation.
According to Mato Grosso state attorney Carlos Teodoro Irigaray, the new environmental policy of Governor Blairo Maggi would adjust local law to the national law, and strengthen the appropriate agencies.
Mato Grosso is the central scenario of the defence of tropical forests because it is where 48 percent of the deforestation of 26,130 square km occurred that was recorded in nine Amazon states during the 12 months that ended in August 2004.
Furthermore, deforestation in that state increased 20.3 percent during that period in relation to the 12 previous months.
Satellite data through May of this year gave rise to forecasts of a new increase in deforestation in the state, according to the non-governmental Institute of Man and Environment in the Amazon.
Another non-governmental organisation in Mato Grosso, the Centre of Life Institute, says that Operation Curupira underscores the "myopia" that affects even journalistic coverage of the issue, which blames deforestation on the loggers, and forgets that the main factor behind it is the advance of the agricultural frontier -- of livestock and farming -- into the Amazon.
"Thousands of hectares of forest were cut down in the northern part of the state even after Operation Curupira arrested many illegal loggers and paralyzed the legal ones," Laurent Micol, coordinator of the Centre of Life Institute, told Tierramérica.
The deforestation of Mato Grosso was dispersed among many different expansion frontiers, making it difficult for inspectors despite the technological advances. As a result, it will only be possible to save the Amazon forests through economic tools, such as tax and credit stimuli for sustainable activities, respecting the local reality, with flexibility and dialogue, said Micol.
The proposed moratorium could "foster even more mafias" in the logging industry, as the prohibition on alcohol did in the United States 80 years ago, he said.
In the opinion of Ana Luiza da Riva, former head of the IBAMA offices in Alta Floresta and Sinop, it is essential to change the "economic logic" that favours deforestation businesses, like the big livestock projects, and instead grant the loans that today the banks are denying to smaller, healthy environmental initiatives.
For example, under current conditions, denuded land is three times more profitable than land covered by forest, she said.
Farmers and ranchers burn or tear up the trees without even selling off the wood, which if it were used could prevent the logging industry from seeking raw material in the virgin forests, commented Da Riva, an environmental sciences expert whose removal from IBAMA was one of the "excesses" of Operation Curupira, according to Micol and other local NGOs.
The former environmental official now works for an environmental NGO and for her husband's business, which produces Brazil nuts (Bertholletia excelsa).
(*Originally published Jul. 16 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)