Brazil’s forest loss now linked to world food prices

May 14th, 2008 - 9:32 am ICT by admin  

By Emilio Rappold
Rio de Janeiro, May 14 (DPA) Brazil will have little to boast of at the upcoming biodiversity conference in Bonn. It has just released alarming figures highlighting the continuing destruction of the rainforest of the Amazon Basin, often dubbed the planet’s green lung. In two states, Mato Grosso and Para, where about 70 per cent of Brazil’s deforestation has taken place in recent times, the area converted to farmland in the first quarter of this year spiked to 214 square kilometres from 77 one year ago.

Although it was the rainy season, the early time of year when the chainsaws are usually less active, an area equivalent in size to 21,400 football pitches was cleared of trees between January and March, the Brazilian environmental authorities say.

As previous host of the UN Biodiversity Conference, the Brazilians are likely to be apologetic about their inability to rein in the ranchers as they hand over the chairmanship to Germany at the May 19-30 event.

The world food crisis has actually weakened the hand of environmentalists in Brazilian politics who are trying to conserve the untouched forests as a biodiversity treasure trove.

“You can’t grow more food unless you put more land into production by chopping down trees,” declared Maggi, who is nicknamed the “soya king” in Brazil. The businessman is the world’s biggest soybean exporter.

Paulo Adario, who heads the environmentalist group Greenpeace’s operations in the Amazon Basin, said: “Agri-business is trying to set up the world food crisis as an excuse to step up their attacks on the rainforest.”

The green movement is particularly worried by the expansion of soya farming.

Reporter Brazil, a non-governmental campaign group, calculates that the total acreage of soya crops in northern Brazil increased 20 percent in the 2007/08 season compared to one year earlier.

Yellow soybeans, crammed with protein, are now growing on 21 million hectares of land, or 45 per cent of all Brazilian cropland.

The crop is profitable and costs very little to grow: just four workers can raise 200 hectares of soya, whereas 245 would be needed for an equivalent area of an intensive-care crop like tomatoes.

However, the principal product driving forest clearance continues to be meat.

Luis Laranja, coordinator of farm policy at the conservationist group WWF Brazil, estimates that 50 million hectares of the Amazon Basin are now being used to graze cattle. Rising meat prices amid a world food shortage are likely to make that worse.

“The trend over the past two or three years was a decline in rainforest destruction. But in the last six months, the trend has rapidly reversed itself amid these higher prices and food shortages,” he said.

The use of land for meat production and the cultivation of soybeans are closely related, he explains.

“When land that has been illegally deforested becomes too poor for grass, the soya planters buy it. That nudges the cattle ranchers deeper into the forest,” Laranja says.

The upsurge in clearances has caught Brazil by surprise, since President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s government launched a crackdown on the land barons in January after earlier glum data on forest loss.

In an operation code-named “Gate of Fire,” hundreds of police fanned out into the forest regions to check for illegal clearances.

Culprits were handed 338 fines totalling 60 million reals ($36 million) and nearly 38,000 cubic metres of illegally felled timber was confiscated.

Environmental offenders suffered a cut-off in loans and other restrictions.

Nonetheless, Frank Guggenheim, 58, the outgoing Greenpeace chief in Brazil, criticises the Brazilian government’s efforts.

Despite Lula declaring numerous conservation areas, he does not see the environment as a priority, he charges.

“He has not proposed any alternative development paradigm for the rainforest,” Guggenheim told the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo in an interview. Brazil needed to think of other benefits from owning the forest, as an alternative to just cutting it down, he said.

The Amazon Basin contains one third of the world’s rainforest, with an extraordinary diversity of life in its 5 million square kilometres.

Experts estimate about 500,000 square kilometres, equivalent in size to the area of France, have been lost since 1970, when Brazil’s military dictatorship ordered the “occupation” of the jungle.

Many of these “occupied” areas are lawless: the land is not bought but seized, workers are held in a state of near-slavery, and environmental campaigners are regularly beaten up or even murdered.

“The linkage between deforestation and violence is no accident,” says Jose Afonso, a lawyer employed by the Catholic church’s rural aid organisation in Para. “Cattle ranching has always been associated with slavery here.”

Not even the government can claim the outlook is good. Brazilian environment minister Marina Silva admitted at a recent Brasilia seminar she faced a battle pushing through conservation policies.

“These are difficult times,” she said. “Recently there has been less rain than usual in the basin. The prices of agricultural products are rising.

“And since we have mayoral elections coming up at the end of this year, we have not been getting much support at the local level for our policing operations,” Silva said.

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