- The Washington Times - Monday, June 6, 2005

MANAUS, Brazil - After President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva signed decrees on May 20 creating five Amazonian “extractive reserves” in Para state and another reserve for biological research, he crossed his fingers.

His press officer, Fabio Kerche, said that at that moment, he was hoping and praying that illegal logging and land clearing in the Amazon rain forest would finally come to a stop.

The Center for International Forest Research defines “extractive reserves” as tracts that governments allocate for exploration, to evaluate what resources are present and the ecosystem’s vulnerability. Interested companies can be licensed to explore these protected areas; they just need government permission.

Chopping the Amazon

Also in the third week of May, in an announcement from ecological organizations, the world learned that never before had so much land had been cleared from the Brazilian rain forest in a single year. From August 2003 to August 2004, more than 16,000 square miles had been cleared — an area nearly twice as big as New Hampshire.

Long before becoming president of the fifth-largest country on earth, Mr. Lula Da Silva had publicly observed that the Amazon rain forest is as precious to the planet as oxygen is to living creatures.

The vanished rain forest covered an area larger than several European countries.

Marina Silva, the government’s minister of ecological affairs in Brasilia, reacted with astonishment: “We never expected the figures to be this high. I am so sorry, and will see to it that it never happens again,” he said.

That will not be an easy task.

Nine highways planned

New plans to develop the Amazon basin are taking shape at high speed. Under the Initiative for Regional Infrastructure Integration in South America, several commercial and noncommercial banks are financing the construction of nine highways through the Amazon region, including through neighboring Venezuela, Guyana, French Guiana, Suriname, Bolivia and Peru.

Oil and gas pipelines are projected, as well as a deep-sea harbor on the northern coast of South America, either in Guyana or Suriname.

“The drive for regional integration was crystallized in a joint action plan that identifies urgent measures in three levels: coordination of infrastructure and investments, harmonization of frameworks for transport, energy and telecommunications. And the introduction of innovative financial mechanisms,” said Bertus Meins, co-director of finance at the Inter-American Development Bank.

Mr. Meins is in Europe, seeking loans from European banks for a project that is still in its infancy.

Soy, beef demand up

Infrastructure is needed to boost Brazil’s exports of soybeans, beef and other products to growing market demands from China and other East Asian countries, where diets are changing owing to travel and prosperity.

Vast stretches of rain forest were cleared in states like Rondonia, Mato Grosso, Acre and Para.

“The state of Amazon is still pretty much intact,” said Mario Frota, vice mayor of Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state in northwest Brazil, “but we have to be extremely careful. We have a leftist government and do what we can do for our people. But the consequences of the deforestation in neighboring states affects us badly. They are devastating.”

Migrants flood Manaus

“Manaus was a gorgeously beautiful city of 250,000 inhabitants 15 years ago. We had European operas here and world-class opera and ballet. Today, we count more than 2 million people. All the new migrants come from the interior, running away from the developments and in search of a better life. But we cannot offer them jobs, nor decent housing, running water, electricity or medical care and schooling. You would not be wrong to say that we have a problem,” Mr. Frota said.

He had not yet said a word about the indigenous people — the Indians, who create another problem for the both the state and the federal government in Brasilia.

When they were allocated exclusive rights to land in Amazonas state and non-Indians were expelled, they said so much land and the lack of workers who had previously supplied labor created problems for them.

Poor are enslaved

Nor has Mr. Frota said a word about the violence of landowners against people who work the land. Corruption of government officials has almost been wiped out, but illegal logging and burning of vast tracts of land where workers from poorer regions are brought against their will to work for a pittance continue.

Greenpeace Brazil holds the government responsible for the chaos.

“Inadequate monitoring and information or protection make us lose the war against smugglers, gold diggers and loggers,” said Paulo Adario, head of the campaign for the preservation of the Amazon. “We are losing the equivalent of eight soccer fields every minute of every hour of every day. It hurts tremendously. Even with a president who wants to protect the rain forest, we lose so much. It’s unacceptable and a shame.”

Manaus is a bustling city with excellent hotels and restaurants, where life seems sweet for those who can afford it. It is also a free-trade zone where high-tech and other goods are manufactured tax-free.

In the inner city, samba music blasts away as if it wants to dictate the rhythm of the city. Highways cross through it to ease congested traffic. The harbor and its boats are a meeting place and playground for many who come in search of a better life, and far away from the projects that have ruined the tropical lifestyles they were used to.

Roads crisscross land

BR-163 is one of the highways that cut right through the heart of the rain forest from south to north. Soy producers here have benefited from the mad cow beef scare since local cattle are fed a soy-based diet. The Arco Norte, circling Guyana, French Guiana and Suriname, is another big highway.

Mr. Frota, the vice mayor of Manaus, said that cultivation of soy and rice are the most important causes of deforestation. The rain forest is slowly but surely being turned into soy and rice fields. The demand for cattle farms is as high as that for soy and rice farms. He noted that the Maggi Group has just landed a loan of $30 million from the International Finance Corporation to build its basis even further.

Blairo Maggi is the governor of Mato Grosso state and owns the Maggi Group. He is known as “the soy king” because he is the world’s largest producer, grossing $600 million in sales last year.

Processing more than 2 million tons of soy for livestock in Europe and Asia, he is seen as a key player in establishing and lobbying for the transportation and communication infrastructure that, according to the Inter-American Development Bank, may cost well over $40 billion.

“Not only the president was crossing his fingers when he signed the new law,” Mr. Frota said. “Here in Manaus, we all did — praying and hoping that all developments will remain under control.”

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